Friday, May 14, 2010

MUTHALIK AND TEHELKA: THE BAD AND THE UGLY

Pramod Muthalik is in the news again. This time for allegedly demanding Rs 60 lakhs for staging riots across Karnataka. A little over a year back too he had hit the headlines after members of his Ram Sene beat up some boys and girls who were having a good time in a pub in Mangalore.

This self-proclaimed defender of the Hindu faith needs to be dealt with severely, and an example set. On this score there is little scope for disagreement. The government of Karnataka --"BJP's Karnataka" as the media likes to call it, to subtly influence minds against the party -- needs to show resolve and demonstrate to the nation that Muthalik and his goons are not sleeping with leaders of the BJP as many allege.

But, hang on. The story is not a simple one of the good guys and the bad, both easily identifiable. There is a serious twist here. The good guys, who are self-proclaimed defenders of secularism, are also not what they appear to be. They are manifestly hit men who are executing one more deadly mission for an undisclosed consideration.

The 'good' guys are from Tehelka, India's premier sting outfit that also publishes a weekly, and that bolted into prominence in 2001 with that famous hidden camera clip of the then BJP President Bangaru Laxman receiving a Rs one lakh bribe from journalists posing to be defence dealers. Till then India had not seen the likes of YSR Reddy, Madhu Koda, Shashi Tharoor etc and, above all, the Telecom Raja who, as per a tweet, steals not in rupees but in percentage of GDP! That is why all hell broke loose in the media then. Laxman lost his job within a day and the BJP power in the election that followed. A job well done.

In 2007, Tehelka came up with what the Congress thought was another winner in Gujarat. Its sting operation showed various BJP leaders talking about and instigating the 2002 riots that followed the burning of a railway coach carrying Kar Sevaks at Godhra. Unfortunately, it could find nothing whatsoever to nail Narendra Modi. Even more importantly, the sting inadvertently put to death the canard that was being spread by some political parties that the Godhra incident was an accident and that the riots that followed were pre-planned by Modi. The outcome, naturally, was exactly the opposite of what Tehelka was tasked to ensure: Modi won.

In 2009, a few months before the general elections, Tehelka was in action again though not through a sting. This time it was its journalist Nisha Susan who started the Pink Chaddi Campaign to collect and send panties to Muthalik for the above mentioned Mangalore pub incident. Needless to add, the entire media went ballistic and for many days it appeared as if the biggest challenge that India was facing was not from terrorism that had claimed many lives but from Muthalik who was against girls going to and drinking in pubs. How many votes it cost the BJP will never be known, but the party's performance in the elections was disastrous.

Now it is Muthalik again, caught asking for Rs 60 lakhs by Tehelka's camera.

The Congress has been in power since 2004. During this period, many a scandal has surfaced, rivetted the nation's attention and then mysteriously disappeared, without any proof having been found to nail anyone. Many opposition leaders have also been hounded on some serious corruption charges. All kinds of allegations have been made against them but the CBI, after snapping at them like a ferocious Rottweiler, has invariably turned into a docile Labrador at politically critical moments. No wonder BJP President Nitin Gadkari could find no better 'muhavra' to describe the condition of some opposition leaders, leading to, as the Times of India put it so well, howls of protest!

Corruption is now a reality on an unprecedented scale at the highest echelons of the government. But do we hear even a whimper? On the contrary, Barkha Dutt says she has become shock-proof to it. What that means and what that says about the integrity levels of journalists is not difficult to figure. What is of even greater significance, shocking in fact, is that Tehelka has not done a single sting on any Congress minister or senior party leader, much less on a scale and at the level that it did against the NDA government. In six long years. Even during these years, it has focused primarily on the BJP and outfits whose deeds can spoil the image of that party.

Can this be a mere coincidence? Or is there something more to it? Tarun Tejpal is the editor of Tehelka. As a journalist, he should have learnt how to at least pretend to be politically neutral. He did that too for a long time. But the victory of the Congress party in 2009 apparently gave him so much of personal joy, for reasons not yet known, that he could not control himself from writing a demeaning open letter in praise of Sonia Gandhi. I had written a post on it then itself. The same is reproduced below. Read it and them decide what Tehelka is and what kind of media rot it represents.

Muthalik is bad, no doubt. But, as you will soon find, Tehelka is ugly.
------------------------------------------------------------
Last year, some of us were surprised when someone who once wanted to become the Secretary General of the United Nations wrote in glowing praise of Sonia Gandhi. No one was in any doubt then that Shashi Tharoor was using Time magazine to bend over in such a manner only because he saw in it a fail-safe ticket to get into the Congress party and then into the government. And that is precisely what has happened with his appointment as a junior minister in India's Foreign Office.

While Tharoor's objective was clearly visible and somewhat justifiable too, considering the culture of the Congress party, how does one explain the unbelievably despicable level to which a journalist famous for passing off his sordid and politically motivated sting operations as exercises in public morality, has sunk to in his lowly endeavour to endear himself to, yes, Sonia Gandhi? In perhaps a first for Indian journalists - and that is saying a lot considering the lot we have - Tarun J Tejpal, editor of Tehelka, has crossed every possible red line that separates journalism and political sycophancy.

