As the controversy over Shiv Sena MP Ravindra Gaikwad rages on, I must share with readers a little known story from a different era when another MP under similar circumstances acted with so much more grace and dignity. I was working with the Indian Express then and my editor told me almost at the 11th hour that he wanted me to come up with a special Independence day interview for the Sunday pages. Sunil Dutt had just returned from a 'Hands Across Borders' mission - a drive through all SAARC nations wherein he had been thrown through the windshield of his car and auffered injuries on the border with Pakistan. He would be the ideal person to interview but when I called him late on August 13, he told me he would be in Nagpur the next day and could give me time only that morning - in Nagpur. My editor got me a ticket on his flight and I reached the airport ahead of Dutt Saab, waiting for him at the check-in counter.
We were travelling by Indian Airlines. Now we all know how dismal and laid-back the attitudes of the staff of the national carrier has always been. The aircraft did not have a business class – Dutt wanted to be accommodated in a seat which had more leg room. He was more than six feet tall and, in addition, had suffered an injury and needed to stretch out his bad leg which tended to cramp up. The lady at the counter was rather rude to the man checking him in – I was startled because it was not as though she would have failed to recognise such a famous film star, standing a little to the side of the check-in counter.
Dutt came over as his companion looked back helplessly and asked very politely, ''But then can I get the front seat of the aircraft? I hope that will give me enough leg room…’’
''I will have to see if one such seat is available,’’ she replied as rudely.
It was almost as though that particular staffer was getting some kind of pleasure having such a famous man begging a favour of her.
But there was another politician – a minister travelling to Delhi -- who overheard the conversation and came down on the airline staff like a tonne of bricks. ''He is not asking you because he is a film star or a politician. He is wanting more leg room because he is in pain.’’
There were enough seats and Dutt and his entourage of three all got accommodated (I was in a back row). When I asked him why he had not thrown is weight around, he just shrugged and said, ''How can someone like me get into an altercation with an ordinary worker? It is for the airlines to teach them how to behave.’’
What a contrast from Ravindra Gaikwad beating up an Air India official ''25 times with (his) sandal’’ because there was no business class in the aircraft when he was flying from Mumbai to New Delhi. Gaikwad’s behaviour is not to be condoned but when he says the airline staff were very rude to him and did not give him the respect due to him as an MP, I am taken back to the gentlemanly behaviour of a bigger celebrity than him who would have found the rudeness of the Indian Airlines staff even more excruciating but did nothing to protest his humiliation.
Large sections of the media are baying for Gaikwad’s blood and calling for criminal action against him. Even if the authorities eventually arrest the man, I think he has already ended up as a hero to large sections of Shiv Sainiks. The party has taken on Uddhav Thackeray’s understated personality in recent years but there are many workers who still do not understand the language of good behaviour and conciliation. Aggression is part of their DNA.
But to complete my story about Sunil Dutt - for in this era of muscle and money power,it is important to let the readers know there was a different kind of politician who made use of neither, On our return to Mumbai that evening, there was a completely different set of airline officials in Nagpur and the lady at this counter was almost ecstatic to see him limp in and head towards the VIP lounge. Staffers came in to ask after his health and wondered why he was not checking in – he did not have his tickets on him (I had mine) which were supposed to be delivered to him at the airport by party MLA, Anees Ahmed.
Dutt went into panic as the time to close the check-in counter approached – he did not even have a credit card to buy a fresh ticket and he did not accept the airlines’ offer of a free ticket to be paid for at the other end in Mumbai. I was in quite a dilemma whether I should board the aircraft leaving him behind or not - I had an interview to write by midnight and had no laptop. I had not carried my credit card either. Just then Congress MP Datta Meghe walked into the VIP lounge and getting to know of the crisis sent his secretary to buy a ticket for Dutt Saab. ''But I don’t have the money to pay you,’’ said an agonised Sunil Dutt.
''That's OK. Not to worry,’’ Meghe offered generously.
But just as his secretary was buying the ticket, Dutt’s ticket arrived and the crisis was resolved.
Anees sent us a telegram the next day, apologising for the mix-up.
But the story never made the headlines. For Dutt Saab was too much of a gentleman and good guys never make news.
- Sujata Anandan