The rules of entrapment

The noise against Tehelka after last week’s cover story was to be expected. Much more surprising was the confusion over the ethics of political baiting

April 9, 2011 in Columns
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The triumph and the ignominy The day MPs bought and sold Indian democracy

The triumph and the ignominy The day MPs bought and sold Indian democracy

JOURNALISTIC TRUTH-telling has some obvious demands. An acute conscience. A binding idea of the constitutional values that created this nation. And a high degree of fearlessness. But it also has another curious requirement: the capacity to have a rhino’s hide.

Truth-telling is never a pleasant experience. It means taking on forces much larger than oneself. It means risking one’s wellbeing — at times, one’s very existence. It means courting unpopularity. And, at times, it means batting against one’s own friends.

At Tehelka, we have experienced all of this. But none of the discomforts of truth-telling is as difficult to stomach as the vicious counter-propaganda that comes with it.

Last week, Editor, Investigations, Ashish Khetan’s story on the cash-for-votes scandal A Trap. And A Cover-up brought some predictable reactions in its wake. It had been a difficult story to do. It nailed three major political parties: the BJP for setting up an entrapment; the Samajwadi Party for being open to corruption; and the Congress-led government for covering it all up. The story also set on record the ambiguous role played by a section of the media. The story was not for the meek-hearted. There were no friends to be gained here: only enemies.

But the details were lost in the noise. BJP spokespersons tried to deflect the story by denouncing Tehelka as “the investigative arm of the Congress party”. And the Internet exploded with broad-stroke hate mail from right-wingers who hadn’t bothered to read the complex 8,000-odd word story. Most of the abuse was directed at Tehelka for allegedly being a pro-Congress publication.

To some extent, Tehelka knows how to weather this stuff with stoic indifference. The accusations are not only completely random, they are so whimsical it would be suicidal to attempt engaging with them. They shift wind with every new story Tehelka does.

When we did our sting investigation on corruption in defence procurement in 2001, Tehelka kept asserting that the story was an expose on a corrupt system and the findings would have been the same no matter which government was in power. But no one was listening. Tehelka was variously accused by some of being “Congress stooges”, “ISI hands”, “pawns for defence dealers” and “stock-market manipulators”. Two years of intense scrutiny by every arm of a hostile government failed to throw up a single grain of truth in that.

Subsequently, the abuse took other equally bewildering turns. Tehelka was shut down for two-and-a-half years. When it relaunched, the first cover story it did was on large-scale Christian conversions. Now the carousel had new accusers: Tehelka had sold out to the BJP, said the secularists. Many Left intellectuals abandoned us.

When we did our seminal expose on the riots of Gujarat 2002, the shoe was back on the other foot. “Congress sidesidekicks!” went one predictable propaganda strain. But ludicrously, there were others. How much has Narendra Modi paid Tehelka to consolidate the Hindu vote? asked some people.

The allegations have never grown tamer or more rooted in truth as the years have passed. Tehelka has built a tremendous body of work to show the injustice against Muslims in Gujarat and elsewhere in the country. But when it did a cover on the PFI, an Islamic fundamentalist party in Kerala, the outcry was as shrill: Tehelka has sold out, it is no longer secular, shouted the Left-wingers. Then, when we wrote on the tribal crisis that underlies the Maoist uprising, we were accused by both sections of the Congress and the BJP of being “Maoist sympathisers”.

In an almost hallucinatory way, all these accusations against Tehelka coexist simultaneously. Even as sections of the Left accuse us periodically of having sold out, the right-wing continues its loud orchestra on how Tehelka is funded dubiously by forces in the “Middle East” and the Congress party.

