Politics, the business of news, and the Radia tapes

In his memoir, Vir Sanghvi describes a world of politicians and celebrities only he could access. Just how did he do it? How does he see India now? And the future?

Founding Fuel

In this no-holds-barred chat on Clubhouse with Founding Fuel, writer, editor, television personality and food writer Vir Sanghvi, talks about the media narrative and the India story as he has seen it and which he has explored in his new book, A Rude Life. 

Highlights from the conversation 

On writing

“The trick is to not see it as a book, but a collection of chapters. Then it is less intimidating.” [He wrote the book in three months.] “I was stuck at home in the pandemic and I said I’d write one chapter a day—that’s about 2,000 words. My column used to be 1,800 words.” 

“The Oxford [where he studied] system teaches you to order your ideas—get to the kernel of an issue… The tutor would ask you to write an essay on a subject. [He would then] make you challenge every assumption and then defend it.”    

“Writing well is not about good English, but how well you organise your thoughts.” 

The shadow of propaganda 

“[The Imprint] was set up by the CIA to carry excerpts of American bestsellers. During the Cold War era they feared Russian propaganda and folktales would sway Indians. 

“I had to be persuaded, when I discovered this, that people I worked for were still not with the CIA. We did a lot of digging… Fortunately I didn’t work for the CIA, even covertly… 

“Initially when I heard it was founded by the CIA, I went white as a sheet… I was just 26. Had I been older I would have been as shocked. The point is that there are many mysteries in the world and you don’t understand them till you dig deep. The world is a much more complicated place than we realise when we are young.”

The coming of age of Indian magazines, with Aroon Purie leading the pack

[A cover story about Shyam Benegal in India Today had this title on the magazine’s cover: Is Shyam a Sham? That wasn’t what the story was about but the magazine sold out.]

“That was ‘clickbait’. We think that clickbait is something the millennials invented with the internet. The cover of a magazine is not just a representation of the contents of the magazine, it is also a marketing tool… 

India Today was modelled on Time and NewsWeek. In the 70s Time was a really big deal in America. But 80-90% of Time sales in the US was through subscriptions. Therefore it could afford to be very responsible about what it put on the cover. 

“Not true in India. [Magazines] depended solely on newsstand sales, so there was incentive to do these clickbait type covers. In contrast newspapers worked on a subscription model. So, newspapers were more responsible.” 

Influencers, then and now

“We use the term influencer in the context of social media. But are they actually influencing things? When you see these headlines that seem like clickbait and see the story is nonsense, are you going to be influenced by them?

“Things that do influence are less sensational, less clickbait-y, things that are more substantial.

“How do you get people influenced? Unfortunately, in our times, we’ve found that the best way to do this is to make up stories. Which is why so much of the information on social media is lies. Usually not to get views, but to serve some agenda.

“On social media, a narrative of victimhood and hatred does well. To be successful on social media, particularly if you have a political agenda, is to say to somebody, oh you are so badly off. You see that pretty much every day in Indian politics. [Referring to Yogi Adityanath’s statement a few days ago that earlier, ration for poor went to those who said ‘abba jaan’] Hindus were the victims… and Muslims were the bad guys who took away their rations… Nobody calls out this bullshit. 

“Mainstream media, for all its faults, has a whetting process, an editing process. Yogi Adityanath’s statement, most newspapers pointed out, was not accurate. But social media treated it as Gospel truth.

“The danger of social media doesn’t come from clickbait, but from lies, hatred and bogus victims.”

The future of media business in India

“What worries me is that most countries have been able to transition from traditional media to digital media quite easily. Take The New York Times. It is no longer the failing New York Times. They declared a huge profit and they did it on the basis of their website… 

“The problem in India is that newspapers were given away or sold very cheap. The idea was to get huge circulation, and then go to advertisers. So, the model changed to serving the advertiser rather than the readers… Indians came to believe that news is free… [Indians don’t seem willing to] pay for a digital subscription to a newspaper… How will you make money, creating news, finding out news, editing news, for people who are used to not paying for news?  

