September 28, 2005

The Indian Prince (Raul Gandhi) and the Paper (TEHELKA)
The Pioneer, Sept 29, 2005

Jaya Jaitly

Through the now famous 'formal interview' that was not, and the events and statements that followed, the crown prince of the party that leads the ruling coalition and the weekly paper in question have done a tremendous service to India and the world. What has been revealed to the public is more valuable than what could have been produced by any investigation, expose, hidden camera or deep throat. Faith is reaffirmed in the belief that truth does not need the Right to Information Act to be brought out, and only those who wish to hide from it themselves will attempt to bury it in the name of political expediency.

The musings, casual, informal exchange, boys room chat, formal interview, whatever, that happened between Rahul Gandhi, son of Congress president Sonia Gandhi, first time member of Parliament, and (extra)ordinary member of the Congress party, was presented by a weekly news paper that thrives on sensation (the Hindi word for this is Tehelka) rather than truth. It was pitched on the front page as the "first major interview" in which Rahul Gandhi explodes myths and unravels himself to a person described as a senior writer.

This gentleman does not merely do an article based on a casual conversation with the crown prince of the Congress party but first writes an article that reads like a commissioned job to the party's favourite paper. After describing with dewy-eyed sentimentality the aspirations and interactions of the people of Amethi with their MP, the writer ends in a way that leaves no reader in doubt as to the intentions of the entire exercise.

After describing the discomfort when royalty mingles with common people and how greatness was being moulded, the author concludes, "Greatness travels where comfort doesn't. Bringing in its wake depth, churning, awareness, and then, perhaps, progress. It happened with the Mahatma, as he trod on broken, bumpy terrain in the heart of India. It happened with the Buddha as he sat for over thirty years under a tree, his mind stepping on the pebbles of human behaviour. It happened with Ashoka as he counted the mutilated corpses of his biggest victory. The university of life could make it happen for Rahul as well". This is crass journalism at its best - venturing to relate Rahul's activities to the history of Mahatma Gandhi , Gautam Buddha and Emperor Ashoka all in one adulatory breath.

However, the story does not end here. A flip of the page brings the reader face to face with the person "who doesn't like talking to the media but invited Vijay Simha for what became an hour-long interview, his first major one. Here is what he said: Several television crews were lined up outside the Munshiganj guest house in Amethi where the interview was granted. There were about 20 security personnel inside the gates... they had dozed off by the time the interview was over" (italics mine). What follows is clearly a Q & A session, and not a cut and paste job from a casual exchange. Example:

Q: How do you work in Amethi?

A: Ah. Now that's a question I like...

The format and syntax indicate that the conversation must have been recorded. After all, where is Tehelka without tapes and recorders?

The country has a right to know whether the printed words reflect the conversation accurately. Congress's accusations that the conversation had been presented out of context, misrepresented or misinterpreted, can be quickly be put to test by offering the public a transcript of the recordings. This would clarify the 'errors, if any" that the paper refers to in its apology.

Surely, the Congress party knew that "errors" of misrepresenting casual conversations, claiming interviews when none were given, putting words into people's mouths that were not spoken, and changing contexts to suit their story are in fact Tehelka's well-known old habits? The Congress could challenge the paper to produce the recordings or the diary notes of the author to prove its point.

Words in any interview format are expected to be treated by the reader as direct quotes of the person. In this case, someone who says he could easily have been Prime Minister at the age of 25 if he wished and would be CWC member soon enough. He is quoted as saying there was no functioning government and a total collapse of the administrative system in Bihar on the eve of elections. What is the reader being asked to believe and what to discount?

The prince talks of his own humility and reveals it to the reader thus: "I use my influence, I know that my voice counts... That is the way I work. That is meaningful work... If somebody wants to come to me to say that I have failed, well fine... I am not failing. I am succeeding. If there is anything being done anywhere in Uttar Pradesh, it is in Amethi. In fact no other MP in the country is doing as much as I am... I will not do politics like some others do... I can't tell senior ministers and senior party leaders not to do something. That will be awkward. That will happen if I am pushed into it... I am not like the other politicians... Just look around at the questions that are asked in Parliament... I mean look at them, s****, is that the kind of stuff you want me to ask? ... But surely you remember my question on sugar cane farmers. You remember because I asked it... I am not like other politicians... I take pains and learn about issues..." A remarkable demonstration of humility indeed, thanks to the paper and the prince.

If a blanket is thrown over all these statements the public would be right to conclude that the prince bungled by revealing many truths about himself, then the paper lied or "erred" by selling these as a sensational scoop, after which the prince who had claimed to be different, hid behind party spokespersons, not appearing himself, and the paper's initial defence and subsequent apology destroyed its ill-founded claim to integrity and independence.

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