Thursday, December 23, 2010

‘Religion can’t hold answers to secular problems’: Interview with Omair Ahmad, author of Jimmy The Terrorist

Omair Ahmad in conversation with John Cheeran

Omair Ahmad’s Jimmy The Terrorist is a partisan, political novel, set in Moazzamabad, a fictional north Indian neighbourhood that speaks of the alienation of the Muslim community. But being partisan and political in fiction is no longer considered a crime.
Ahmad, a political analyst based in New Delhi, says the title is a red herring. “The book is more about society. It is about how in small towns life revolves around small issues. We try to define everything by political terminology. Is Jamaal (Jimmy) a terrorist, a nationalist? He is a human being.”
Ahmad ends his novel by saying,”No one asked who Jamaal had been, where he was born, or what he did, but Jimmy the terrorist was listed, his death reported, and may be that is the important thing.”
These are precisely the questions that Ahmad has tried to address in his novel. At a certain level, Jimmy the terrorist is also about the author.
Ahmad argues: “Politics is important. I gave up science to study politics. I was 17 when Babri Masjid was demolished. I came into my adulthood at a time of great political conflict in India. My school was being evacuated because of the potential of a riot. Some people tried to ignore the political churning and moved on. For me it became important to understand the unfolding of events. I wanted to figure things out. The result is this novel. Jimmy in a sense goes back to very local roots. It’s not about grand events. It’s not about 9/11. It’s very local. And those are the things that matter to people in the end.”
Ahmad considers himself a lucky guy when compared to Jamaal. He says: “I didn’t get killed in a riot but one of my cousins was killed. I didn’t get roughed up by the police. But all these happened to people who matter a lot to me. It matters for me to address issues that matter to the people who do not matter.”
Jimmy The Terrorist is the Muslim narrative of recent Indian history, pockmarked by grievances, riots and pogroms.
Ahmad, however, admits that his is not the Muslim voice. He says: “I’m not trying to represent the Indian Muslim community. It’s a community too large and too diverse for me to represent, or for any one person, in the same sense that no one person can represent India.”
Ahmad believes that the problems of Indian Muslims are secular, not religious. He says: ”People are more influenced by their local situation. If you look at the geographical spread of Indian Muslims, 60 per cent live in UP, Bihar, Assam and West Bengal. All these states have gone through political and economic crises. When 60 per cent of Muslims live in these states that are not rich and prosperous, how does it matter which religion people belong to? That is why the making of Jimmy is important to me. It’s not one person. It is the society, the economics, the town and the situation that makes or breaks a person. And Jimmy is a broken person. And in my case, I’m not.”
Ahmad says though religion informs every page of Jimmy The Terrorist, the protagonist’s concerns are all secular. ”Religion is very much a part of a person’s identity. All the decisions that Jimmy ends up taking, whether his confrontation with the cops, his alienation within his school or his decision to become a typist while studying for IIM entrance examination, all these are purely secular decisions.”
Ahmad says religious authorities do not have answers to what are essentially political problems. “Of course, Jimmy talks in terms of religion. And Jimmy looks towards the maulana for some kind of understanding which he is not able to give. It is one of the most important points in the book when they talk about Dawood Ibrahim having stopped riots in Mumbai. The maulana can respond only in terms of religion. Religious authorities do not have answers to what are essentially political problems. In that sense Jimmy is a political problem.”
Ahmad becomes uneasy when people answer political questions in religious terminology. “Once you say that ‘God said this’ I have a problem. I haven’t met anyone who has interviewed God. Religion is not about political questions. As Amitav Ghosh says in his book The Imam and The Indian, people who purvey religion are not interested in religious questions. They are interested in political questions. When Osama bin Laden talks about occupation, vengeance, or killing, all those things are exquisitely political questions. He wants to be a political leader. Religion can’t hold answers to secular problems.”

