From start, a Nehru-Gandhi millstone
New Delhi, Dec. 8: The National Herald had repeatedly proved a millstone round the Nehru-Gandhi neck since Jawaharlal Nehru founded it with high hopes on September 9, 1938.
It had been a white elephant from the outset, never enjoying a high circulation even among party followers unlike the RSS weeklies Organiser and Panchjanya, or the CPM's Bengali mouthpiece Ganashakti.
Even during the pre-Independence era, when Nehru took a direct interest in it, the newspaper had remained closed for three years. The pretext was British censorship but the reality was said to be a lack of funds.
Nehru had once admitted to the newspaper's employees in Lucknow: " Humein banyagiri nahin aayee (We didn't know how to do business)."
But so attached was Nehru to his creation that he had declared: "I will not let the National Herald close down even if I have to sell Anand Bhavan (the family home in Allahabad)."
Nehru had by 1936 grown frustrated with the Congress's internal politics, often dominated by "reactionary tendencies", and begun thinking of having his own newspaper to air his progressive ideas, his biographer Benjamin Zachariah says.
This he did, Zachariah wrote, through a few unsigned editorials in the Herald. After Independence, the Herald ran smoothly as long as it had Feroze Gandhi as its general manager and enjoyed Nehru's support. Occasionally, the Prime Minister used the newspaper to articulate his thoughts.
According to journalist Inder Malhotra, one day in April 1954, Nehru refused to comment to reporters in Lucknow about recent US nuclear tests on the Bikini Atoll and drove directly to the Herald office. He wrote "a devastating signed piece, under the heading 'The Death-dealer'".
The Herald continued to follow high professional standards under M. Chalapathi Rau, an outstanding editor who helped form the Press Council of India and the wage board for journalists. Rau died in 1983, disillusioned by his feuds with people deemed close to Indira Gandhi.
When Rajiv Gandhi became Prime Minister, he tried to revive the Herald's glory. Delhi gossip claimed the Congress had pumped ill-gotten money into the newspaper.
On May 22, 1991, the Herald failed to reach the newsstands to report Rajiv's assassination, frozen by despondency and panic. In the following years, its decline was quick.
In 1998, Lucknow's Nehru Manzil, the daily's head office, watched government officials auction off the Herald's properties as a huge portrait of Nehru looked down on the sorry turn of events.
The newspaper was now published only from Herald House on Delhi's Bahadur Shah Zafar Marg, where the standing joke was that its staff outnumbered the copies it sold.
It was around this time that technocrat Sam Pitroda, who had been technology adviser to Rajiv Gandhi, turned up one day to oversee the printing of election material at the Herald press. He was walking briskly when he asked about the daily's circulation.
"Ninety," someone said. Pitroda, who had lived most of his life in the US, looked impressed, apparently assuming the circulation to be 90,000.
Those days, the Herald printed about 5,000 copies but most were "complimentary" for Indian Airlines fliers, guests at ITDC hotels, Congress MPs and officials, ministry bureaucrats and other notables. Its final edition on April 1, 2008, announced that its operations were being "temporarily suspended".
The last leg of the journey, from 1991 to 2008, had been particularly painful, with many of the journalists not being paid. The final settlement of Rs 40 crore benefited fewer people than expected.
Writer Sidin Vadukut says the Herald may have been started with sound political intentions but, like several other Nehruvian projects that outlasted their purpose, fell victim to its own lofty provenance and a lack of economic incentives to improve itself.
P.V. Narasimha Rao, Sitaram Kesri and Sonia Gandhi had little or no interest in the Herald in an age when the party was revamping its economic and social ideology. This, supposedly, was a key reason for the daily's final closure, in the guise of temporary suspension.