Home / Politics / Policy /  Politicians, journalists should never be friends | Vinod Mehta

New Delhi: Vinod Mehta published The Sanjay Story in 1978. Written with scathing wit and candour, the book chronicles the meteoric rise and fall of Indira Gandhi’s younger son, Sanjay, who was the very incarnation of a spoilt brat. Accused of running a proxy government, inciting revolt within the ranks of the Congress, and squandering massive funds on the Maruti small-car project, Sanjay died in a freak aircrash in 1980.

Recently reissued by HarperCollins India, Mehta’s book brings to life a phase of Indian history when civil and constitutional rights were compromised like never before—or after. Edited excerpts from an interview with Mehta, who is currently editorial chairman of Outlook magazine.

Why did you choose to write on Sanjay Gandhi and not a general book on the Emergency?

I was actually commissioned by my publisher (Jaico) to write the book. When you accept a commission to write a biography, it is important that the person you are writing about is of some interest to you. The biographer should have an element of curiosity about his subject. In Sanjay Gandhi’s case, it was how he managed to exercise such enormous power during and before the Emergency? That was my starting point.

I had no ideological bias except, of course, that I didn’t like the Emergency. I approached the biography as a story, a narrative to be told, not as someone out there to screw his subject. Shortly after the Emergency was lifted in 1977, a number of “quickies" were published, and mine was also one, to some extent. But it was more sympathetic to Sanjay compared with those by Kuldip Nayar, Janardhan Thakur or Uma Vasudev.

Did you feel apprehensive writing about a subject who was alive at the time?

I plunged into the project mainly because of a personal reason. I was the editor of Debonair (a glossy magazine known for printing pictures of scantily clad women) at that time. Nobody took me seriously. I thought I’d be able to establish my credentials by writing this book. Sanjay Gandhi was a serious subject and I was a non-serious writer. So, you could say, I had a vested interest behind writing it.

Did you get into trouble after it was published?

No. Compared with other books, mine was rather mild. In fact, it was criticized for not having enough masala.

Do you think biographers in India are far too deferential towards politicians?

We don’t have good biographies of politicians in India simply because while the subjects are alive and in power, it becomes difficult to get people to talk about them frankly. So biographers have to wait for that person to die or to lose power, and then some mouths might open.

Did you make enemies and lose friends after your memoir ‘Lucknow Boy’ came out?

As an editor for nearly 40 years, I have successfully managed to make many enemies and few friends. Actually, I have more friends in the BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party) than in the Congress. The Congress people are very arrogant and if you say anything against them, they hold it against you in perpetuity. Take someone in the BJP, like L.K. Advani or Arun Jaitley. You can write against them. They are grateful for being written about, they understand that you’re just doing your job. But in the Congress, there is this belief that “You will need me sometime or the other." Therefore, after I had written about some Congress politicians in the negative, I have found that I had finished my relationship with them.

This validates a basic thesis I have held for over 40 years—that politicians and journalists should never be friends. They should be acquaintances, they should be cordial with each other, but never friends. A friend is someone you do a favour for, and he does a favour for you, someone whose mistakes you’d probably look over. You can’t do that as a journalist.

I can say with some confidence, I have no politician friends—and I am proud of this. I have lots of political acquaintances. But the few politician friends I had, I have managed to burn my boats with them. As an editor it has never been my ambition to make friends with politicians, though I obviously don’t want to gratuitously offend them. Some editors are keen to make friends with ministers. I am not saying I am not keen to make friends, but I will do so entirely on my own terms.

The problem is, as an editor, I don’t have to personally write against them. Anything that appears in my magazine is assumed to have my sanction and that I have conspired to print it. That’s probably true, as well. As a hands-on editor, I go through the pieces that appear in my magazine, I know what the slant of each story is, and I often encourage my reporters to take that approach, not because I have a certain bias but because journalists should explore the more sensitive aspects of a story.

Do you feel editors should exercise self-regulation?

You have to be sensible, though it all depends on what kind of an editor you are. If your ambition is to be a professional editor and do the best job, professionally—that’s different. But if your intention is to use your editorship as a stepping stone to other things, such as a Rajya Sabha seat or to enter politics itself, then obviously you have to pull your punches.

How would you assess the current state of magazine journalism in India?

Magazine journalism is in trouble everywhere. And general interest magazines, like Outlook, India Today, Newsweek and Time, are in serious trouble. These magazines were started on the assumption that people don’t have the time to read. So once a week you wrap up the week for them.

Now that situation is very different. We have 24x7 news channels, there’s a “magazine" produced on television almost every night. There are debates, discussions, everything that a magazine does, on air. I had a nightmare story—that’s the big story which breaks on a Thursday or Friday—two weeks in a row. On Thursday night at 7pm, when we were going to bed, the Hyderabad blasts happened. If we were to do the story next week, it would be a dog’s dinner by the time it got to print. Previous week, on Friday morning, Afzal Guru was hanged. These are the hazards of the trade. General interest magazines have to reinvent themselves.

Do you think digital versions will help?

Possibly. But the economics of going digital is perilous.

What do you think of the quality of electronic journalism in India?

We take 24x7 television (TV) far too seriously. At least 50% of it is a joke. We get all excited by the debates, we fall into the trap of thinking that what we are hearing on TV is the truth. Actually, the print media the next morning calms things down and puts things in perspective. Often you see a story on TV running in three-four channels, where a lot of shouting is going on, and you think it’s a big issue. But pick up the paper next morning, and you’ll find the news on Page 7.

There have been rumours about ‘Outlook’ being up for sale. Is that true?


Are you writing a sequel to ‘Lucknow Boy’?

I have been working on it, but then I became depressed by the way this country is going. These days, I pick up HT City and Delhi Times first before looking at the main papers every morning. At least it’s better to read about people having a good time before moving on to the bleak news. But I have resumed work on the book now.

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