Are Muslims in India one step away from breaking down like Jimmy?
“Jimmy is a single person in a large community. He is an outlier. He is not what everybody is. He starts from a broken family. He is in a broken society. His parents are in trauma. He still tries to go on, displaying resilience. At one point he breaks down. We all carry within ourselves possibilities of breaking down. Rafiq, his father, carries on despite taking a battering. Most Indians carry on despite heavy odds. I don’t want to say that Jimmys do not exist. They do. The Muslim alienation does not spring from nowhere. In its bid towards power the BJP used Muslim bashing to garner votes. It’s not that Indian Muslims went out to be alienated. It’s quite another matter whether the BJP has revised its position. But I think Muslim alienation will take care of itself.”
Ahmad also questions Mahatma Gandhi’s legacy. “Gandhi had this practice of looking at religious representatives as political representatives. So it was a maulana, pandit or sardar for him. And that’s a problem. Ask a maulana what are the problems of the Muslim community and he will say they are not religious enough. Ask a priest what are the problems of the Hindu community and he will say they don’t pray enough. If you go to a political leader who happens to be a Hindu or Muslim or Sikh, he will talk about unemployment, lack of infrastructure, etc. That’s a political problem.”
Ahmad points out that, in India, poverty matters much more than religion. “Access to opportunity is vital. You want to be poor in India and that’s the worst kind of discrimination you face. No Muslim can say he has been discriminated on the basis of religion as much as a poor man is discriminated for being poor in India. But to be Muslim and poor is a different thing,” says Ahmad.
But there have been outstanding Muslim contributions in sport, entertainment in India. Why not in politics?
“There is a distinction between how much a minority can achieve in sports, arts and in politics. Politics requires people to take one side or the other. It’s always a thing of numbers. But it’s true that democracy works better than any other system. Democracy has a problem because it tends to be majoritarian. Liberal democracy, however, tries to address this fault line through courts, press, etc. Political leadership from Muslims will take time in India. It cannot be compared with their achievements in other areas. There is still a hangover of partition in India.”

Omair Ahmad’s Jimmy the Terrorist was short-listed for the 2009 Man Asian Literary Prize. Ahmad has degrees in international politics from JNU (New Delhi) and Syracuse University (New York) and has worked for Voice of America, the British Foreign Office and the Conservative Party's National & International Security policy group. His other works are Encounters and The Storyteller’s Tale.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Business Standard Edit on Sachin Tendulkar’s 50th century

Editor's note:This brilliant editorial in Business Standard gives a balanced picture of Indian cricket….It’s a shame that analysis has been abandoned in favour of mindless eulogies in most of the sport pages of Indian newspapers.

After losing the final of the 1983 World Cup to India in June, West Indies came visiting four months later. They won the first Test by an innings and 83 runs, drew the second, won the third by 138 runs, drew the fourth, won the fifth by an innings and 46 runs, and drew the sixth. It was a comprehensive drubbing handed out to the new world champions. Clive Lloyd’s marauders had had their wish in what was termed the “revenge series”. The average Indian cricket fan seems to have very little recollection of that drubbing. They do remember the series, but for the two centuries Sunil Gavaskar scored in two drawn matches. They discuss in detail Gavaskar’s century in the second Test, his 29th, an uncharacteristically breezy one off just 94 balls, which brought him on a par with Donald Bradman. In the last Test, batting at number four, as opposed to the opening slot he occupied for most of his career, Gavaskar scored 236 not out. This took him not only beyond Bradman but also beyond Vinoo Mankad’s highest individual score by an Indian, a record which had stood for three decades.
Much has changed since then. West Indies, a world-beating force, have become the whipping boys. Australia have dominated and dissipated. Generations of players have come and gone. India has learnt to win overseas and risen to the position of the number one Test team in ICC’s rankings. It is not dependent on any one player anymore, as it depended on Gavaskar in the 1970s and 80s, and on Sachin Tendulkar for the entire decade of the 1990s. But one look at the last few days’ coverage of the first Test in South Africa will make any half-informed person wonder if much has changed. To be fair, Tendulkar accomplished a stupendous feat, his 50th century in Tests. That Gary Sobers, a bonafide all-time-great, scored 26 in his career would put Tendulkar’s accomplishment in perspective. However, the celebration around it glossed over the fact that, even as Tendulkar remained unbeaten when thundershowers washed off the fag-end of the fourth day’s play, India were staring at certain defeat. Curiously, the mood was celebratory, even euphoric. Everyone was busy digging out the list of Tendulkar’s centuries, his childhood photos, and the talking heads had a field day. No one would listen to the man himself, who insisted that 50 was just another number.
This could have been forgiven in the days when the team lost regularly. After all, everyone needs something to celebrate. Tendulkar often gave us the reason. His 114 as a 19-year-old in 1992 at Perth, whose pitch had much more spite then, is celebrated by his peers as arguably his best. Well, we lost that Test by a small matter of 300 runs! This attitude can be forgiven in an underdog. No one expects them to win, so they celebrate whatever they can, and cricket offers ample scope for an individual to shine even as the team surrenders. But, to be beaten by an innings and some, while being the number one team in the world, should call for some embarrassment, some hand-wringing.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Why We Don’t Talk: A Review

