Adroitly transiting from journalism to politics, to diplomacy, Ajay Singh lived a full life (Book Review)

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What does one say about a multi-faceted individual whom one had known for close to four decades? That he was kind of ‘bindaas’ and yet focused; that he loved his tipple and yet it never came in the way of his equanimity; that he could have risen to be the editor of one of India’s leading English dailies but took a calculated risk and plunged into politics, a move that saw him eventually following in his father’s footsteps to reinforce India’s ties with a distant Pacific island nation; that above all, he remained rooted to the ground in spite of the many accolades that came his way?

It is, thus, quite appropriate that Ajay Singh’s posthumously-published autobiography should be titled “Fiji: A Love Story – Memoirs of an Unconventional Diplomat” (Shipra Publications).

After all, Prime Ministers across the spectrum – from Indira Gandhi, to V.P. Singh, to I.K. Gujaral to P.V. Narasimha Rao, to Manmohan Singh to Narendra Modi – relied on his inputs when it came to the Fiji Islands – the most distant from India but till today the country with the closest familial and cultural ties with India.

The best compliment he received was undoubtedly from Manmohan Singh when Ajay Singh formally called on him prior to assuming office as Indian High Commissioner to Fiji, where his father had served from 1971 to 1976.

“In his usual polite manner, Dr. Manmohan Singh rose to greet me and said, ‘I’m glad it’s you who is going. I used to know your late father; he was a good friend. He was referred to by many as Mr. Fiji’,” Ajay Singh writes.

The autobiography was incomplete when the author passed away on June 9, 2020, two months short of his 70th birthday and it was left to his close associate Mahavir Singh, a former Director of Suva’s Indian Cultural Centre, the first such established abroad by the ICCR in 1972, Cultural Counsellor at the Indian High Commission in Fiji and currently Professor and Dean Academics at GBU, Greater Noida, to apply the finishing touches.

“Ajay was an enigma. He was privileged yet strongly connected to the working class and villagers. His political activism matured when the politics of non-Congressism was heating up. His connections were wide and he worked with prominent politicians of this time. He was young when he became a junior Union Minister. Some have said he was too honest to have been a successful politician. He himself would laughingly reflect on his short but colourful times when he was successful in elections,” Mahavir Singh writes in the Prologue.

“The war clubs in the entrance lobby of Ajay and Shiro’s house were a valued farewell present to them from the Fijian military barracks. Whilst Ajay did not approve of ‘coups d’etat’ he did recognise that with time one should move on with living and engage with people so that the future could be more harmonious. Thus one of his most significant contributions to international diplomacy was to convince the Indian government to allow Fiji back into the Commonwealth of Nations,” Mahavir Singh writes.

To this extent, the Fiji assignment was tailor-made for Ajay Singh.

“I have deep personal knowledge, stretching back four decades, about the island nations of the South Pacific, particularly Fiji, Tonga and New Zealand. And since my family’s association with Fiji goes back four generations, spanning almost the entire history of the people of Indian origin in those islands, I have developed friendships and have extensive and strong connections with the people there of Indian origin. Indeed, it is where I found my love, Shiromani, who was born and brought up in Fiji, and where we got married in 1976,” Ajay Singh writes.

Noting that his father had developed very close personal bonds with the late King Taufa’ahau Tupou IV of Tonga, who died in 2006, the author recalls that the monarch’s teenage children were regular guests at India House in Fiji.

“These visits are still remembered by them. We continue to share a warm personal relationship with the present King of Tonga, HRH King George Toupou V, and his popular and politically powerful sister, HRH Princes Pilolevu. My wife and I were her personal guests during a brief holiday in Tonga in 2008,” Ajay Singh writes.

Recalling his stint as a journalist in Wellington before returning to India, he writes that his friends from those college and journalism days are today editors, current affairs producers on television channels and members of Parliament.

“In fact, the former Governor General of New Zealand, Sir Anand Satyanand, is a close personal friend. His grandfather Sriraman Babu and my grandfather Bere Singh worked together for the Fijian civil service in the early 1900s. My father Bhagwan Singh and Anand’s father Dr. Mutyala Satyanand continued the friendship. No doubt their encouragement led us to become ‘pen fiends’ when I was about 10 years old.

