Don’t blame media, Mr Kejriwal
Before we go much further, let me make one thing clear: I have no intention of passing judgement on the rights and wrongs of the Kiran Bedi saga. Frankly, it seems like an issue where two opposing positions can seem equally strong.
Position one is the view that Kiran Bedi has taken of her own behaviour. Mrs Bedi concedes that she did charge organisations and companies which had invited her Business Class or Full Economy airfares. Though she received payment in full from these organisations, her own expenditure was much lower. She either flew Economy Class when she was asking for reimbursement of Business Class airfare or she availed of a massive concession in airfares that she is entitled to (because she has won a gallantry award) while accepting reimbursements for the full, non-discounted, fare.
Mrs Bedi and her supporters argue that any money she saved using these means (i.e. the difference between the fare she billed the organisations for and the fare she actually paid) did not accrue to her personally. Rather, it went to an NGO that she runs and was used to fund her further travel on occasions when her ticket was not being paid for by somebody else.
Mrs Bedi’s supporters say that no impropriety occurred and that this was a win-win situation for all concerned. The organisations paid the fares they wanted to pay (Business Class or Full Economy) while Mrs Bedi benefitted from the savings she made by availing of discounts or travelling Economy Class.
The contrary position is the one taken by Mrs Bedi’s critics. They say that a reimbursement suggests – by definition – that you are being reimbursed or compensated for an expense you have actually incurred. To claim one fare and to actually pay another amounts to cheating. As for the argument that her NGO benefitted by keeping the difference, they retort, that it would have been entirely legitimate for Mrs Bedi to have asked these organisations to donate the money to her NGO, which given that they were going to make the payments anyway, they would probably have agreed to do.
No, say the critics, the allegation is not that Kiran Bedi personally profited by scamming the organisations that invited her. The charge is that a woman who waxes so eloquent about propriety and ethicality misled organisations into giving money to her NGO. She should have been upfront and asked for the money right out instead of making fraudulent claims for airfares that she never actually paid.
As I said, both positions are strong ones. I don’t see that one position is objectively stronger than the other and so, I will refrain from making any judgement.
What does interest me, however, is the claim made by Arvind Kejriwal and other members of the Anna Hazare camp that these latest charges are proof of a government conspiracy against them and that the media are being unfair to both Kiran Bedi personally and the Hazare camp in general.
I am prepared to agree with Kejriwal when he says that the Shanti Bhushan CD was part of a conspiracy. We know now that the CD was faked and the refusal of the Delhi Police to recognise that it was a cut-and-paste job suggests a certain level of official complicity even if the CD itself was made by non-governmental sources.
But the Bedi allegations do not belong the same category. For a start, they are not fabricated. Even Kiran Bedi does not deny that she billed organisations for airfares that she never actually paid. Unless Arvind Kejriwal can somehow convince us that the government hypnotised Kiran Bedi into filing fake reimbursement claims, it is hard to see how this is part of an official conspiracy. The most he can suggest is that official agencies helped in unearthing the evidence. But if this is proof of a government conspiracy then surely he is also a co-conspirator with the government when he makes statements based on reports issued by such government bodies as the CAG. Just because the government digs up accurate information – as the CAG did in the telecom scam – and this information is used by the media and concerned citizens it does not follow that there is any conspiracy.
More complicated is the claim that the media are being unfair to the Hazare camp. You could argue, as many people do, that the Hazare movement is itself a bit of a media creation. Certainly, it is hard to deny that 24-hour news channels contributed significantly to the growth of the movement. Kejriwal himself appears on TV every single day and was recently declared Indian of the Year by Times Now (or was it NDTV? – it is getting harder to tell the difference).
So, why then are Hazare’s supporters blaming the media? My guess is that Kejriwal is annoyed by three or four separate incidents. The first is the media’s reiteration of Prashant Bhushan’s views on Kashmir. While the media united in condemning the attack on Bhushan, TV channels did point out that his views on Kashmir were at odds with those of the Hazare movement’s middle-class supporters. The second is the insistence of TV channels in getting Hazare to comment on Bhushan’s views. Rather than enthusiastically back Bhushan’s right to hold his own views, Hazare took a more ambivalent position, appearing at times to distance himself from Bhushan.
The third is the fall-out of the Hisar by-election. Though the Congress candidate lost his deposit, the only person who believes that this was because of Kejriwal’s campaign in the constituency is Kejriwal himself. The media have pooh-poohed his claims and have wondered aloud how the victory of Bhajan Lal’s son is a victory for an anti-corruption crusade. Further, journalists have extensively quoted justice Hedge as saying that he disapproves of Kejriwal’s decision to campaign against the Congress.
Fourthly, there has been the dissent within the Hazare camp. Two prominent members have declared that they want to leave the core committee and one of them has told the press that he objects to Kejriwal’s authoritarian methods.
All this is bad news for the Hazare camp. For months and months, Kejriwal and his associates have benefitted from fulsome media coverage and Kejriwal himself has been treated as a latter-day Nehru to Anna Hazare’s Gandhi.
Given this level of praise in the past, it can’t be easy to cope with bad publicity.
Nevertheless, I am disappointed to see the Hazare gang blame the media for their own problems. Whenever politicians are in trouble, they always accuse the media of imagining rifts where none exist and argue that the media are irresponsible and negative.
It is sad to see Kejriwal talking the same language. Perhaps the political nature of his campaign in Hisar should not have come as a surprise. Perhaps he is turning into a politician, after all.