By John Cheeran
Here comes a very contemporary short story anthology that captures the flavour of Indian Writing in English (IWE). Why We Don’t Talk has contributions from 27 writers and the anthology has a distinct feminine feel to it. Some of the very well established names in IWE figure here, including Anita Nair, Chetan Bhagat, Jaishree Mishra and Usha KR.
A large chunk of them are eminently readable though there are very few stories that will stay with you once you put the book down. A majority of the stories record very intense private conversations but fail to start a dialogue with the reader. Would someone be interested in hearing out my version of events is a question that should have been with the contributors.
Amit Varma’s Urban Planning breaks from the self-indulgent mould and engages the reader right from the start. It’s an irreverent take on Indian reality where bureaucracy and political class pretend they are in control of things whereas they are as much clueless as you and me. Varma brings in humour and delineates his characters with ease and authenticity, things that determine the shelf life of a story. Joshua Newton’s Taj Mahal is a spirited attempt to peek into a familial relationship that cries out for care, touch and love. But one can’t figure out how reading a survey on people’s sexual preference and behaviour would act as the key to unlock Taj Mahal. Yes, there is a need to talk about this and much more.

Title: Why We Don’t Talk
Compiled by Shinie Antony
Publisher: Rupa and Co
Rs 295, Pages 239

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Self-control is not working. Indian media need to be regulated, says BG Verghese

By John Cheeran

The essential thing about BG Verghese, renowned editor and columnist, is his optimism.
“Market, and money, has taken over the Indian media. But we shall overcome,” says Verghese, who began his career in 1948 with The Times of India as a trainee reporter and went on to edit Hindustan Times (1969-75) and Indian Express (1982-86).
He is 83 and has just published his memoirs, titled aptly for a journalist who reported on India for 60 years, First Draft, Witness To The Making of Modern India.
But, then, for those who know the history of post-independent India, Verghese has been more than a witness to the making of India at its foundational levels, the vandalisation of constitutional institutions and unfolding of emergency. Verghese was a participant too.
The editor who lost his job at the Hindustan Times for daring to criticise prime minister Indira Gandhi (and he was information advisor to PM Gandhi between 1966-69) contested the post-emergency Lok Sabha elections in 1977 from Mavelikkara in Kerala, and there by took his critique from writing and reportage to the highest platform available in a democracy. It was a pivotal moment. Recalling those exhilarating campaign days with a glint in his eyes, during an interview with DNA in Bangalore, Verghese says: “In 1947, India got independence. In 1977, India got a sense of freedom.”
Now as the ethically embattled Indian media are grappling with that sense of freedom, won thanks to the backbone of those who refused to bend and crawl, Verghese advocates the regulation of the media.
Verghese says: “India has the most unregulated broadcast media in the world. There are 400 channels in the country. It is important to have regulations. Unregulated mass media are bad for India. You can drive fast only when you have sound brakes. Journalism is the most powerful tool in India but an irresponsible press is very dangerous.
The former editor says the principle of self-regulation has failed to work in India. “Self-regulation is a good thing. But I don’t think self-regulation is enough. What we need is sensible regulation. In India, libel laws are very poor. There is a need for the reformation of defamation laws. There are strong laws to control the press in the US and the UK. The government in India has tried to introduce legislation to regulate the media but lack of numbers in the Parliament has thwarted it. Whenever the matter comes up for debate, the media say it’s an infringement on their freedom which I consider a specious argument.”
Verghese points out that the Press Council of India (PCI) is a weak instrument for various reasons and cannot control the media. “The PCI should have penal powers. At the moment it’s not a court of law, but a court of ethics. Most of the larger newspapers in the country do not report the findings of the PCI. It is quite scandalous that the council did not approve the report on paid news practices by Paranjoy Guha Thakurta and K Srinivas Reddy in its entirety. Names of all offenders were deleted when the PCI approved it. That’s not the regulation one needs.”
Vergehse also reminds one about the importance of being a journalist. “The character of journalism is changing. Now you have citizen journalists. Journalists are public trustees of freedom of speech and if you betray that trust, the consequence is much graver than when a citizen journalist leads you astray. The change has to come from younger journalists and readers. The press needs to assert its integrity or else it will betray its role as a trustee of the man on the street and freedom of expression. Credibility is vital for the media whether it is print or electronic or digital. Things will definitely change. Readers and the political class are gradually realising the gravity of the situation.”
Verghese says many editors have abdicated their responsibilities. Referring to the country’s leading newspaper, he says there are no editors but managers. But he is quick to point out that the media have become frighteningly powerful despite the down sizing of the editor’s role within the media organisations.
Verghese explains the contradiction: “Everyone is frightened of the media. What you write is read by millions of people. It is because of the growth of print, broadcast, and internet platforms. Everyone gets his first information from the media, including intelligence chief and PM. Communication is swift and hence the media have become so powerful. And a great sense of responsibility goes with it. Some of these papers are fabulously rich. Some newspapers even started banks. Because of these, managements felt that editors are unnecessary since all you have to do is to fill the space between advertisements. Managers became more important and the mission of the newspaper got subordinated to profit. The balance was lost. Some editors stood their ground but many of them didn’t. Younger journalists were very upset but then they lacked the power and the ability to hold on. Some of the papers and some of the channels and individuals within in the organisations stood out. Private treaties, paid news and people cosying up to power centres have changed the media.”
Verghese adds that editors, too, have failed the test. “The image of the editor was different in the past. The editor was not supposed to be seen but read. Now they are being seen. Many of the editors run from one studio to another in the evening when they should be editing their newspapers. At the hour of newspapers going to the press many editors are missing.”