“Newspapers are in decline. Television channels have a hand-to-mouth existence. What will take the place of this uneconomical model now? Will it be free media which is digital? Then it will be media that is run to serve political purposes. People will get their news from dodgy WhatsApp forwards…

“What I spoke about—the advertiser becoming king—is essentially a Times of India creation during Samir Jain’s time… He had The Economic Times and The Times of India as ‘undervalued brands’ and he extracted value from them. He was also helped by the 1991 reforms, which made everything available in India, and created a new class of Indians [who] weren’t just readers, they were consumers. And The Times of India understood that before anybody else… 

“But it’s a strategy that has run its course. Advertisers are moving away from print.”  

Politics and politicians—Sanjay Gandhi, Narendra Modi & LK Advani 

[On whether politics has become more brutal since the time he started writing on it] “Politics just repeats itself. If you look at the criticisms of Sanjay Gandhi, they were as follows—that he was dictatorial, his world view didn’t include Muslims, he was dismissive of underlings, he was vindictive. This was pretty much what critics say about Narendra Modi. Life goes on. The names change but the traits remain the same.”

“It’s difficult to predict what a politician will do in the right circumstances. Many of us in Delhi when Narendra Modi was general secretary of the BJP—he’d come from the RSS, we knew him. He was a happy person, who’d laugh with people, and was approachable… You contrast that with the forbidding personality he now has.”

“LK Advani was a sidekick to Atal Bihari Vajpayee. He would write Vajpayee’s speeches and worshiped the ground he walked on. And yet during the Rajiv Gandhi period when Vajpayee lost his own seat to Madhavrao Scindia and was out in the cold, Advani saw the opportunity and grabbed it. He saw there was a vacuum at the top in the BJP…. He created this narrative of Hindu victimhood which continues to this day. You have to have a certain genius for making 85% of the population who have all the best jobs and who control almost everything in the economy feel that they are hard done by. Advani managed to do this by using the Babri Masjid as a symbol of injustice to Hindus. And he is not unusual in this. Most politicians are opportunists…   

“[That Advani cried after the Babri Masjid was demolished.] First of all, Advani cries at everything… What was more interesting was the reason why he cried. According to Pramod Mahajan, he led Advani away from the elevated platform where they were all sitting during the Ayodhya demolition and took him to the guest house where he was staying. And throughout Advani cried. He kept saying, ‘they have destroyed my movement, how will I evoke the Babri Masjid now that there is no Babri Masjid?’”

The Hindu backlash and the Babri Masjid 

“At that time, no namaz had been said there for decades. It was a disused structure. Advani claimed, without evidence or logic, that this mosque had been built on the birthplace of Ram by Muslim invaders—which is not true because we don’t know what the birthplace of Ram was. Advani managed to sell it quite successfully to Hindus. Advani then said that in Pakistan, mosques are moved all the time, say, to facilitate building a road. And the technology exists to move it brick by brick. So why don’t the Muslims agree to shift it 200-300 metres away? And if they don’t want to shift the existing mosque but want to build a grand mosque, then Advani said he will help them build. Because this is the holiest spot for Hindus, for Muslims it means nothing.

“Framed that way, it’s not an unreasonable demand. Had the Muslim community said yes, we will do this as a symbol of our sacrifice for our Hindu brethren, but we will not let you do this in Somnath or Mathura, they would have nipped all this Hindu anger in the bud. But the body that represented Muslims was so stuck in its views that it refused to yield an inch…. My view was that this was not a one off. A Hindu backlash was building up since 1984 or even earlier—Rajiv Gandhi had been elected on the basis of that Hindu wave, and Advani was hijacking that wave. To pretend that this was a stunt and nothing would happen was a mistake. Because if you did not stop the wave early enough, it would lead to a situation where the BJP would become India’s principal party. Nobody agreed with me then, but I rest my case.”  

Working with the opposition behind the scenes 

“It happened with the Manmohan Singh government for the India-US nuclear deal and it was opposed by the BJP. He reached out to many people within the BJP who saw his point and moderated their opposition. The deal was only objected to by the Left. 

“Especially on matters of foreign policy, India has always functioned on the basis of political consensus. Because one prime minister will be replaced by another, but Russia or America will not be replaced. Nations don’t have permanent friends or enemies or prime ministers. They only have permanent interests. And those interests have to be the interest of India and not of a particular government.

