By Nitya Chakraborty
Dr. Chandan Mitra who was a dominant figure in national journalism in India’s national capital for the last three decades, died on Wednesday night. He was only 66. I had the good fortune of working with him as colleagues in the Hindustan Times’s Delhi edition. Even after he left HT, both of us maintained friendly relationship despite our strong political differences. That was the great quality of Chandan. He turned into a full-fledged BJP activist in his early days, remained popular as a suave face of the saffron party for a long time, became two-time Rajya Sabha MP from BJP till 2016, was a staple in the TV debates as a BJP spokesman, commanding the debates with his roaring voice, but still remained equally appreciated in non-BJP circles for his jovial manners and unique capacity to make friends across the political spectrum. For young aspiring journalists, he was a mentor.
Chandan first joined The Statesman in Kolkata as Assistant Editor in 1980s after getting his doctorate from Oxford University. I was at The Economic Times with its Kolkata edition then. But there was no interaction with Chandan in Kolkata days. It was only in Delhi after I joined in the Hindustan Times and Chandan also shifted to The Times of India in Delhi that we started to meet each other at evening parties. Chandan was a great partybaaz and sometimes he even attended two-three parties in one evening, hopping from one to the other. He always attracted people like a magnet in such parties. Always, he was surrounded by a lot of attendees whenever he was talking. I used to drink a lot in those days and sometimes both of us continued talking at parties without even listening to each other.
Our relationship became close when Chandan joined the Hindustan Times as the executive editor in the 1990s. I was the Business Editor and naturally, on daily basis, we had interactions. Chandan was my junior in age by more than thirteen years, but he was effectively my immediate boss. But still he called me Nityada as he used to call me earlier and I also called him by his first name and never called him Sir. The very second day after joining HT, Chandan called me in his room and told me, “Nityada, you have more experience in HT and you know how it works. I want to bring about drastic changes in news management to improve the coverage. I have full mandate from Shobhana Bhartia.” I promised him I would help to the extent possible on my part.
In the next few months, Chandan made vast changes in coverage making the political story writing more focused. Especially, the assembly elections coverage got a new dimension. The headlines became attractive. Our competitor was TOI and I would say with certainty that during his tenure, HT beat ToI in giving catchy headlines to the stories. He was a workaholic and at the same time, he was equally prolific in entertaining friends, attending parties, arguing with people at the top of his voice and travelling continuously whenever he got an opportunity. He liked election tours, especially the North Indian states. He used to drive himself in his car and enjoyed taking food at roadside dhabas and talking to the common people during election campaign to gauge the pulse of the polls.
He had a phenomenal memory of Hindi film songs. One day in office, he called me in his room. It was raining heavily in Delhi at that time. After some official talk, he said, “Nityada, the rains remind me of all the best songs of Hindi films about rains.” He hummed a few songs. Then he said, “If you really want to know India, you must see the Hindi films and know Aryavartha. The Left never tried to deeply understand the Hindi-speaking states. There are so many facets of society and politics in these states.” Chandan was in a mood to talk and I just listened without arguing. He loved North India and any tour to these states, he welcomed.
I remember one evening party of ours at our senior colleague Dipta Sen’s place. Diptada was one of the best editorial writers in HT. He could write on any issue in record time. Some of us used to meet at his Kakanagar flat once in a month and had wild parties till late night. In one such party, Chandan came after 10 PM. Goutam Adhikari, who was then de facto editor of the Times of India, also came and we fought like hell on political issues. Goutam dabbled with left-wing student movement in his Jadavpur University days, while Chandan turned from left to BJP after his short stint as Assistant Professor in Hansraj College. Only I, who started as a Leftie at the age of eight, after arriving to Calcutta as a refugee from East Pakistan, did not change. The discussions mainly focused on how far the journalists should pursue their individual political opinion in their newspapers they work.
I still remember this was one of the most fascinating discussions we had in that period and Chandan was in a retrospective mood. He talked mostly in that evening and explained why he thought of L K Advani as the leader who had the vision to build a new India. P V Narasimha Rao was still the Prime Minister and the NDA-led government came to power only in 1998, but that was led by Atal Behari Vajpayee and not L K Advani. That night, Chandan gave me a lift home at 3 AM and that was a harrowing experience. Since Chandan stayed at Vasant Vihar at that time and I lived at Andrewsganj Extension press flat, my place was en route his way back home. He had his Gypsy then. He started the car and without taking the proper U-turn, he turned the car to the other side over the culvert and drove at nearly 80/90 km per hour. The car hit an empty traffic barrier near Shahjahan Road. Thank god there was no police nearby at that time. I told Chandan to slow down, but Chandan being Chandan, he raised the speed further. I just kept praying no accident happened. Finally, Chandan stopped at our Andrewsgunj complex gate and dropped me. While coming out of the car, I heard him saying, “I have never met with any accident while drunk. You can safely trust me in future also.”
That was our last memorable close encounter. Chandan resigned soon after and joined The Pioneer, first as the Editor-in-Chief and then in 1998, he took over the paper as the owner. He worked relentlessly to make the daily viable. It was an uneven struggle in a period of corporate media. Delhi had no scope for a third English paper to be viable on its own. The big advertisers just divided their budget for English newspapers between the big two, HT and TOI. The burgeoning television channels were taking increasing share of the budgets in the new century. Chandan expanded by bringing out new editions. He made deals with pro-BJP franchisees in different states for bringing out editions. His connections as the Rajya Sabha member of BJP helped a bit but the tasks were too heavy. I was not in touch with him much in that period. We talked over mail after he left BJP in 2018 and joined Trinamool Congress. He hoped Mamata Banerjee would make him a Rajya Sabha MP, but the TMC supremo didn’t.
Chandan enjoyed power both as a politician and a journalist. He was very confident of his journalistic and managerial talent. He was expecting a much higher position in BJP. But things changed after 2014 Lok Sabha elections as Narendra Modi came to power. He was sidelined. His newsgroup was also not getting the assistance from BJP stalwarts which he was expecting. He was having a tough time. This must have affected his health adversely. He had a beautiful mind. He loved adventure. He enjoyed everything under the sun as long as he was active. He loved travelling and the journeying through the dusty road with bumps, twists and turns called life.(IPA Service)