But then what explains the phenomenal readership of these newspapers?
“Firstly, they have base taste. Everything is Page 3. Then, the market. Till the economic reforms of the 90s, the scene was much stale. No foreign direct investment, no mergers, no new companies were being formed. Suddenly, all that changed. Stock market became big news. Sport became big business. They control the scene with a razzmatazz package with sections on sudokus, quizzes, comic strips, gardening, motoring, etc. The raddi value of the Times of India is more than its cover price. And they give free copies. You go to the airport. Loads of copies are piled up. Go to the railway station. Loads of copies are piled up. A lot of these circulation figures are bogus.”
Verghese is not a man of the establishment but when he says the best news in the electronic media come from Doordarshan and All India Radio it is a sharp rebuke for the breaking news channels. “It (Doordarshan) is the most honest. They do not spice it up. They give it in a straightforward fashion.”
Though the corporate-PR-media nexus has come in for flak in the aftermath of Niira Radia telephone tapes, Verghese believes that corporate India has a major role to play in the progress of India. He says: “The corporate India is part of the solution, not part of the problem. Driving out corporate India from tribal areas is a grave mistake. There has to be strong regulatory framework while allowing corporates to operate. Why do you want to shut them out? Tame them. Make them do the work you want to do. Poverty is a great enemy of the environment. People want to run away from land. They feel trapped there. Studies show that 45 per cent of farmers want to abandon agriculture because they can no longer make a living out of it. They want education for their children. They need jobs.”
Such unconventional but original positions make Verghese’s arguments compelling. And a careful reading of First Draft, his memoirs, proves as much. Varghese says the prime reason behind his memoirs is to fill the vast blanks in people’s memory, including that of decision makers, about the history of post-independent India. Verghese says: “You could create all sorts of problems because of this blank space. You could misread history. People don’t realise that Kashmir only acceded to India but never merged. When Omar Abdullah said that, people were aghast.”
As Verghese puts it, In First Draft, he tries to give a worm’s eye view of the post-Independent India. “I wanted to portray the leaders that I came into contact with –Nehru, Indira Gandhi, etc--, warts and all. They must be properly and honestly assessed. You may not agree with many things they say. They may even say foolish things. But you do not write that. How can you tarnish the image of the great man or the great lady? We complain that some people want to rewrite history. But we rewrite it ourselves because in the first place we don’t write it straight,“ he says.
The final draft of the Indian media, let’s hope, readers will write. We shall overcome.