Tehelka’s response to all propaganda is: cut the cheap shots, fight us on facts. We have no strategy except the truth

Tehelka’s own response is very simple: cut the conjecture and cheap shots, fight us on facts. Come and look at our financial books. Produce one shred of evidence. Show us one proof of any of these allegations. We could spend our lives countering the dominant perception of our supposed allegiance to the Congress with recorded evidence: how we have done harsh stories on the 2G scam and the CWG and the 1984 Sikh riots; how we did a story on land scams that nailed former Karnataka Congress and JDS chief ministers, even while the heat was on BJP CM Yeddurappa; how our editorials on the Maoist issue or Gujarat riots have slammed the Congress as much as the BJP. How we pilloried Praful Patel for destroying Air India. How Ashish Khetan was the first to scoop and air the Radia tapes. Or, indeed, that we had first embarked on last week’s cash-for-votes story as a hard story on how the UPA government had scuttled the probe. But that would be to journey down a bottomless pit.

Those who are genuinely interested in the truth have a vast library to pursue: our journalistic track record is in the public domain. Everyone is welcome to examine it. So to all those who ask us angrily, why did you time such-and-such story like this; how did you get your information; and who funds you, we have only one answer: Tehelka has no strategy in battle except the truth. Every journalist reacts to a news environment — that’s how stories happen. Show us one place where we have suppressed or been wrong on any fact, where we have been lazy with the truth — no matter how uncomfortable — and we will be the first to backtrack.

But the sad fact is those who trade in theories are not interested in the truth: facts tend to be too tedious, unwieldy and inconvenient. How can one fly kites weighed down with facts? Much easier to just pretend to know the murky “story behind the story” and hope no one will ask any questions.

(Here’s just one case in point. The day after Tehelka published its cash-for-votes story, a respected media critic wrote that it was very likely that the audio recordings that showed the BJP MPs frantically looking for buyers on the night of 21 July 2008 had been given to Tehelka by the government, in fact by PC himself — read Home Minister P Chidambaram, the story said in brackets. Clearly, faithful ally Tehelka had been used by the government to help it out of a tight spot, was the inference.

Shocked not only by the scurrilous theory but by its complete breakdown in simple commonsense, I confronted the critic. What proof did the critic have to support this theory? None, was the answer. Set that aside for a moment. These phone calls were made in the presence of a tight-knit group — four BJP men and the television team that was operating the sting. How difficult was it to deduct from whom Tehelka got the recordings? Moreover, how could the government possibly have got hold of these recordings, and if it did have them, why on earth had they not gone public with it themselves when the Opposition had been putting them on the mat and stalling Parliament for days? Why would they wait for a privilege motion against themselves before passing the recordings to Tehelka? Faced with these questions, the critic admitted she had made a baseless and “unfair inference”. To the critic’s credit, the paragraph was withdrawn online from the story. But had we not confronted it, people would happily have swallowed the “unfair inference” and passed it on as a settled truth about how Tehelka got the story.)

Every malicious theory about Tehelka floating in cyberspace has a similar arc. One could combat each of these theories with ease. But there is a saner and more effective path: The rhino hide. And the reliance on truth. And facts. These can be a journalist’s only true refuge.

THERE IS, however, one debate generated by Tehelka’s cash-for-votes story that demands real engagement: it is more alarming than the banal conspiracy theories about Tehelka’s supposed nexus with the Congress. It shows a deep and damaging confusion about the co-ordinates that make for a healthy democracy.

Judging by the arguments on cyberspace, it appears a small but significant number of people are genuinely foxed about why it was wrong of the BJP to set up an entrapment for the UPA in the cash-for-votes sting it did with a television channel. How was it different from what Tehelka itself has done in the past with BJP leaders like Bangaru Laxman and others? (Senior BJP leader Arun Jaitley has raised the same question.)

A rhino’s hide. A high degree of fearlessness. And a reliance on truth. And facts. These can be a journalist’s only true refuge

The answer to this is multi-layered. The first and obvious one is that the role of the media and the role of a political party in a parliamentary democracy are very different. It is the job of the media to question power and expose wrong-doing. In executing this, it is imperative for a media outfit to not be personally invested in any way in the outcome of its investigation. Did Tehelka’s editor stand to become the prime minister of India if Tehelka’s sting investigation on defence procurement had unseated the NDA government? Far from it: Tehelka only stood to make powerful enemies. Further, Tehelka — or any media — does not have the constitutional power to unseat a government. The public impact of its stories may do that, but it does not have the Constitutional power to move a no-confidence vote per se or hold Parliament to ransom. Political parties do.

