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Does Anything Matter?

By Tarun Tejpal

10 November, 2007

The last time we broke a story that rumbled the jungle that is Delhi’s power elite, we were condemned to a three-year walk over burning coals. The story, peration West End, an exposé of the rampant corruption in arms procurements, was first aired in March 2001, and almost immediately two things happened. The first was a groundswell of public applause and affection that did not abate for a long time. The second, fairly predictable — though not in its ferocity and longevity — was an immoral and unconstitutional assault on our work and lives. That too did not abate for a long time — not till the state’s entire ammunition was spent, and there was nothing more to throw at us.

At the time, six years ago, we were, in succession, accused of being Congress stooges, agents of Dawood Ibrahim, on the payroll of the Hindujas, connected to the ISI of Pakistan, responsible for crashing the stock market, and in possession of hundreds of crores in payoffs. The estimates varied from twenty to two hundred. Narendra Modi — yes the same one — was at the time I think a general secretary in the BJP, and I will never forget a television interview in which both of us were doing phone-ins and he was spewing lies with the stentorian voice of a Supreme Court judge. A day later he was to issue printed pamphlets with ten facts about me. The first and most crucial was that I was the son of a contractor who was a close aide of veteran Congress leader Arjun Singh from Madhya Pradesh.

Delhi’s perennially skewed elite — a relic of the Mughal durbar, pathologically fixated on its positioning on the social and power chessboard — relished every floating accusation and relayed it with embellishments. Even friends and acquaintances whispered. They had never seen anyone do anything but for a sweet personal reason. It was fair to assume that, similarly, we had many or at least one. Now that the state was hunting us with all its hounds it was only a matter of time before the truth was out. Having said that — a great job still, much needed, and most courageous!

As it were I had never met any of the Hindujas.

As it were I had never bought or sold a single share on the stock market.

As it were I’d never had anything to do with the Congress, never having been a political reporter in my career. (For record’s sake let it be said TEHELKA must be the only company in India which has three CBI cases — all trumped up and lodged during the time of the NDA government — still going on against it, three years after the UPA came to power. We routinely go to court to seek bail on them.)

As it were we were not in possession of a single illicit rupee, else the hounds of the state that were panting after us around the clock would have locked us up and thrown away the keys. At the time there were just four of us left, down from 120, officed in a small borrowed room in the village behind South Extension. The money we borrowed then, running into tens of lakhs, to wage our legal and public battle, much of it from luminous Indian names, is still being repayed.

And of course, as it were — despite our exposé on cricket matchfixing, which badly hurt the underworld — none of us had ever met Dawood Ibrahim or any of the star-struck bhais.
Illustration: Anand Naorem

More absurdly still, leave alone my father I too had never met Arjun Singh at the time. Not to add that my father far from being a contractor had spent his life in the Indian army, wearing olive, and fighting in the two Indo-Pak wars of 1965 and 1971. Yet Modi had thought nothing of throwing a blatant untruth into the public space, amid all the others listed above that were being flung about. And the media — more giddy than the Sensex — had refused to clarify and rebut.

And unrebutted and unclarified lies — like an unpoliced Sensex — have the ability to swell to dangerous proportions, deforming reality and ushering in chaos. The core fascist axiom is a cliché: the whisper campaign of lies that soon becomes the truth or at least drowns it out. We saw that in 1984 as the Sikhs were put to the sword, and we saw it in 2002 as Gujarat was set to burn with a mishmash of false information and ill-intent. Mostly the media relayed unchecked versions, but sometimes it unearthed the truth. But truth by then had ceased to be a factor. The strategy of those exposed was to ratchet up the public noise till everything was drowned — good, bad, true, false. With our present exposé it has been: but why have you left out Godhra? Whereas the truth is we haven’t. In fact 30 pages of our issue were devoted only to the Godhra investigation!

Noise as strategy when faced with serious charges may be smart if deplorable political tactics, but what is mystifying is the Indian elite’s penchant for the conspiracy theory. It smacks of a self-serving culture where the greater good is seen as no motive at all. Over the years I have had the bizarre and nauseating experience of the well-heeled casting aspersions on the financial integrity of fantastic public warriors like Medha Patkar and Arundhati Roy. To differ in thought is one thing, but to automatically assume corruption of those who take up public causes says grim things about the kind of people we are. Some of this deformity may have to do with our colonial past: the desperate urge to please the white master engendering corrosive emotions of envy, cunning, plotting, backbiting and betrayal.

This time — with our investigation into the Gujarat pogrom of 2002 — the conspiracy-seekers scaled new heights. While the BJP attacked us for working for the Congress, the Congress spread the word that we were working for the BJP! Clearly we were doing something right. In all this the battle for the idea of India was left to Laloo Yadav, Mayawati and the Left. The Congress one presumes knows the phrase — since its forebears literally coined it — but they can’t anymore seem to remember what it means.

It’s extraordinary that more than a week after the Gujarat massacre exposé, the prime minister and the home minister had not made a single statement. For the first time in the history of journalism, mass murderers were on camera telling us how they killed, why they killed, and with whose permission they did it. Nor were these just petty criminals; these were fanatics, ideologically driven, working the most dangerous faultline of the subcontinent, revealing the truth of a perilous rupture fully capable of tearing this country apart. But that was clearly not enough for the good man of Race Course Road. Had the CII burped loudly, the PMO would have issued a clarification. Had they then organised a seminar on the untimely burp, the prime minister would have addressed it.

It may be unfair to pillory the prime minister, a man given responsibility without power, the honest man sitting atop a dishonest hillock. Let us then look at the grand strategists of the Congress who cannot win an election themselves but know the secret of winning elections for the many. On their perverse abacus, exposing Modi’s hand in bestial murders and rapes was designed to convince the Gujarati Hindu that this is precisely the kind of leadership it wanted! It never struck them that they could use the evidence of violence to shape a stirring dialogue against it.

THE FACT is the Congress is today run by petty strategists who no longer know what it is to do the right thing. They possess neither the illuminations of history, nor a vision for the future. They fail to see that once great men sutured a hundred fault-lines — of caste, religion, race, language, class — to create the idea of India out of a diverse, colonised, feudal subcontinent. Foolishly they preside over the reopening of these fault-lines, unable to see the chaos that will ensue. They do not know how to wield morality as a weapon in politics, and they lack the courage to walk any high road. At best they are vote accountants who waver between the profit and the loss of various elections.

The present Congress brings grief to the liberal, secular, democratic Indian who needs a political umbrella under which to wage the civilisational battle for India’s soul. By not saying the right thing, by not doing the right thing, it weakens the resolve of the decent Indian, who lacks the stomach for conflict and seeks affirmation of his decency. The vacated space is then colonised by poisonous ideologies based on exclusion and a garbled — pseudo-religious, pseudo-historic — hunt for identity.

And all this is happening while the elite Indian behaves like the elite American during the gilded age, the 1920s — glitz, glam, champagne times — even as the ground shifts beneath its feet. The latest statistics show the numbers living in abject poverty are actually growing in five major states. In 30 percent of India’s districts Naxalite insurrections, rising from crushing poverty, are on the upswing. Can Manhattan and sub-Saharan Africa exist in the same space endlessly without some resulting cataclysm? The fact is India needs not just economic tinkering but great political vision. And there are no signs of it. The apathy of Gujarat tells us that the most complex country in the world faces its most complex challenges ever.


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