Wednesday, December 01, 2010

Radia tapes and Indian journalism: Tunku Varadarajan in The Daily Beast

Years from now, earnest journalism majors will study an episode that aired on Indian television Tuesday, in which Barkha Dutt, a massively influential but ethically embattled TV news anchor, submit herself to public inquisition by a panel of her peers. Four flinty journalists grilled the anchor on the extent of her relationship with one of India’s most influential (and, some would say, murky) corporate lobbyists, with whom the anchor was clandestinely taped talking about how to get a pliable politician a job in the Indian cabinet—a placement that would have benefitted the lobbyist’s corporate clients to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars. (One assumes that clips of the inquisition will be posted on Ms. Dutt’s NDTV website.)
Think—and I offer this rough-hewn equivalent only to bring the matter to life for an American readership—of Katie Couric as the anchor, caught on tape talking to the flack for Halliburton, on the subject of getting Halliburton’s preferred candidate the job of defense secretary in the run-up to a major war. And think, then, of an hour-long segment in which Couric sits down with, say, Charles Krauthammer, Fred Hiatt, Ken Auletta, and Katrina vandel Heuvel, and submits herself to on-air questioning on the subject—with the aim of explaining, as Dutt has sought to do, on Twitter, Facebook, and in a press release, how her conversation with the lobbyist was within the bounds of ethically acceptable journalism.
Dutt has said, in a nutshell, that the uber-influential lobbyist was just a source, and that she was stringing the source along in order to milk her for as much information as she could get—both immediately, and as editorial investment for the future. Although there is absolutely no evidence that Dutt stood to gain financially from discussing how to place the lobbyist’s man in the Indian cabinet, the conversation reeked of an unseemly proximity between journalist, lobbyist, and corporate interests, so much so that there are vociferous, and entirely reasonable, campaigns to bounce Dutt, as well as many other senior journalists who were also caught on tape, out of a job. The fact that the journalists canoodling on tape with the lobbyist were a “Who’s Who” of sorts of New Delhi’s journalistic elite has fueled a sense of public chagrin that will not easily be quelled. Indians are cynical by nature; and so, when they feel betrayed by the few figures they trust, the disappointment is acute—and irrepressible.
Indian journalism is regarded by many in America (including by my own sainted editor, Tina Brown) as vibrant, rich, and healthy; by contrast, journalism in the West is believed to be in the grip of an existential and financial crisis. But the recent lobbyist-journalist-politician scandal in India (of which everything you could wish to read can be found in Outlook magazine, and here, in this incisively compendious newspaper piece by my brother, an editor at The Hindu newspaper) has dynamited the Potemkin village that is Indian journalism. What has looked to us to be healthy, roseate, and vigorous is, in fact, rotten, corrupt, and frequently amoral.
Indian journalism is woefully bereft of an institutional ethical architecture, relying instead on the ethical instincts of individual journalists. As such, there is a sort of ethical free market in operation, in which readers or viewers make up their own minds on whether so-and-so can be trusted as a columnist, whether this or that anchor can be relied upon to hold no brief for politicians or corporations, whether this newspaper or that can be trusted to report the news without fear or favor. As N. Ram, editor of The Hindu, pointed out in a recent debate on Indian TV, the journalists in question, here, would not have survived five minutes at The New York Times, or the FT.
In truth, Indian journalism is a vast field inhabited by a multitude of interests and abilities, an anarchic Klondike in which fortunes and reputations are being made, and in which the kind of anal but indispensable ethical standards that make the better stratum of American journalism reliable are broadly absent. Many major Indian newspapers practice something called “paid news,” with unofficial rate cards, in which people and companies can get their stories and photographs on Page 1, or their books reviewed, on payment of a fee to the news corporation in question. Politicians, too, must pay, particularly at election time, to get up-front coverage. In the same vein, Indian journalists seldom, if ever, disclose their interests in stories they write about. (An Indian journalist once berated me for “all this American disclosure crap.”)
There is, also, a curious demographic problem: Virtually all the super-elite journalists in New Delhi and Bombay are from families with corporate or bureaucratic connections, men and women who would, in previous generations, have entered the elite bureaucracy themselves, whether it be the Indian Foreign Service or the Indian Administrative Service. Journalism today offers a quicker and more effective route to power, especially now that the bureaucratic services have been opened up to a wider swath of Indians as a result of affirmative action. In essence, the “babalog”—the well-born—who used to dominate the country’s administrative cadres are now crammed into the media. It is the one avenue of real power for India’s otherwise somewhat disenfranchised elites, in the sense that they can’t ever get elected to parliament. So they have turned the media into a form of socio-cultural Establishment and feel quite at home with the other “establishments,” whether business or political, that are to be found in modern, democratic India, regarding theirs as in no way inferior.
A final word: India’s media is still an insulated and protected sector. To this day, foreign media companies cannot own more than 26 percent of an Indian imprint. This has made for an insular press, a corrupt press, an Indian media untested not merely against global standards of journalistic craft, but also against Western standards of journalistic ethics. Dutt, surely, has a heckuva lot of explaining to do. But she’s not the only one in that position—by any stretch.
Tunku Varadarajan is a national affairs correspondent and writer at large for The Daily Beast. He is also the Virginia Hobbs Carpenter Fellow in Journalism at Stanford's Hoover Institution and a professor at NYU's Stern Business School. He is a former assistant managing editor at The Wall Street Journal.