“Thus, my connection with this region, particularly with Fiji, has long been well known in Delhi’s corridors of power. Our mission in Fiji was forcibly closed following the first military coup in 1987 and was reopened only in 1999 prior to my being sent there as the High Commissioner in 2005. But in the interregnum, three prime ministers had sent me there on four occasions to assess the situation in Fiji and report back to them: Mr. VP Singh in 1990, Mr. PV Narasimha Rao in 1992 and 1994, and Mr. IK Gujral in 1997. My reports were appreciated and acted upon and they should be available in MEA files.

“The South Pacific, a region little known in India, is a distinct geo-political region of about 14 small, independent island nations. They are all members of the UN and many also of the Commonwealth and each has a valuable vote in these two forums. China increasingly competes with Australia and New Zealand for influence among these countries. I would go so far as to say that perhaps no one in India knows the South Pacific region better than I do,” Ajay Singh writes.

In sum, it has been a full life for Ajay Singh who was schooled at Delhi’s Modern School as a boarder as his father, who was in the IAS was moving around.

“And it was in school that I made some lifelong friends and developed a taste for English poetry, history and literature as also for smoking, drinking beer and sneaking away with friends to watch movies in nearby Regal Cinema in Connaught Place. I also made by name as a sportsman, particularly in watersports, and was captain of the school’s swimming team,” he writes.

Post school, he did his BA with Honours in English in 1971 from Delhi’s St Stephen’s College, “best known for its significant contribution to the nation’s Who’s Who in many fields, most notably in governance and industry, but for reasons too complex to go into, I gravitated towards the many bright minds who were part of the extreme Left group then known as Naxalites”, he writes.

Post college, he hitch-hiked through the Middle East, Eastern and Western Europe and the US and finally landed up in New Zealand in 1973, did his post-graduation from the School of Journalism at the University of Canterbury in Christchurch, briefly worked for TVNZ1and in 1976, moved to the Fiji Islands where he worked as a Senior Sub-Editor for Fiji Times, before returning to India in December of the same year to join the Surya India monthly magazine edited by the late Khushwant Singh.

This was followed by a stint in India Today, which he left in 1978 to take over as Deputy Editor in charge of the HT Group’s Morning Echo English tabloid.

“This job was a comparative breeze, and, looking back, was perhaps the most memorable for the great times with the inimitable Chand Joshi, legendary journalist and an even more legendary figure at the Press Club, the then favourite watering hole of Delhi journalists,” Ajay Singh writes.

In March 1980, he took over as the Managing Trustee of the All-India Kisan Trust set up by Chaudhury Charan Singh after he lost power to Indira Gandhi in the general elections in January of that year, one of its objectives being “to create an alternative media platform which would speak the language of the peasants and poor people of India”.

He thus became the Editor-in Chief of its three media offerings: Real India, an English fortnightly, and Asli Bharat, a weekly broadsheet in Hindi and Urdu.

He was elected a member of the UP Legislative Council in 1986 and following Charan Singh’s death in 1987 was unanimously voted by the trustees to replace him as Chairman of the Kisan Trust. In 1989, he won from the Agra parliamentary seat on VP Singh’s Janata Party ticket and served as the Deputy Railway Minister in the short-lived government. Thereafter, he chaired various government autonomous bodies before being appointed High Commissioner to Fiji, Tonga, Tuvalu and the Cook Islands in 2005.

Subsequently, and till his demise, he contributed to various journals and newspapers in India and abroad, largely on the non-Congress politics of the Janata Parivar, his experience with working closely with two Prime Ministers – Charan Singh and VP Singh – and his “interactions with the big movers and shakers of contemporary Indian politics”.

“Ajay Singh had the ability to relate to people of all walks of life. While in Fiji, his great love for the islands was evident to all, and the people of Fiji responded to that sentiment in good measure,” Mahavir Singh concludes the book.

(Vishnu Makhijani can be reached at vishnu.makhijani@ians.in)

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