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|March 31, 2001||
The great media comeback
What did Tehelka teach us finally?
One: It taught us that we do not always have to sleep with the corrupt or watch the loot of India by a bunch of crooks in power. If the media plays its true role, the system, rotten as it may be, can be exposed. And once it is exposed, it can be cleansed. By punishing the rascals who take money for every deal struck. But, more importantly, by punishing those who pay them such money. For everyone knows who these corrupt arms dealers in Delhi are but no one acts against them because they are protected by a miasma of power and indestructibility.
All we need to do is take swift, ruthless action against them. The moment we do that, they will start singing like canaries and reveal the names of all those whom they have bribed over the years. That is exactly the information we need. That is what India expects the Vajpayee government to do instead of trying to float silly conspiracy theories through their flunkies.
Two: We have also learnt that the people of India are not foolish. They know exactly who is guilty, who is not. They also know where to draw the line. So, while they are certainly very upset and very angry with the Vajpayee government for its failure to curb corruption, particularly the kind of corruption that compromises the security of the nation, they are at the same time not taken in by Sonia Gandhi's shenanigans. Or the crocodile tears shed by the Congress party which, as we all know, has an unbeatable track record of corruption. Institutionalized corruption. So if you think the Tehelka story will drop the incumbent government, I think you are misled. But it will certainly succeed in cleansing the system to an extent. And that is what we all want. We want the thieves and carpetbaggers out. Not the government.
The third fact we must recognize is that the media still has the power to change things around. The decade of the nineties almost made us forget this. Cowering, castrated editors and cunning, manipulative media owners, between them, compromised what was once a powerful instrument of societal change. As a result, journalism lost its cutting edge and tough, investigative reportage yielded way to the skillful rewriting of what can be best described as PR handouts. So our newspapers and magazines went soft with a vengeance. Entertainment took over from hard news. Models and movie stars became the idols of a soft, vacuous society. Businessmen and stock brokers grabbed the headlines.
However, it was the coming of the dotcom age that institutionalized greed. Our heroes changed and our villains vanished. Ironically, it took a dotcom to break the biggest news story of the decade and that too at a time when dotcoms are dying out! This shows that brave, uncompromising journalism can succeed at any time, on any platform. You do not need money. You do not need reach. A good story finds its own delivery mechanism. That is what Tehelka showed. So much for circulation. So much for television rating points.
The fourth point is even simpler. Perceptions matter most in politics. George Fernandes can keep complaining that he took no money nor was anyone seen offering him a deal of any kind in the Tehelka tapes. Jaya Jaitly can keep arguing till the cows come home that no one took the two lakhs of cash offered by Tehelka, that the minister they claim to have paid money to was not even in Delhi on that day. But who cares? The people of India are convinced that they are both guilty of terrible indiscretion. For them, George or Jaya are no less irresponsible than Bangaru Laxman who was caught on camera tucking away the cash. In fact, that one visual of the BJP President will haunt the party for a long, long time and if they have any sense, they should simply whisk him away from the public eye for a few years. He is their biggest embarrassment. As Rajiv was, in the wake of Bofors.
Five: A swift investigation is a must. People are ready to forgive the Vajpayee government for its indiscretions only and only if they see it taking quick, corrective action. No, they are not interested in silly excuses. They do not want to hear any clever, legalistic defence. They are convinced that corruption exists and, whatever the government may say, some very senior people among the ruling elite are compromised. Any attempt to explain this away will be entirely self-defeating. It will be even worse if the government now tries to find new scapegoats.
The correct, in fact even the politically correct solution lies in a quick investigation. A quick report followed by quick action against those found guilty. That is the only way the prime minister will be able to exorcise the ghost of Tehelka. There are no short cuts. If the BJP-led government wants to demonstrate to the people of India that it is really different from the Congress, it must stop trying to brazen it out. It must catch those who run the sleazy arms rackets in Delhi and track down all their cronies in the government and punish them in an exemplary manner. If they do this swiftly and strongly enough, they will find that this is an excellent opportunity to show the electorate how different they are from earlier governments. This is the only way they can turn this crisis to their advantage. They can show us that they may have stumbled and fallen but they are still capable of getting up and walking straight. And that could make all the difference.
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