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Over the thin red line

Over the thin red line
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First Published: Wed, Nov 24 2010. 09 12 PM IST
Updated: Wed, Nov 24 2010. 09 12 PM IST
To state the obvious first: This is not Barkhagate or Sanghvigate—it is Rajagate, or Radiagate.
After you read the transcripts printed in the magazines Open or Outlook and listen to the recordings of the astonishing and entertaining conversations between the formidable lobbyist Niira Radia and some of India’s leading businesspeople, politicians and journalists, it should be clear that the real story is about the collusion of business and politics. Journalists who appear larger than life in their media profile play a small part here—as willing go-betweens, ferrying messages between politicians at Radia’s (and in effect her powerful corporate clients’) request. That isn’t illegal, nor is it necessarily corrupt. But it shows careless judgement and weakens the media’s credibility.
The real horror is in the way cabinet ministers are appointed and portfolios distributed; how corporate leaders influence the government’s agenda; and how the state records private conversations casually without due process and leaks the lot. Barkha Dutt and Vir Sanghvi are part of an ensemble of media stars (including Prabhu Chawla, M.K. Venu and others) in supporting roles—trading information, relishing the heady whiff of access and proximity to power.
What it reveals is less flattering: not the clout that the journalists have, but the clout that they think they have, or the clout that they think that others believe they have. The way to charm a journalist is through praise, and Radia does that well. She gets them to talk easily—as if she were the journalist and they the interviewees. The casual way in which the journalists drop names of politicians and businessmen (usually by their first name), and the comfort with which they relate with India’s nomenklatura, shows that Henry Kissinger was onto something when he called power the ultimate aphrodisiac.
Perhaps it is a peculiar Delhi trait. In the Capital, the proximity to its powerful people, and to those close to power, somehow engenders this idea that journalists are as powerful. On screen and in print, they admonish bureaucrats and politicians; at cocktail parties, they exchange notes with them about summer vacations. They become participants in a game they’re meant to observe, and some among them believe that they matter in their own right, and not because of the credibility of their profession.
Dutt and Sanghvi are right; journalists do have to meet all sorts of people, and cultivating contacts and relationships is an essential requirement. Stay too aloof, and stories dry up; but get too close, and you lose perspective. When contacts become friends, lines get blurred. Maintaining access with the powerful does not mean doing away with propriety. Upright judges think before accepting invitations. They know that it is silly to get close to corporate lobbyists and others who might appear in cases before them as litigants. Journalists are no exception. Credibility is the profession’s sole currency. They must listen to all views—but they must also challenge all views.
It is nobody’s case that any of the journalists identified in the tapes has taken bribes, which is as it should be. This isn’t about venality, but about conflicts of interest, and perceived and real independence. That independence is compromised when you appear to offer to rehearse an interview with Mukesh Ambani, or when you seem to be willing to carry messages between parties building a coalition government. This isn’t just about Dutt or Sanghvi—over the years, other journalists have helped form other coalitions, too. Many more have received state honours and gifts; some have gone legit, becoming parliamentarians.
Radia presents a cocktail of charm and persuasiveness, but she doesn’t seem to have done anything illegal: lobbying is not illegal, nor should it be. Lobbyists can be useful in a complicated polity where politicians and bureaucrats enjoy discretionary power. In a vast democracy with competing interests, companies may want to shift lawmakers’ views over specific policies. The lobbyist will seek the politician’s attention; the politician should listen—but his decision should be made with national interest in his mind.
Radia has wielded her influence skilfully to secure outcomes her clients wanted. During the Ambani brothers’ dispute over the price of gas, she got Mukesh Ambani’s case heard, with some journalists relaying the view that the fraternal dispute was against national interest. (Confession: since 2007, I’ve written four pieces in the Far Eastern Economic Review and The National about their dispute; she never called me—c’est la vie!) Likewise, she wasn’t solely responsible for ensuring that Andimuthu Raja got the telecom portfolio in 2009, but that was her goal, and she requested her journalist friends to ferry information between political parties.
That was the crucial story— of a political party blithely nominating a tainted politician to remain in a cabinet post, and major business interests backing the politician. Journalists who knew this should have been reporting it. But instead of becoming messengers for their readers and viewers, some became mere messengers.
Salil Tripathi is a writer based in London.Your comments are welcome at salil@livemint.com
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First Published: Wed, Nov 24 2010. 09 12 PM IST
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