Indian media's silence can sometimes be deafening
An important book, investigating shady nexuses, is passed over by the mainstream press
The media in India has been shockingly silent during the past three months about an important political books of recent times: A Feast of Vultures: The Hidden Business of Democracy in India by Josy Joseph, National Security Editor of The Hindu (and previously a journalist with the Times of India and DNA among others. HarperCollins India has published it; the overall credentials are thus impeccable. It is well-written, and investigates the nexus that runs India - a network of middle-men, corrupt bureaucrats and greedy politicians. This nexus is not unknown to the middle-class: even Narendra Modi and his party made this a plank of his campaign to become prime minister, talking about "Lutyens Delhi", the establishment media, the English-speaking elite, etc etc. (Few dare point to the irony of Lutyens Delhi oldest player joining Modi's government as its de facto number two.) The BJP spoke of bringing back to India the nexus's "black money", stashed away in Panamanian tax havens or Swiss banks. When a book that goes deep into this world comes along, it is naturally required reading for our times.
You would think that Joseph's book, being newsworthy and relevant, would be a talking point for newspapers big and small. Such is not the case. Even his own paper has not yet carried anything since the book's publication in July. Perhaps it is not surprising that India's two largest English dailies - the Times of India and the Hindustan Times - shy away from controversy, but one would have expected India's most famous investigative newspaper, the Indian Express, to highlight a book that shares its mission and purpose. But besides a mention in a political gossip column, the Express has carried nothing. Reviews have only appeared in the business press (I reviewed it for Mint) and websites such as scroll.in and thenewsminute.in - none of these have a mass audience. Harish Khare, one of ex-PM Manmohan Singh's spokesmen and now the Tribune's editor, wrote his column on it, but his was the exception rather than the rule. If you peruse social media such as Twitter, you will find many who praise the book.
This neglect is not out of professional jealousy (though those of us familiar with the Indian media know that sordid beast), but because of the corporate-style running of the media, which has to protect the promoters' commercial interests and is therefore susceptible to political pressure.
A Feast of Vultures takes a few case studies and dissects them to show how the wheels of power, controlled by a few for the benefit of a few, work. In this book, the longest section (that incidentally reads like a thriller) deals with the now-defunct East West Airlines, one of the pioneering private airlines in India that was started by Thakiyudeen Wahid, a Mumbai-based entrepreneur originally from Kerala who did a stint in the Gulf. He was murdered. His company was often maligned for being funded by a former Mumbai underworld figure, Dawood Ibrahim, who fled India after the 1993 blasts in India's financial capital. It turns out that Wahid was likely murdered by a rival airline that flourishes even today. This airline's flight has been helped along by earlier governments of all hues. India's intelligence agencies have given Josy documentary proof that it is the rival, and not Wahid, that is having dubious links with the non-resident Mumbai underworld.
Another nexus mentioned by Joseph involves India's telecom scam, one of the prime reasons for middle-class disillusionment with Manmohan Singh that led to his party's rout in the last election. Joseph mentions how a legal luminary had advised the Tatas on the flawed auction process for 2G spectrum. That luminary is now the aforementioned powerful man in "Modi Sarkar".
Naturally, the political class doesn't want this book publicised. The media has obliged. It doesn't have much choice. Take last weekend's incident where NDTV advertised an exclusive interview of P. Chidambaram, the former home minister, on India's recent anti-terrorist "surgical strike" along the Line of Control in Kashmir. The interview was pulled at the last minute. Chidambaram presumably would have pointedly criticised the government's publicising of covert action; this would have had high impact considering he was a key member of Manmohan Singh's Cabinet Committee on Security. (This is underlined by an exposé two days later, by Joseph and Vijaita Singh, of India's covert military action in 2011 that was kept hush-hush, and by implication, apolitical.) NDTV now has egg on its face. It's not surprising that NDTV caved into pressure, given the news that has leaked lately of the tax investigations into its financial dealings. As L.K. Advani once said: when asked to bend, the TV channel crawled.
It is no suprise that a government wants a pliant media. Both of Modi's TV interviews since he became PM have been chummy affairs, devoid of any news value. The media is the watchdog of democracy, and it's the media's job to remain independent of pressure. If it can't, then it has only itself to blame.
Postscript: We have a happy ending, though: Josy Joseph's book is selling well, enough for a reprint.
- The author is a senior journalist based in New Delhi