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See You On Saturday

Sheela REDDY

Monday 21 June 2004, by REDDY*Sheela

It’s exclusive, it’s elitist. And many from this thinktank are in the government now.

When the long-forgotten Delhi editor of The Statesman, late Alfred Evan Charlton, decided in the mid-fifties to set up a Saturday Club-an exclusive dozen drawn from his friends who shared his dislike of Delhi’s cocktail chatterati-he little dreamt it would turn someday into India’s most exclusive power clique. Charlton’s idea was to meet at the now-faded Volga Restaurant over a contributory buffet lunch (price: Rs 2 per head) and do what intellectuals usually do: talk.

But some fifty years down the line, the Saturday Club, grown over four times its original size and shifted to a more discreet address at India International Centre, is less famous for its talk than for producing an assembly line of top executives, from a prime minister to vice-presidents, cabinet ministers and ambassadors, and dozens of top policymakers.

Take the present government: Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has attended the club’s secret meetings, as a guest speaker. Information and broadcasting minister Jaipal Reddy has rarely missed a Saturday lunch with the group since he joined the club some 30 years ago. Nor has minister of state in the pmo Prithviraj Chauhan, although he received an invitation only five years ago. Similarly, Jairam Ramesh has spent more Saturday afternoons at the club than in the party headquarters. As for the prime minister’s top aides, national security advisor J.N. Dixit and media advisor Sanjaya Baru are active members, while several others have attended the club’s luncheon meetings as special guests. And the buzz in the club is that at least two more of its members, ex-foreign secretary Kanwal Sibal and economist Arjun Sengupta will soon join the government in high-level jobs, the former as an envoy to the US or the UK and the latter as vice-chairman of the Planning Commission.

The club is "Fabian, socialist, secular." There are only odd BJP-wallahs like Jaswant and Jagmohan. Also, there are less than 10 women. Sushma is one.

In fact, there would have been more Saturday Club members in high places, says convenor, vice-admiral (retd) K.K. Nayyar, if they had not simply turned down the offers. "Why should they want to join the government? They’ve been there, done that." He says it’s harder to gain admission into this club than to the top notches of the government.

Rules for admission into the Saturday Discussion Group, as the club is officially called, don’t exist, at least on paper. Any member can propose a new name, but the group has the collective right to veto. As a result, hundreds of names are proposed and disposed before a new member is finally admitted. The club, in short, is unashamedly elitist, admitting only those few who are acknowledged either as top experts in their fields, whether it is strategic studies, nuclear armaments, defence or water policy. The club has tried right from the start, says Nayyar, to "build a reservoir of expertise that governments can draw upon."

Gujral broke the rules and called the members to his home when he was PM. Jaipal Reddy has rarely missed a meeting in his 30 years. Nor has Prithviraj Chauhan , who got an invite five years ago.

Of course, some governments tapped into the reservoir more than others. Former prime minister I.K. Gujral, one of its oldest and most enthusiastic members, almost drained the pool dry during his one-year tenure, earning the limelight-shunning club a notoriety that members say it didn’t deserve.

"Nearly everyone in Delhi with political ambitions was suddenly lining up for admission into the club, thinking it’s the shortest route into the government," recalls a member who is now in the government.

"But this is not a club where you can apply for membership, you have to wait to be invited."

For politicians, especially those with a genuine desire to educate themselves in governance, the club is an unbeatable experience."The exposure to experts, the high level of interaction, the frank discussions, where can you get all these in one place and in just an hour-and-half’s interaction," enthuses one member of the present government. In fact, he was so impressed by the quality of the intellectuals he met at the club that he even carried off one of its members to brief his partymen on a subject on which they were clueless."It is only natural that you should turn to this high-level group of experts when you are suddenly looking for someone to fill a post in the government," explains another old member who has been in and out of power.

The club’s unwavering ritual for the last few decades is to assemble every Saturday (except in the holiday season of June and July) at the IIC’s private dining hall at 1.30 pm for a buffet lunch. A guest speaker-it could be anyone from a prime minister to a party chief to a minister or an ambassador, carefully picked for what he may have to say-is invited to speak to the group for 20 minutes. No speaker has ever turned down an invitation. The club prides itself on always having at least one member who knows more about the subject than the guest speaker himself. Even former human resources development Murli Manohar Joshi was so flattered with the invitation he received last year that he came out "sounding almost reasonable."

The club’s sole criterion: no fudging, no dodging. Experts in their fields, like Dixit and Jairam, typify the core. Nothing leaks out, though there are over 12 journalists, like Baru.

The only criterion: no fudging, no dodging. In return, the club assures the speaker that not a word of the discussion will ever escape through its closed doors. No mean feat, considering that there are over a dozen journalists in the group. "It’s the promise of confidentiality that makes the speakers so forthcoming," points out a member who says he would rather spill a cabinet secret than risk losing his membership by leaking out the club’s discussion. How seriously the group takes its pledge of confidentiality this member saw on one occasion when a speaker’s comments reached the newspapers. There was an investigation, and some members even declared that the club should be closed down if members couldn’t respect the rule of secrecy.

Just how picky the group is about who to invite can be guessed from their speakers’ list during the election months. Neither Atal Behari Vajpayee nor L.K. Advani or Sonia Gandhi received an invitation. "What can she say," members countered dismissively when someone suggested inviting her to speak. Instead, the club opted for younger leaders like Salman Khursheed and Sitaram Yechury, considering them to be more worthwhile-and forthcoming-to talk to.

It was during Gujral’s tenure that the Saturday Club broke one of its cardinal rules: holding a meeting at his residence on 7, Race Course Road. "But members were as brutal with Gujral as they always are with every speaker in their discussions," says Nayyar. Hardly surprising, considering the calibre of its members who would rather close down the club than succumb to sycophancy. In fact, they did shut down the club once, when Indira Gandhi declared Emergency. She was never a hot favourite in the club, despite it including some of her top aides like Romesh Thapar. She was possibly the one prime minister the club never considered inviting, even when she was out of power. Morarji Desai, on the other hand, did receive an invitation, as did Rajiv Gandhi and P.V. Narasimha Rao.

It’s a rule they are planning to break again to visit Dr Manmohan Singh at his new address.This time, the club won’t be satisfied with just the prime minister. They want his finance minister, P. Chidambaram, there as well, to grill the pair on how exactly they plan to create the jobs they have promised.And both know from past experience that it’s no use speaking anything but the bald truth.


Pic 1 : Sanjoy Ghosh

in Outlook India, Monday, June 21, 2004.

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