Radia Tapes and Indian journalism: Siddharth Varadarajan in The Hindu

As squeamish schoolchildren know only too well, dissection is a messy business. Some instinctively turn away, others become nauseous or scared. Not everyone can stomach first hand the inner workings of an organic system. Ten days ago, a scalpel — in the form of a set of 104 intercepted telephone conversations — cut through the tiniest cross-section of a rotting cadaver known as the Indian Establishment. What got exposed is so unpleasant that several major newspapers and television channels that normally scramble to bring “breaking” and “exclusive” stories have chosen to look the other way. Their silence, though understandable, is unfortunate. Even unforgivable.
After all, the tape recordings of Niira Radia's phone conversations have come to light against the backdrop of the recent Comptroller and Auditor General of India (CAG) report on the allocation of 2G spectrum, which demonstrated how the rules were arbitrarily bent by the then Telecom Minister, A. Raja, in order to favour a handful of private companies at government expense. Among the beneficiaries of Mr. Raja's raj were Anil Ambani. And also Ratan Tata. In one of the tapes, an unidentified interlocutor asks Ms Radia, whose clients include both Mr. Tata and Mukesh Ambani, why “you people [i.e. the Mukesh Ambani group] are supporting [Raja] like anything ... when the younger brother [Anil Ambani] is the biggest beneficiary of the so called spectrum allocation”. “Issue bahut complex hai,” Ms Radia replies. “Mere client Tatas bhi beneficiary rahein hain (my client, the Tatas, have also been a beneficiary).”
Apart from telecom, the tapes also provide valuable insight into the gas dispute between the two Ambani brothers. This was a dispute in which Mukesh Ambani made skillful use of the “gas is a national resource” argument with a pliant media even as he used his influence with individual MPs to try and orchestrate a massive tax concession for his company from the same national resource, Krishna-Godavari (KG) basin natural gas.
In an interview to NDTV and the Indian Express on Saturday — two media houses that have so far avoided covering the tapes — Ratan Tata has called the recordings a “smokescreen” designed to hide the real truth. He is wrong. Utterly wrong. No doubt we know very little about who leaked the recordings and why these were cherry-picked from a wider set of 5,000 recordings the Enforcement Directorate and Income Tax authorities made as part of their surveillance of Ms Radia. But even if the story they tell is partial and designed to expose only a fraction of the corporate lobbying which has been going on, we would be naive to ignore the contents of the tapes or be dismissive about their significance.
In the science fiction film, “The Matrix”, Morpheus tells Neo, “You're here because you know there's something wrong with the world.” The Matrix, he says, is the world that has been pulled over everyone's eyes to blind them from the truth that they are slaves. He offers Neo the choice of a blue or red pill. “You take the blue pill and the story ends. You wake in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe. You take the red pill ... and I show you how deep the rabbit-hole goes.”
The Niira Radia audio archive loaded on to the Internet by Open and Outlook magazines last week is the red pill of our time. It reveals the source codes, networks, routers, viruses and malware that make up the matrix of the Indian State. The transmission of information, also known as “news”, between different nodes is vital for the system to work efficiently. The news is also the medium for reconciling conflicts between different sectors of the establishment. If you hear the recordings, you begin to understand the truth about the Wonderland that is India. No wonder there are many amongst us who would rather swallow the blue pill. For once you go in, the only way out is to keep digging. And yes, the rabbit-hole runs deep.
So deep, for example, that we hear a Member of Parliament, N.K. Singh, who is meant to represent the people and the state who voted for him, brazenly batting for a single-man corporate constituency, Mukesh Ambani.