“Until this government was elected that was pretty much the way things went on. Modi, every opposition leader will tell you, consults the opposition only as a matter of form. Hardly anyone’s opinion is asked for. Every opposition leader would have told him he shouldn’t have gone and effectively campaigned for Donald Trump. They would have told him that you keep a certain distance from political leaders in other countries. You represent India and they represent their country. They are not your pals.

“From Modi’s perspective the India in which the government and the opposition sat together and planned things in backrooms, was a bad India, ruled by elites.”

The publisher - editor relationship

[The editor of Outlook was asked to go by the publisher. How would he contrast the time when he joined the profession with now?]

“It also has to do with the relationship between the media and the government. Nobody in the government would put pressure on the proprietor to sack the editor. Now that happens much more often.

“Proprietors in those days saw themselves as being in partnership with editors. People who started newspapers didn’t start them to make money. They had some social purpose in mind. The editor was not just an employee but somebody they encrusted with a slightly more noble job than running a factory...

“Aveek Sarkar [ABP Group], I remember once asking about the many editors who’d run riot. And he said, a journalist is different from an ordinary employee. An editor can call the prime minister, the home minister...he is used to a certain level of access. It doesn’t work then if he comes into the office and is treated as a lowly employee.

“Now editors don’t have that kind of access to the prime minister etc. because this government doesn’t particularly like journalists, except for the tame ones. And proprietors don’t like the idea that editors have access to top politicians. They believe they should have that access themselves. Also, there is a sense now with proprietors that at the end of the day, I am the owner.”

Access journalism and accountability journalism

“All journalism is access journalism. If you don’t have access—not just to top politicians, but to sources on the ground, to people who are involved in the story—you don’t have a story. 

“Accountability journalism is also a misplaced term. Because if the government screws up, everybody writes about it. There is no need to give it a grandiose term… Journalists have to meet people at all levels. Journalists have to hold the government to account….

“On Modi not giving access, yes you are right. But I want to make the point that he is not alone in this. How many interviews has Rahul Gandhi given? How many journalists does Rahul Gandhi meet on an informal basis? Does Priyanka Gandhi meet? How many people in the media has Sonia Gandhi met in the last two-three years? How many interviews has Mamata Banerjee given?

“We now live in an age where politicians have decided the only journalists they will meet are tame journalists.”   

Mumbai vs Delhi vs Kolkata

“I am not terribly objective about my home city [Mumbai], but looking at it now, I find Mumbai of all the three the most superficial. People really don’t understand what’s going on. The only thing people in Mumbai understand is maybe business to some extent and films….  

“I like Kolkata because it is so divorced from the rest of India… It’s always been a ‘Republic of Bengal’ and now under Mamata Banerjee it is much more so… It is also equidistant from Delhi and Mumbai. It’s a good place to see both cities in perspective.

“Delhi is a bit obsessed with power and politics. But that’s changed over the last 15-20 years… Delhi has grown, there’s much more money in Delhi now, and people do different things… It is also one of the loveliest cities in India despite the pollution. 

“Delhi I think has the best quality of life. Mumbai has over the years become more and more slummy. Kolkata still offers middle class people like ourselves probably the best quality of life in terms of money—it’s not so difficult to live well in Kolkata.”

PV Narasimha Rao, a small-time manipulator or the voice of reform?

“The reforms would not have happened without Narasimha Rao… 

“People are often put into situations and rise to the occasion. He’s a classic example of that. He had never before shown any interest in economics or in reforms. But he rose to the occasion in those two years. After which he lost interest in reforms and there were no more reforms. You have to judge him on his entire career and not on just those two years.”

On journalists getting typecast as anti- or pro- something

“Politicians have at their disposal squadrons of social media people….  Journalists end up being trolled and abused on social media. And it is not real criticism. It is being done to demoralise you or discredit you.”

The Radia tapes

“Copies of these tapes—audio files along with transcripts of about 50 of those conversations—and there were several thousand of those conversations—were delivered to various newspaper offices. 

