British India barely turned a hair when a reporter from the Daily Telegraph in London smuggled Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi into the Bengal Club. No member died of apoplexy at this violation of their whites-only sanctum. Nor did any diehard sahib denounce the spectacle of a representative of London’s most starchy high-Tory newspaper hobnobbing with a critic of imperial policy although, admittedly, Gandhi wasn’t half-naked then and not yet seditious either.
It’s not that the British were (or are) more tolerant. Aldous Huxley’s sour description of Gandhi and Mira Behn shows how bitterly such inter-race relationships were resented. But they were pragmatic. They accepted that Ellerthorpe (the British reporter whose first name I couldn’t unearth) was a professional doing his job. This was also the general view of the interviews that a Pakistani journalist, Hamid Mir, obtained with Osama bin Laden in 1997. Also of Kuldip Nayar’s meeting with the Pakistani nuclear scientist, Abdul Qadeer Khan. To the extent that there is such a thing as a scoop (most are carefully planned leaks!), these were scoops. Damning them with bell, book and candle would have blurred the vital difference between journalism and diplomacy.
But our politicians seem to have gone berserk over the meeting between a relatively unknown freelance Hindi journalist, Ved Pratap Vaidik, and Muhammad Hafiz Saeed, who is suspected of being the mastermind behind the 2008 Mumbai bombings. It’s not only the Opposition trying to embarrass the government. Narendra Modi’s colleagues lack his savvy in treating the media with studied disregard. Instead of being content with her categorical rejection of Kamal Nath’s predictable accusation of using Vaidik for “a new track for dialogue with India’s most wanted terrorist”, an outraged Sushma Swaraj has made a huge mountain of a very small molehill by promising an inquiry. Arun Jaitley’s curious oxymoron about the “diplomatic misadventure of a private citizen” makes matters worse. If Vaidik is only a private citizen, and a press reporter to boot, his actions can’t have diplomatic consequences. What seems clear is that neither the government nor the Opposition seems to know what the self-declared “man of ideas”, who compares himself with Rousseau and Karl Marx and claims to have transcended national borders, was up to.
Vaidik could easily have put all controversy to rest with the simple explanation that he interviewed Hafiz Saeed as a reporter, and then followed it up by publishing his account of the meeting. Despite the passions that Hafiz Saeed’s very name arouses in this country, it might have been possible to justify a close and detailed interview on much the same grounds that British readers were interested in Gandhi’s views and, at the other extreme of the human scale, the world wanted to know about bin Laden. Information is never a liability. But no credible news story seems to have emanated so far from the July 2 meeting. It’s as if, adapting Marshall McLuhan, the meeting is the message.
The problem is as much of journalism as of statecraft. Some might even say the confusion extends to the government that took office on May 26. More of that later. Media ambidextrousness long antedates Modi’s prime ministership. The Radia tapes reconfirmed that. Reports of people who have worked as journalists at some time or other and latterly boarded the Modi bandwagon queuing up in the wings for him to dole out plums again highlights this aspect of the media. So far, he hasn’t shown much inclination to reward anyone, but hope springs eternal in media breasts. As I said, this is an old disease that can be traced to the struggle for freedom. A grateful political establishment repaid its debt to journalists with interest after Independence. In fact, Nehruvian India set the precedent for what was derided during the Iraq war as the American invention of the “embedded” journalist.
Notwithstanding some outstanding non-conformists, the partnership continues to flourish. Rewards may no longer be measured in land allocation, subsidized housing or foreign trips. Life has become more expensive and more sophisticated for such obvious largesse. But the late Nikhil Chakravartty’s well-known gibe comparing claims of independence after accepting an official honour with wearing a chastity belt in a brothel isn’t the real drawback with decorations. The bald truth is that a Padma Shri or Padma Bhushan brings no tangible reward in our mercenary society. A Rajya Sabha nomination is much more acceptable. It holds the promise of pecuniary gain; it at once transforms a hack (or huckster) into a public personality, an elder statesman no less, who sees no incongruity in thundering against “paid journalism” while glossing over his own deftness in striking a tacit bargain. Diplomatic appointments can be satisfying in a different way. Apart from the obvious perks, the journalist so singled out can at last spit in the eye, so to speak, of the South Block mandarins before whom he grovelled for years.
But being entrusted with a confidential assignment must be the most prized reward. Many of us are still little boys at heart in thrall always to some variant of cops-and-robbers excitement. Whoever coined the description of journalism as “the first rough draft of history” — and there are several claimants to the title — didn’t take into account the itch among Indian journalists to make history rather than merely write it. To be able to imply with a wink and a nod that one brought back a secret message from an important foreign head of state, or was asked to deliver a crucial document to the leader of a neighbouring country or even deputed to liaise with rebel groups would be for many journalists far more fulfilling than a lifetime of writing well-honed editorials. The pinnacle of pride in the current context is to be able to suggest that one helped to shape the ideas of Someone Who Matters. None of these claims need have the slightest basis in fact (they probably can’t under the present government), but it often seems that writing is the least part of the profession. Salesmanship matters much more.
Track Two negotiation, such as Vaidik’s mission in Pakistan, is often a sort of consolation prize for those who are not more directly engaged. But is there more than meets the eye to the uproar? Did Mani Shankar Aiyar and Salman Khurshid, both also members of the team, wittingly or unwittingly provide a smokescreen for some hush-hush mission? Collusion isn’t unknown. In another land, the amiable David Astor provided journalistic cover to the notorious Kim Philby. Did Pakistani Intelligence hijack the mission? Speculation is inevitable and fuelled by the man himself. While the picture that appeared in all newspapers conveys an impression of cosy dialogue rather than a newspaper interview, his reported comments to Pakistan’s Dawn TV and to some Indian publications sound more opinionated than incisive. Encomiums from Ramdev or Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh functionaries don’t add to his credibility either.
Why then all this fuss? Of course, the government might have information we don’t. But one suspects there is little coherent thinking except in areas Modi has already chalked out as his own. The vision that marked the masterstroke of his invitation to eight regional leaders to attend his inaugural, for instance, is not evident in spheres that are left to his colleagues to manage. A more mature government would have refused to rise to the bait Kamal Nath and Rahul Gandhi dangled and ignored the event. Perhaps such bungling will end once Modi’s colleagues understand what his promise of “development, good governance and stability” entails and the government boasts an identity and an inclusive sense of purpose. These are early days still.