Back in 2017, when it was being speculated that Venkaiah Naidu was NDA’s pick for Vice President, he had famously said, “I neither want to become rashtrapati nor do I want to become upa rashtrapati. I am happy being Usha’s pati.” In August that very year though, he assumed office as the Vice President of India. Three years on, he’s a content man, he tells us, even though this was never a part of his plan.
“My goal was to retire from politics in 2019 and spend the rest of my life doing social work. But the party had other plans. They wanted me to accept this responsibility, and I did so happily. I am retired from active politics of course, but I am still not tired of public life. In fact, I am enjoying this phase…,” he says, as he settles down on a wicker chair in the verandah of his residence, and looks out at the rain falling softly.
“Naku varsham paditey chala anandam ga untundi, endukantey polalu pacchaga untai, raitulu anandanga untaru (I love the rain; it brings joy to farmers and it’s a blessing for the crops.) Being a farmer’s son myself, I understand the importance of rain,” says the septuagenarian.
The importance of fitness, family, friends and having fun aren’t lost on him either, we realise, as he lets us in on his life beyond politics in a candid chat where he talks about his love for cinema and badminton, passion for food and travel, and memories of his good friends Arun Jaitley and Sushma Swaraj, whom he deeply misses. Excerpts:
You’ve been cooped up at home for the past few months, due to lockdown. What’s your schedule like?
I always have a packed day that begins at the crack of dawn; nothing is different even now. I take my fitness very seriously, so I am on the badminton court before sunrise. I play for at least an hour everyday, be it at my Delhi residence, or even when I am in Hyderabad. After that, I do yoga for about half-an-hour and then, my wife Usha and I go for a walk together. She is also extremely fit; if I walk eight rounds, she will do 12! We enjoy our little morning walks — that’s our way of spending time together.
You’re often tweeting about films as well. You have also been spotted at pre-release functions of Telugu movies. Is it safe to say that you are a film buff?
Well, I used to be one. At one point, I would enjoy watching all the NTR movies. Those were the days when they made films about joint families. I love Maya Bazaar and Lava Kusa. Even now I get some old movies, especially the family dramas, saved on my laptop, so that I can watch them during long flights.
You seem like quite the family man…
I lost my mother when I was just 15 months old. So, my ammamma and thatha (maternal grandparents) raised me, you see. I never saw my mother, but many years later, when my daughter Deepa was born, I saw my mother in her. Many would say that she looks exactly like my mother, so I always imagined how she would have been through my daughter. I can’t choose a favourite between my son and daughter, but my daughter brings me a lot of joy. She’s a social worker. I am proud of her. I feel her work is greater than mine, because for whatever I did, I always got something in return. I became MLA, MP, Minister and now Vice President. But she is doing good work without expecting anything in return. And that is truly remarkable.
Do you manage to take time out to spend with your grandchildren?
Yes, I make sure I do. I could not spend enough time with my children when they were growing up since I was busy with my political career. When I would wake up, they would still be asleep and by the time I returned home, they would be in bed. I can’t make up for all that lost time, but now, I make it a point to spend time with my grandchildren. They give me immense happiness. They are innocent and yet so witty and smart. Earlier, I used to take them to restaurants, but now I can’t do that because of protocol. I can’t even take them to a chappal shop, the chappal shop has to come to me instead. So I call them home and we spend time together. When I go on my trips, I make it a point to take at least one of my grand kids with me. I avoid politics when I’m with them. I don’t take my work home ever. But they’re familiar with the work I do and all my colleagues. In fact, one of my granddaughters is named Sushma, after Sushma Swarajji. When she was born, Sushma Swaraj and I were working in close association and so we decided to name her Sushma. Whenever Sushma Swaraj would see her, she would smile and say, “Hello there, my namesake!”
One wouldn’t imagine that politicians forge such deep personal bonds…
(Laughs) Why not? Arun Jaitleyji was one of my closest friends. Even today, I miss him a lot. We used to bond over our common love for food. We’d joke that food and food for thought kept us going. Back when we were both party workers, we would often travel together. The first thing we would do after landing in a new city was find out which was the best restaurant there and go try the local cuisine. After the party meetings got over, we would skip the regular dinner organised for the party workers and head over to the restaurant. We discussed everything from politics to personal lives over many a good meal…
What’s your idea of a good meal?
There’s nothing I enjoy more than my native food. I have travelled across the world and tasted many cuisines, but the food I savour the most is mana Nellore bhojanam. My favourites are the various pachadlu (chutneys), and I don’t mean pickles, mind you. Kandi pachadi, nuvvulu pachadi, tomato pachadi, gongura pachadi…. I simply love them. In the evening, if I’m hungry, I just eat the pachadis. I also enjoy traditional food like vankai mavidikaaya kura (brinjal and green mango curry), chaama gadda pulusu (colacasia curry), kodi pulusu (chicken curry), Nellore gaarelu, chakkaralu, booralu, etc. I actually get authentic Nellore bhojanam made here in Delhi as well, and it’s always a big draw.
Back in the day in Hyderabad, I used to frequent this restaurant called Churuva in Adarsh Nagar. Their chicken pakoda was top class. I absolutely loved it. I would also frequent Blue Diamond near the LB stadium and end the meal with a paan from the paan dabba outside. I have some great memories of the city. Of course, of late, I’m being more careful because of diabetes. But I’ve eaten enough to last a lifetime, so I don’t feel bad that I am missing out on anything.
Your alliterations, puns and witty one-liners have made you highly popular on social media. Are you aware there are hashtags like #Venkaiahisms and #Venkronyms on Twitter?
(Chuckles) It’s not just the social media crowd, even members of the media have had a taste of my banter and wit. Sometimes, during an interview, they tell me, ‘Sir, this is a headline’, and I tell them, ‘Your headline is not my deadline’. Sometimes, they’d say, ‘Sir, what about my report,’ I would tell them, ‘Your report has no support, now please sit’. I enjoy this.
I feel it’s important to not just to make your point, but also make it in a way that it’s remembered. These days public discourse and public life are all about glamour, but I believe there should be humour as well. If you speak with humour, it will easily register in the minds of the people. Jagannath Rao Joshi has had a huge influence on me. He was one of the most powerful speakers I have heard in my life. Public speaking is a great skill and it’s something I wish to pass on to my children and grandchildren as well.