In one recording, Mr. Singh tells Ms Radia of the firefighting he is doing on behalf of Mr. Ambani to ensure a tax concession the finance minister had announced in the 2009 budget for gas production is made applicable retrospectively. Ms Radia says she has killed news stories about the Rs.81,000 crore super profit Reliance Industries Ltd. (RIL) would make were that to happen but Mr. Singh is more concerned about what happens in Parliament during the debate on the Finance Bill. His fear is that if Opposition MPs make a noise about a largesse being given to one company, the finance minister would be on the defensive and the prospect of extending the concession retrospectively would not even arise. Mr. Singh accuses BJP leader Arun Shourie of being on Anil Ambani's side and reveals how he has managed to get Mr. Shourie replaced as the BJP's lead speaker by Venkaiah Naidu. How well does Mukesh know Venkaiah, asks Mr. Singh, who is a Rajya Sabha MP from Bihar on a Janata Dal (United) – JD(U) ticket. Ms Radia replies that a senior RIL executive, P.M.S. Prasad, knows Mr. Naidu well. “Then I am going to get him flown in today to talk to Venkaiah,” Mr. Singh says, “because if he is the first speaker, and he already takes a party line, then it will be very difficult for Shourie in his second intervention, to take a different line. Then we have to orchestrate who will speak, you know, this is the immediate problem right now. Because, frankly, if this doesn't go through, this tax thing, then it's a major initiative taken that then fails to materialise.”
We don't know if Mr. Prasad flew down and met Mr. Naidu as N.K. Singh wanted him to do. But the BJP leader's speech in Parliament two days later has this telltale suggestion: “The Bay of Bengal has become the new North Sea of India. Government departments should not be seen quarrelling whether mineral oil is a natural gas or not. Whatever concessions [are] needed for infrastructure, exploration ... are connected with the energy security of the country.” This was a veiled reference to the Petroleum Ministry's letter to the Finance Ministry asking for natural gas to be given the same tax concessions available to oil retrospectively and not just from the New Exploration Licensing Round (NELP) VIII round which would exclude RIL's KG basin output. A request the revenue secretary had turned down.
In other recordings, we see journalists and editors, who are meant to report and analyse what is going on objectively, offering to become couriers and stenographers and foot soldiers in the war one set of corporate fat cats is waging against another. We also see a political fixer, Ranjan Bhattacharya, whose USP once was his familial proximity to the Bharatiya Janata Party, seamlessly open a line to the Congress and go about his business as if election results don't matter. He boasts about his proximity to Ghulam Nabi Azad and his ability to send a message to “SG, boss”, a reference to the Congress president. He then quotes Mukesh Ambani telling him the Congress party is now “apni dukan”. Mr. Bhattacharya may have been lying about his influence but then the formidable Ms Radia is anything but a dupe.
We also hear in the tapes an iconic businessman, Ratan Tata, who today makes sanctimonious statements about crony capitalism and the danger of India becoming a banana republic, lobbying through his PR agent, Ms Radia, for A. Raja to be given the Telecom portfolio.
If the allocation of spectrum by the Manmohan Singh government in 2008 and 2009 is one of the biggest scams in independent India, then the involvement of businessmen like Ratan Tata, Sunil Mittal and Mukesh Ambani in lobbying for their choice of telecom minister when the UPA government returned to power in May 2009 is surely a very important part of the back-story. But it is a story none of the journalists who liaised with Ms Radia during this time chose to report. More than the squabble within the Dravida Munnettra Kazhagam (DMK) or between the DMK and the Congress, the involvement of India's biggest companies in the process of cabinet formation was the story that should have been headlined. Ms Radia talks of Sunil Mittal and AT&T using Times Now to push out stories about Dayanidhi Maran being the frontrunner for telecom and Mr. Raja being in disfavour. Her own strategy appears to have been to use her relationship with Barkha Dutt and Shankar Aiyar to get the opposite message out onto news channels like NDTV and Headlines Today.
Instead of using Ms Radia as a “source” for covering the DMK, her role, and the role of her principal clients, in trying to push for a minister who was seen even then as tainted ought to have been exposed. But then Delhi is a hothouse of power, and proximity to power deadens one's reflexes and weakens one's nerves. What Indian journalism needs more than anything else today is distance. From both politicians and industrialists. It is never too late to swallow that red pill.
John Cheeran at Blogged