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Could Corporate Exposes Be
The Test For Class Journalists?

By Jawed Naqvi

04 December, 2007

News is what someone wants to hide from you. Everything else is advertising. This axiom has guided many a stalwart journalist for as long as one can remember and India has had a fair share of them. Yet, despite an emerging culture of exposes in the country's media that have brought governments to their knees and even forced the exit of ministers, no matter how grudgingly, there is an area of public life that most journalists seem wary of looking into. That forbidden territory happens to be the corporate citadel.

Those who isolate and target the political class over corruption often do not go all the way through the story to pin the source of the graft to the ubiquitous and all powerful moneybags. On the one hand, the country is growing into a corporate behemoth without, of course, tinkering too much with its deep-rooted poverty. On the other, its ideological boundaries that were shaped largely by the uneven development of capitalism from colonial days are being realigned to suit the new corporate needs. Mukesh Ambani and Rattan Tata who idolise Narendra Modi as their model chief minister on the right wing of the ideological frame are shaking hands with Budhhadev Bhattacharya, the chief minister of the leftist bastion of West Bengal, with equal fervour. Corporate houses are bridging the left-right divide.

And as big businesses widen their stranglehold on not just governance, but on institutions of state, the media often find themselves parroting new definitions thrown up by a new corporate lexicon. Public funding for the poor is popularly called subsidies, while even greater public funding for rich corporate houses is called incentives. Part of the explanation for this obsequiousness is in the fact that almost all the advertising in the English media comes from big business houses. "We know which side our bread is buttered," wrote Vinod Mehta, editor of Outlook magazine. He is perhaps the only Indian editor I know who has publicly advocated exposes on corporate houses.

The other reason for journalists to keep away from probing the
questionable methods of the corporate world lies in the reality of
"legal terror", the threat to sue for libel that big businesses use as
heavy armour to bulldoze the rare rebel into submission. There are other underhand methods too that come handy to ward off nosey-parkers. Two books, for example, just disappeared from the market because they probed influential business houses. The first to thus vanish was Mystery of Birla House by intrepid Bengali writer publisher Debjyoti Burman. The book about one of India's most politically influential families of businessmen is said to have been sold to the Birlas, a deal which eventually included its copyright too. A single cover somehow survived and is now preserved in Delhi's Nehru Memorial Library in its "Rare Books" section. This happened in 1953, six years into Independence.

Then it was much later, in 1998 to be precise, that Allen & Unwin
published Hamish McDonald's account of the rise of Dhirubhai Ambani, The Polyester Prince. That book also disappeared first from the Indian markets and the rest of the world subsequently. A couple of years ago it was available as a second hand copy on for $500, but on the last check last week, even that offer had been withdrawn. The book mostly circulates now as photocopy among the few academics and NGOs that are interested in knowing the Ambani link with the Congress party, the BJP and India's other political influence peddlers. Some of the names mentioned in it are prominent members of Prime Minister
Manmohan Singh's cabinet. According to Prashant Bhushan, a Supreme Court lawyer who has been crusading against the influence of big businesses in judiciary and other organs of the state, The Polyester Prince was proscribed by some court that no one really knows much about. That the book is no longer available even as second copy on the web speaks volumes for the clout India's largest business house commands not only at home but also abroad.

It was under these adverse circumstances that lawyer and financial activist Arun K. Agrawal last week came out with a detailed and a potentially brave expose in which he has sought to throw light on the complicity of India's ruling elite – from the left to the right of parties in parliament – in a cover-up, which pertains to the naming of Ambani's Reliance unit as a greater beneficiary in the Iraqi oil for food scam than a minister who was sacrificed. The scandal took its toll in India as nowhere else, forcing the resignation of Kunwar Natwar Singh as India's foreign minister.

"Corruption is easily buried in India," says Agrawal, introducing his book Reliance: The Real Natwar. "Files vanish, honest officers are transferred, some nominal fining takes place and criminal offences are compounded." In the case of the oil for food scam in India, says Agrawal, every speaker who either sought to help or frame Natwar Singh hijacked the entire debate in parliament. But every speaker also scrupulously avoided mentioning the fact that the same table in the Volcker report that showed Singh as a bribe-payer also named Reliance as culpable for the same charges. One of these speakers was Finance
Minister P. Chidambaram.

Agrawal quotes extensively from both the Volcker report and the
parliament debate to make his point. He quotes Chidambaram as conceding to parliament: "There are other contractual beneficiaries with an India-connection. But this Motion is on Indian entities and individuals allegedly involved as non contractual beneficiaries." So Chidambaram did admit there were other non-contractual beneficiaries. "There is therefore knowledge of the resolution and the existence of a third party," says Agrawal. "And yet, he does not name Reliance as a non contractual beneficiary." And for a good reason! By his clever use of words, says Agrawal, Chidambaram avoided stating that a private company did pay surcharge (bribe to the Iraqis), and thereby protected Reliance.

There were about 10 TV cameras and scores of scribes who covered Agrawal's press conference at the book release. The key speaker was Communist Party of India's general secretary A.B. Bardhan. Needless to say that most of the cameras did not generate a story, nor did the number of journalists present at the book launch go on to narrate at least their own version of the event. The book is of course not just about the names named but as Agrawal says: "It is about the loot of the oil wealth – more precious than gold – of the country and about all the other kinds of loot tainted questions over which the name of Reliance seems to mysteriously loom."

Agrawal's final word is addressed as much to Indian journalists as it is to the political class. "The book has been written in the hope that those in power and the media will be at least a little embarrassed and will not let facts of extremely ugly bribery tiptoe past them so very easily in the future. After all, there's no harm in hoping."

The author's case has been shored by a crisp foreword written by
former law minister Shanti Bhushan. He says: "The enormous influence of Reliance over all political parties and the media, acquired by using its financial clout, poses a great danger to Indian democracy. Only a strong and vigilant public opinion can save our precious democracy." The Indian media have a credibility test to clear.

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