In an open letter “to the unlikely woman whose tenacity in staying the course changed the contours of Indian politics”, this paragon of secularism not only belittles India's many gods but lays obscene praise at her feet, including her famous 'renunciation' of the PM's post, by - hold your breath - crediting it to Tenth Commandment (Though shall not covet) of the "extra god" that he says she has brought along with her from Italy! Quoting Mathew's exhortation in 10:7, he lays bare his deeply ingrained religious and political hatred for the "devils", "the bigots who divide us" and the ones "who have taken a fourth of our dominions".

He does not stop here. Craftily, he even roots for dynastic rule and Rahul Gandhi: "No doubt with the help of your extra god, you have done a fine job of bringing up your son. He has humility, decorum, diligence, and he takes the long and inclusive view. We do not like the idea of dynasty, but we abhor the idea of divisiveness more". And then he drops the inevitable big bombshell, not wanting to take even the slightest risk of being found wanting along any dimension: "And yes, as I bid you speed and strength, with the extra god by your side, may I make a final plea. You have given us of yourself, and of your son. Now will you kindly also give unto us your luminous daughter"!

Now you know why this angel of morality and ethics and values and integrity lay silent for the five years that the Congress was in power. Now you know why no sting operation that could taint the government in any manner was done by Tehelka. Tejpal was not alone in this deceit. You would have noticed that it was only after the elections that the media suddenly started openly talking about "wet/ATM" ministries where big money had been made by ministers; DMK was also openly called "Delhi Money for Karunanidhi" and roundly criticised for becoming a family business, conveniently forgetting that the Congress was exactly that in Delhi. Why was everyone quiet for five years while DMK ministers were allegedly looting their ministries openly? Why the noise after the elections? It does not take great imagination to understand that the media brought all the muck into public glare only to embarrass the DMK and pressure it to give up its demands for all these lucrative ministries again! Poor Congressmen couldn't be made to suffer for another five years in "dry" ministries, could they?

Make any amount of money, loot the nation, do anything, but don't do anything that annoys or harms mommy. That is the credo that seems to be guiding the likes of Tejpal. Saving Sonia is more important than saving India. Cut that bullshit of the devil that you want India to see elsewhere, Tejpal; we can see him in you.

Remember how Tehelka did the original sting when the BJP was in power and crowed about its dishonest party President who was filmed receiving Rs 1 lakh in cash? Remember how Defence Minister George Fernandes, an absolutely honest man, was hounded by the Congress for corruption without even a shred of evidence except that some money was paid by Tejpal's flunkies to Jaya Jaitley in his residence? Remember how just before the Assembly elections in Gujarat, Tehelka did another sting on Narendra Modi solely to ensure that the Congress party won? Who can forget the recent Pink Chaddi campaign launched by one of Tejpal's reporters to bring the Congress back on track in Karnataka? I will not be surprised if that sting on Varun Gandhi was also done by Tejpal, to literally force Muslims into the arms of the Congress in UP. As is well known now, that did happen. Of course credit for that has, expectedly, been given to the genius of Rahul Gandhi.

Doing sting operations is a costly and time consuming affair, particularly if they are aimed at getting stunning political rewards for your political masters. Many, many stings have to be done before you get the kind of dramatic result that you are looking for in just one of them. One can only imagine the kind of effort that Tejpal's Tehelka hounds must have put in over the years to bring windfall gains for the Congress party, while pretending to be on a great unbiased and selfless national mission. No prizes for guessing where the huge funding and possibly more could have come from, for long years.

A recent article in the Wall Street Journal has exposed the rampant corruption that is prevalent in India's media. Apparently nothing comes for free. If you want coverage, you have to pay for it. And in the many cases where the media are closely aligned to a particular party, if you have a contrary view, you may not be covered even if you pay. The problem must be really serious if the WSJ sees "reporters, editors and newspaper owners holding the democratic process to ransom." That is why Paul Beckett is compelled to observe that a "corrupt press is both symptom and perpetrator of a rotten democracy".

Tarun Tejpal manifestly represents all that is rotten and stinking in India's media. Unfortunately he is not alone. There are many smug faces you can see out there, some hiding behind beards like him, who appear to be using the same route to riches and power. Recently in a TV discussion about Indian money in Swiss banks, Kapil Sibal, if my memory serves me right, told off a clever TV anchor that there were people even from the media who had parked ill-gotten money there. The problem is clearly far more serious than the glimpse that has been given in the WSJ.

When Shashi Tharoor sucks up to Sonia, everyone knows that like a seasoned bureaucrat, he is using that powerful, even if demeaning, tool to get rehabilitated respectably in India. But when a hardcore journalist like Tejpal crosses every single boundary of self-respect and honesty to do so, you have to question his motive.

Has this lick ass article been written out of gratitude for an overdose of Swiss fragrance received for a job well done or is it another you-pay-I-write job? Whatever it be, there is little doubt that it is a very loud signal that India's media and its democracy are far more rotten than ordinary Indians suspect.
'