The nation is drowning in scams, each one bigger, dirtier and more sinister than the earlier. As every scam takes our collective sense of national pride a notch lower, we have been thankful to the media for constantly highlighting corruption at high places and demanding action. The government (and politicians), bureaucrats and judiciary, the three pillars of our constitution, have been under intense scrutiny from the fourth, the media. But the fourth pillar itself has long developed some cracks. And yesterday, when Open magazine published audio tapes of top editors Vir Sanghvi and Barkha Dutt talking to Nira Radia (a corporate lobbyist) on all kinds of dealing-making, that pillar received the biggest jolt in recent times.
The tape of Vir's conversation with Radia centres around what Vir should write for his upcoming column "Counterpoint" in the Hindustan Times. Vir is asking Radia how best to bat for Mukesh Ambani in his then raging fight with Anil Ambani without appearing to take sides. Vir's article appeared the next day (June 21, 2009) under the title "Time for some transparency". Vir wrote another "Counterpoint" column on the Ambani feud on August 15. Even though I was not privy to this taped conversation then, it was clear to me that Vir was plugging for Mukesh in the second article titled "Bhaisaabs fight your battles elsewhere". The same day, I wrote an article for my blog thevigil.in (Governance Now was not yet born) under the title "And Here's My Advice to Vir Sanghvi."
The same is reproduced here because of its relevance to Governance Now readers in light of Open magazines disclosure. Here goes:
And Here's My Advice to Vir Sanghvi
By B V Rao
“Bhaisaabs, fight your battles elsewhere”. That’s the title to Vir Sanghvi’s “Counterpoint” column in today’s Hindustan Times dealing with Ambani brothers war.
Equating this to the Reliance versus Bombay Dyeing war of the 1980s with Mukesh in Dhirubhai’s role and Anil in Nusli Wadia’s, Vir observes that liberalisation has not done much to keep the government’s nose out of corporate wars.
He says that the Ambani brothers and our politicians are making a family-corporate fight into a national issue in a “country that is facing so many problems” and that means “something has gone badly wrong”. He thus reminds the politicians that their loyalty should be to the people of India, not to Mukesh or Anil. “It is us you represent.”
The other point that comes across clearly in Vir’s article is that this case should be left to the courts to decide, away from the glare of publicity: “Already the papers are obsessed with this battle – it gets more coverage than it deserves….a majority of Indians are not qualified to judge the rights and wrongs of this very complicated issue….why should the people of India be expected to judge who is right or wrong?”
But what was of particular interest to me was this: “All this is ostensibly a battle over rate charged for gas. I don’t know who is in the right in this case: Mukesh or Anil. My friend Tony Jesudasan, who represents Anil, took me out to lunch and made out a case for Anil. I was totally convinced till my friend Niira Radia, who represents Mukesh, gave me the other side which, frankly, seemed just as convincing to my inexpert ears.”
This struck me particularly hard because Vir forgets his own advice (“this has nothing to do with us”) and the cardinal principle of friendship: When two friends fight a wise third friend never gets involved, especially when he is wearing two “inexpert ears” and doubts his own credentials as an agony aunt.
So, after two lunches (I am assuming his friend Niira also lunched him though Vir doesn’t say so), Vir takes the beaten “I’m-neither-for-Mukesh-nor-for-Anil” path and advices both to take their battles “elsewhere”.
Reliance has never fought its corporate battles in the market place. It has never believed in fighting its battles anywhere but “elsewhere”: in the media and in the corridors of power-Delhi. There is no “elsewhere” on this country that has been untouched by a hot Reliance war.
I have no idea what kind of food appeals to Vir’s palette but I get the impression that he liked the Niira lunch (if there was one) better than the Tony lunch. (Tip for Tony: Read Rude Food more often.)
That’s perhaps why, though he has not understood much about the issue at hand, he is clear who the aggressor is: “Just as (Nusli) Wadia was consumed by his mission to destroy Dhirubhai, Anil seems consumed by a desire to destroy Mukesh. Wadia was constantly launching salvos against Reliance just as Anil does these days. Wadia would attack Congress ministers for their closeness to Reliance; Anil is doing the same. Wadia would hire such lawyers as Ram Jethmalani to fight Reliance in the courts; Anil has done the same thing.”
It is Anil who is “doing” everything, while all that poor Mukesh has ever done is to wish well for his recalcitrant little brother.
Vir says in conclusion (the words in parenthesis are mine): “So, here’s my advice to the Ambanis: ….Please fight your battles elsewhere (a Macau retreat with a hefty per diem for the journalist would be just fine). They have nothing to do with us (except for a few five-star lunches). And you are damaging India with your media campaigns (and the suckers in the media will do anything after a few free meals) and with your political friends who disrupt Parliament on your behalf.”
Vir continues: “And here’s my advice to the politicians: Don’t make the same mistakes all over again. Are you Samajwadis or Ambaniwadis? For India’s sake, let the Ambanis solve their problems on their own.”
And here’s my advice to you, Mr Sanghvi: Let’s ask ourselves, are we journalists or free-loaders? If two lunches from both the Ambani camps have left you only more confused, imagine how it must be playing out down the hierarchy in every paper and channel. From the way the war is waging in the media, it seems like many people are willing to get confused and have had multiple lunches and more.
Then we have this additional problem, Mr Sanghvi. Some journalists are light eaters, so they might accept only one lunch. That might be good for their digestive system and avoids the clutter in the mind. They can stay convinced by the logic of the person who gives them the first lunch, but you know what it can do to journalism.
So this thing strikes me like a bolt of lightning, Mr Sanghvi: Should not journalists try to understand the issues from their office desks rather than over five-star lunches? Home-cooked food, Mr Sanghvi, home-cooked food. There’s nothing rude about it and it doesn’t leave you with a grumbling stomach and a crumbling brain.
This article originally appeared on August 16, 2009 at the Vigil.
Vir Sanghvi’s column:
Bhaisaabs, fight your battles elsewhere
Vir Sanghvi's clarification of Nov 18:
My response to the Radia transcripts
Meanwhile, NDTV's rejoinder:
NDTV on defamatory remarks against Barkha Dutt