January 12, 2020
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The Bullet Bites You

You can’t dodge the question, for there are far too many scams that need answers. Therein lies the kernel of the ‘negativity’ debate.

The Bullet Bites You
Illustration by Sandeep Adhwaryu
The Bullet Bites You

Let me begin with an admission. I had no idea it would become so big. When we sent our crew to London to follow up on a scam that ran into a few hundred thousand pounds, we weren’t even sure if a company called AM Car and Films existed. We had papers to show the British government was suspicious about transactions between politician-sports czar Suresh Kalmadi’s CWG organising committee and this vague company with a Peel Road suburban London address.

The story finally broke on June 30, ’10, at around 7 pm, just as we were getting into prime-time. We had placed our reporters in a way that they would hunt for reactions from the persona dramatis the moment it broke. The initial reaction was amazing. “You guys have lost it,” said one of Kalmadi’s henchmen. “A few hundred thousand pounds. Itne me toh ek hafta bhi nahi chalta. Do you think we play for loose change?” he asked.

Two days later, Kalmadi finally surfaced. He put on an air of hurt and defiance, and declared his intention to file a defamation case against our channel. He smiled at the other media, insulted our reporters publicly while referring to the channel seventeen times. He also offered himself open to ‘explosive’ interviews on other channels that often began with the penetrating question: “Mr Kalmadi, all these charges that have been levelled against you, do they have any truth?”, and included the googly: “Let me ask you, Mr Kalmadi, will you resign?”

In retrospect, it’s all very amusing. In the choice between an exclusive with a scam kingpin and a good story, we knew which one we were prepared to lose.

Kalmadi finally met me and my colleague Navika Kumar on Hiroshima Day, August 6, 2010. He was exceedingly nervous. His PR team begged us to “go soft on the poor man” now. We asked him 29 questions. He had one basic reply. That he had no financial powers. That he was doing it for the nation. That if there were underlings who “made mistakes, they would be punished”.

“Mind you, Goswami,” he said as he took off his mike, “all this that you are reporting about the scam will be forgotten the day the Games start. When people see the fireworks and the displays, they will forget all this negativity that you people are spreading.”

“History will only remember you for being negative,” they accuse. In the last year, their cries have become intense.

I don’t know if such a word even exists, but ‘negativity’ is a new charge some of us face. You expose a scam, and you are being negative. You ask a straight question, and you’re being negative. You bring out documents through legitimate RTI applications, and ask warranted questions on why irregularities happened in procurements worth thousands of crores, and you’re being negative. You point out that Connaught Place’s beautification eventually took 900 per cent more than what was initially accounted for, and you’re being negative. You ask the only direct question in a news conference aimed at clarifying the air on scams, and you’re being negative.

“It’s journalists who are bringing the country down” is their new argument. “The country will not forgive you for focusing on one scam after another,” they say. “Think of the country, think of our image internationally, think of the long-term consequences of what you’re doing,” they say, in a tone that wavers between fear and anger. “History will remember you only for being negative,” they accuse bitterly. In the last one year, their accusations have become more and more intense. And predictable.

I remember standing outside the courtroom on the second floor of the Tiz Hazari courts in 1996. One year into television, I was thrilled at thrusting my mike into the faces of the who’s who of Indian politics, as they trundled out one by one. It was a small scam by today’s standards, less than 20 million in dollar terms. But there was something deeply egalitarian and liberating about being able to ask a question.

On one occasion, I stepped too close and fell, mike in mind, before a group of camerapersons, right onto the path of a VVIP, a former minister in starched white. “Kya karloge poochh ke, ladke, jo itni koshish kar rahe ho. Poochne se aaj tak kuchh hua hai? (What will you ask that’s so special, for which you try so hard. What has ever come of asking?).”

The Jain hawala case came to nought, the handwritten notes on diaries of alleged payoffs weren’t solid evidence in the eyes of the court, and I moved on from the Tis Hazari beat. But I remember that moment in slow motion, on nights when they mock me for asking too many questions. In a country where scam money is 27 per cent higher than our GDP, there are far too many questions to ask.

I hope these questions continue to be asked. I hope the relentless pursuit of the facts, however uncomfortable for some, continues. But sometimes, I have my doubts. Like last week, when I was waiting to be ‘called in’ for a handshake and lunch with the visiting Pakistan foreign minister. It took me away from the daily edit meeting, and with the action on Yediyurappa hotting up, sitting around in a room with other editors doing nothing was very frustrating.

A fellow editor of an English news channel decided to provide some entertainment. “Why should we target poor Yediyurappa. What has he done? He is a mass leader. We must learn to respect mass leaders. This trial by media has to stop. It’s ridiculous to keep asking whether he should resign. Others have made far more money. You can’t remove chief ministers just because some channel gets its hands on some Lokayukta report,” he said, punching his fist in the air and then looking around for reactions.

I was stunned. Not by the quality of the argument but by the utter hypocrisy on display. The same person took a completely different line on air every night. But it also explained a lot. The person arguing for Yeddy was really someone else, a visible cog of a small power elite who want the status quo undisturbed.

It was scary. I hope there aren’t others who change form so regularly between morning and night.

(Goswami is editor-in-chief, Times Now)

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