…Bought over by some wheat or rice?

After much of the dust over the Niira Radia tapes has settled down, I am beginning to wonder what the fuss was all about to begin with.

The kind of shock-and-awe type of journalism resorted to in bringing the tapes to light first suggested that somehow so many journalists had lobbied for former Union Telecom minister A Raja and perhaps were involved in the 2G scam. But it is now clear that all of the journalists on those tapes can be accused of is some indiscretion and much loose talk – but none of them, I believe, is for a moment guilty of some of the things that go on on a much larger scale in various state capitals and even smaller towns across India.

My late maternal uncle was an IAS officer in the top echelons of the Madhya Pradesh cadre and he had little respect for my choice of career. There were constant exhortations from him until I was 28 (the official age bar) to give up journalism and sit for the civil services exams. “Or at least go into banking. Or teaching. Anything but this!” was the constant plea from so many of my elders.

Then, one day, my ‘IAS maama‘ finally came out with a comment that got indelibly etched into my mind. “Tere jaise chaar patrakar toh har waqt main apni jeb mein rakhta hoon! (At any given time I have at least four journalists living in my pocket!),” he said one day.

The contempt in that remark was so obvious – and my uncle made no attempts to hide that – that I just had to have an explanation.

I was at the start of my career and what he told me was very illuminating. In the state capital of Bhopal, he said, there was not a single journalist who was not on the take. “One or the other of them will start a series against the government. The Chief Minister will authorise me to send the year’s supply of wheat and rice and sugar to that particular journalist’s home. We will also send him tickets for the entire family to the first day’s first show of every movie releasing during his blackmailing spree. Or to the circus, if it is in town. Those stories will then stop immediately. Until he has run out of his supplies. Then the exercise begins all over again! On any given day, we go through this with at least four or five journalists at a time. I would rather you be on my side of the fence dealing with these kind of scumbags than become such a degenerate who has to be bribed and bought over and over again,” he said.

Young as I was, I did not see what he said in the light he intended. “Don’t tell me bureaucrats are not corrupt!” I snapped back. “And in any case I am not a journalist in a small provincial capital who can be bought over by some wheat and rice. I am working out of Bombay. These things do not happen there!”

“Well, Bombay is the commercial capital of India, isn’t it?” he said and left it at that.

It took me years to understand the significance of that last remark.

As I climbed the rungs of the profession, I realised why my uncle had stressed on Bombay being India’s commercial capital. To repeat what my colleague Samar Halankar has written in his column in the Hindustan Times on Thursday, I came across the phenomenon of the ‘gifted’ journalist – not rice or wheat, those were small town requirements, I guess –  but silver and gold coins and worse. Like some freely-appointed apartments paid for by politicians, holidays abroad, including fat packets of foreign exchange with the exhortation that they must spend that only on their pleasure (at a time when travel was rare and forex scarce), cars materialising at the homes of people who were clearly on lower salaries than mine (it took me years to catch up with some of these), the latest in electronic goods (like mobile phones) the moment they were launched, etc. And, after all that, I saw the lines taken by these journalists change almost overnight – they went from being saffron to secular or from secular to saffron, and in many cases back and forth again and again.

One of my seniors funded part of his daughter’s wedding through the gifts journalists get at press conferences: some months before her marriage he stopped all of us from going to the events and either attended personally or sent only his lackeys. They dutifully brought back the gifts for him – he used them as “return gifts” for the marriage guests. What he couldn’t, he auctioned off among friends and neighbours for the best price he could get. He did not see anything wrong in this: in fact, he dined out for days on how he had saved himself substantial expense by so doing!

By the time I got to mid-career, I knew how to steer clear. And by the time I got to be senior, I realised that the emphasis had shifted from gifts to influence – appeals, much like Radia was making, to put in a word here or there. And, yes, by PR managers of politicians, as well.

When I joined the Hindustan Times a decade ago, it got very personal. The late Madhavrao Scindia was then the general secretary in charge of Maharashtra – I can recount any number of Congressmen who would call me to get in a word to him, if I could, whenever he was in Bombay to attend an event as these guys knew that as journalists we would be in close proximity to him. In addition, Scindia was then on the board of HT and many of these Congressmen would urge me to speak to my editor to get them a personal hearing.

I recall, when they became too insistent, I did ask my editor, Vir Sanghvi, for advice. And that advice has guided me to this day. He said, “At the position you are in today, you will get loads of such people pressuring you for these kind of favours. Remember, they are politicians and they can solve their problems without having me or you or anyone else intercede on their behalf with their high command. But they are important sources for you, aren’t they? So you cannot hang up on them. Find a reasonable means of playing along without letting them down too much. You have to find your own medium and with each one it will have to be pitched differently according to how well or not you know them.”

I did find that medium and am glad that I did not quite hang up on them for some of those guys ended up in high places (including as Chief Ministers) and continued to be great sources of information. Even when I threw out the PR manager of one hopeful aspirant (who still has not got to that office) for enquiring what I could do for his “saheb“, the “saheb” continues to be a wealth of information to me. Only because, if I shut a door, I was careful to leave a window open. Meaning, I did not make him my story at the time – that would have got me one headline. Since then, I have got several headlines out him!

So I agree with the view that you have to be a political journalist to understand how vested interests operate and you cannot shut down (or shut up these interests) or your stories will dry up altogether. Moreover, Radia’s shenanigans were certainly not unique or even “the story of the decade” as even lesser journalists in lesser towns with some experience of dealing with PR managers and political facilitators would know.

All that I can say is that people who think otherwise, either have not been significant enough to be approached by these vested interests or haven’t been in the business of breaking news. Or — and I don’t flinch from saying it straight  — they are simply lying to cover up for themselves!

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