Given this, it is a perilous moment for Indian democracy if political parties begin to reduce political opposition to a series of competitive stings that are then used as a tool to seat and unseat governments. At a pinch, it might be within its rights to embark on a sting to expose a bonafide wrong-doing, but where does it leave us as a society if political parties start engineering situations and entrapping each other in stings? Everyone knows that political parties of every hue have dubious and unsavoury characters in their fold: every time one political party wants to put another on the mat, will it be okay for them to go out and solicit wrong-doing from the weakest link in the chain, then use that as a tool to ransom Parliament? And wrest power? Where does that leave electoral politics? Is this the framework of democracy we want?

We, the people Muslim riot victims in a camp in Gujarat

We, the people Muslim riot victims in a camp in Gujarat

Tehelka itself has learnt many lessons from the heated debate generated over its 2001 sting investigation into defence procurement, not least by the BJP itself. While it stands by its story and never had any motive for undertaking it — and three years of a government witch-hunt could not unearth any motive — its own understanding of the framework of sting operations was refined by the fall-outs of the story.

In the 10 years that have followed, except perhaps in one case, Tehelka itself has never again set up a crime to illustrate a prevalent wrong-doing, such as the culture of bribes in defence procurement. Every one of its stings since have cast new light on or exposed a crime that was already committed, not one that it was setting up to catch on camera.

In the cash-for-votes scandal — and with a political party rather than an independent media house behind the sting — all of this has grave implications. To understand them, one has to go back to the assumptions everyone had before Tehelka broke its story last week.

The Left had withdrawn support to the UPA-1 over the nuclear deal in 2008. As the trust vote came up, there were strong rumours in the air about horsetrading. On the day of the vote, three BJP MPs stormed the well of the Lok Sabha waving wads of cash they alleged they had been paid by Samajwadi Party leader Amar Singh to swing their vote. The BJP claimed the Congress had outsourced this job to Amar Singh. The BJP’s media partner did not telecast its sting supporting this claim, and when it did telecast it three weeks later, claimed its investigation was inconclusive. Still, everyone assumed, it was Amar Singh who had been the first mover, the aggressor in hunting down the three BJP MPs.

When the WikiLeaks-Hindu story broke, it is based on these assumptions that a united Opposition, led by the BJP, began pushing the UPA to step down.

Tehelka’s expose shifted the whole tenor of the episode. It laid bare all the facts that had earlier been suppressed. It is true that the three BJP MPswere paid a bribe by Samajwadi Party leaders. Like the stand Tehelka took in its own 2001 defence procurement story, last week too we argued that nothing can dilute the crime of bribe-giving by the Samajwadi Party — a trap was set up for them and they fell for it. There ought to be penal action against that crime. If they had wished, they could have refrained.

Why did the BJP team not go home relieved morality had prevailed? Why did they exert themselves to make the crime happen?

But the real twist lay in the fact that the BJP MPs – aided by the party’s most respected leaders – had actively gone out looking to be bought. It’s not the Congress or SP that was calling them frantically, asking them to succumb; it was the BJP MPs who had made frantic midnight calls till they found a sitting duck in SP leader Reoti Raman Singh. The BJP had then used this to try and bring down the government.

It is this unseemly desire to engineer a wrongdoing that makes the BJP’s actions so perilous. They have argued that their men were approached by the Congress and SP first. There is nothing in the sting or in reporter Siddharth Gautam’s account to prove this claim. No phone calls, no encounters, nothing. Indeed, suppose for a moment the Congress or SP had indeed approached them then thought better of it, why did the BJP team not go home relieved that morality had prevailed? Why did they exert themselves to make the crime happen?