“Initially media houses treated it with a certain amount of caution. Nobody knew whether these tapes were accurate, where they’d come from… but what then happened was a huge surge in social media. Twitter was relatively new and relatively gentle then… and there was abuse directed at me day in and day out, and at Barkha Dutt and other people, mainly journalists—nobody attacked the politicians [who were on those tapes]...

“As the social media campaign went on, newspapers—accused on Twitter of keeping a conspiracy of silence going—started covering the story. This was an innocent error. None of us had heard of the IT cell, bots or troll farms. We believed these were real people. I went back two-three years later trying to trace many of those accounts—many had disappeared; some of them had five followers… 

“It was clearly an operation engineered by some people to draw attention to these tapes. And in the case of both Barkha and myself, to question our liberal credentials and to paint us as being tools of the government. In fact, one of the charges—which was not even on the tape—was that we had offered cabinet berths to people…

“What hurt me more was that Vinod Mehta [founder editor-in-chief of Outlook], who’d been a close friend of mine from the Mumbai days, ran the tapes… He wrote on the cover ‘the 2G tapes’… I had never met Raja [A Raja, the then telecom minister] in my life; I didn’t cover telecom, and the 2G scam had taken place long before these tapes had been recorded. 

“I told Vinod these tapes are doctored and he said ‘I’ve never said they are genuine; I had said we cannot vouch for the authenticity of these tapes.’ 

“I said, you are going to run this allegation against me, say I am part of the 2G scam on the cover, don’t you think you have a responsibility to ask me for my response—a basic rule of journalism?… 

“What it boiled down to was that Outlook’s circulation was on the skids...they needed a scoop… he’d sat on the tapes for a while, he said. As the story started going public, his staff started telling him you’ve let the story go because your friends are on it. He felt under massive pressure to carry the tapes. 

“After that, the CBI told the Supreme Court that the tapes had been doctored. I had them tested in a lab in the US and the UK.

“I went back to him saying it’s now quite clear the tapes were doctored… but he refused to retract the story.  

“Then Venu [MK Venu, then Opinion Editor, The Economic Times] sued them and they ran a little story on the letters page saying they regretted what they’d said about Venu…

“The management of Outlook point blank refused to admit there was any doubt about the tapes… I had to go to court… Ultimately, they did run a correction. But it irritated me that it was so hard to get justice or even get the truth on record.”

On UPA 2’s demise, and Arvind Kejriwal and RSS’s role

“The Congress view was that the whole thing [the 2011 anti-corruption movement] was an RSS operation and Kejriwal was a frontman. I’ve never bought this… I believe he was looking for an opportunity to rise to prominence. He decided on this India Against Corruption movement. He approached other people to be the face because he was unknown then. Finally Anna Hazare jumped on the bandwagon [to be the face of the movement]… the RSS saw the potential for damaging the UPA… many RSS type people hung around… This is not to say that Kejriwal was a puppet of the RSS. Only that RSS [beefed up the mass support]… The UPA mishandled the whole thing. And the image, assisted by the then Comptroller and Auditor General Vinod Rai that the UPA was a government of scams, was imprinted in people’s minds. The RSS’s role there was not in creating Kejriwal, but in keeping the movement going.”     

Pakistan, its army, and Kashmir

“Until recently, Pakistan had no real reason to exist, especially after Bangladesh went away. You had to ask yourself if you were a Pakistani, why did we need a separate country? Islam was not enough to unite the two of us… The answer has been provided to the Pakistani people consistently by the army in the hope of maintaining its preeminent position in Pakistani society—which is that India cannot bear the idea of Pakistan existing and that we live under the threat of invasion or being swallowed up by India.

“This argument has allowed the Pakistani army to grab a huge share of Pakistan’s resources… 

“The Pakistani army has therefore no real interest in making peace with India…The policy of the Pakistan state is to make trouble for India”

Does Rahul Gandhi have a political future left?

“I don’t know Rahul Gandhi well, though I’ve always liked him when I’ve met him. I have been struck not only by his decency but also the fact that he is incredibly well read. He is very well informed and has a good idea of what happens in the world outside. Where he is lacking is that he does not appear to have the political instincts of his mother… He makes the wrong decisions, without rationale.”

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