As argued earlier, it might be okay for a media house to do this, but can political power be wrested under such conditions?

(In an interview to Indian Express editor Shekhar Gupta, senior BJP leader Jaswant Singh said that when he saw someone as unsavoury as Suhail Hindustani sitting at LK Advani’s house, he had strongly advised the latter not to embark on such a misadventure. In fact, he was so distressed by what his party was planning, Singh said that although he was a man who never took a drink before dusk, that day he had swallowed a peg in the afternoon itself.)

Tehelka argued last week that public discourse can only be conducted on the basis of facts. At any given moment, every Indian is suffused with a sense of overwhelming corruption in the world around them. It would be a dangerous precedent for us to start capsizing governments based merely on sentiment and conjecture.

Perhaps the UPA government did indeed buy its way through the nuclear vote, but until facts emerge to support that, it is wiser to let it lie as one of the many unnailed corruptions in Indian public life.

In the meantime, again as Tehelka argued last week, one can only push for a more energetic probe into the scandal by investigating agencies.

Hunger and anger A Maoist cadre in Dantewada, Chhattisgarh

Hunger and anger A Maoist cadre in Dantewada, Chhattisgarh
Photo: Shailendra Pandey

ALL GOOD journalistic platforms process the world through a prism of values. It is the neutral pipelines — merely funnelling information without thought or verification — which one should be wary of.

Unfortunately, Tehelka is sometimes seen as merely an adversarial force, especially by those who do not read its work week on week. This is not a mistake people who read us regularly would make. But still, perhaps it is time to put on record not only what we oppose but what we stand for.

Tehelka’s journalism is latched to the founding vision of this country: it bats for a plural, just, equitable, sustainable world. It strives to process information in complex ways rather than through quick and easy summations. It deems its primary responsibility to speak truth to power and be the voice of the voiceless. To bring the stories of the oppressed, who may never read our work, to the attention of those who have their hands on the levers of power and money.

Tehelka is not pro or anti any political party, but we are anti a certain kind of politics. We are against communal politics of any kind — Hindu, Muslim, Christian or Sikh — because we believe it will rip the country apart. We are against a politics that seeks to make the rich richer and disregards the poor without care about equity and social justice. We are against a politics that fears dissent and debate. And we are against a politics that values phoney security more than freedom. Most of all, we are against a unipolar view of the world, which divides people into alienated categories.

Tehelka is not pro or anti any political party, but we are anti a certain kind of politics. We operate through a prism of values

Much of Tehelka’s journalistic priorities emerges out of this framework. Ironically, some of the misplaced perceptions about us arise out of this too. Much of Tehelka’s reputation for being anti-BJP arises out of our journalism in Gujarat, where there has been severe miscarriages of justice against Muslims. But many of our stories on injustice against Muslims emanate out of Andhra Pradesh and Maharashtra too — both ruled by Congress-led governments. In fact, the irony of it is, we are not even pro-Muslim; we are projustice. If ever the table turns and a dominant Muslim party or government victimises any other community, you can be sure, Tehelka will be barking at its feet.

Curiously, much of our reputation for being pro- Congress is also an accidental product of this prism of values: Tehelka swears allegiance to the founding vision of this country. The early Congress party had much to do with that vision, though the gene is running much thinner now.

Unfortunately, then, Tehelka was not around in 1984 to be a thorn in the Congress’ side, but we are not doing too badly in exposing and vehemently opposing its ill-conceived policies and police operations against the tribals in India’s heartland. Unfortunately, the BJP does not see this as anti-Congress moves on our part because its own views also sit firmly at that end of the fence.

There is no winning the propaganda game therefore: there is only the thick skin and moral vision to go back to. The first may occasionally get a bit nicked, and we might occasionally falter before the latter. But for the most part, for the moment, both weapons are firmly stacked in Tehelka’s journalistic quiver.

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