Freedom of the Press, if it means anything at all, means the freedom to criticize and oppose.
—George Orwell, in his essay The Prevention of Literature
One of the parameters for determining the health of a democratic government is the freedom accorded by it to the media. Since I headed the current affairs bureau at Outlook magazine (often labelled as anti-establishment) during Vajpayee’s NDA years (1998-2004), I am occasionally asked to compare the situation then vis-à-vis what prevails today under Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Such a comparison is not easy because nothing is black and white. There are points of similarities as well as sharp contrasts in the style of functioning of the two leaders.
Take, for example, the ‘Lakshman Rekha’ - an unspoken, undeclared area, reporting on which invariably leads to persecution of journalists and their media organisation. Vajpayee believed in the Lakshman Rekha. So does Modi. The cardinal difference is that the ethical limit set by the former for dissent was elastic and not as rigid and circumscribed as what is operational under the current regime. Having said that, it would be inaccurate to make a sweeping statement that Vajpayee magnanimously took press criticism lightly even when it came close to him or that he restrained his advisors from taking covert retaliatory action against an ‘errant’ publication.
So, what was it like to report on the government during NDA-1? Was the press free or were there unreasonable constraints? There is no denying that under Vajpayee’s prime ministership, the establishment was far more tolerant - though the fringe was active, it was never co-opted by the mainstream. Of course, this is not to suggest that critics were welcomed with open arms. In the main, they were allowed to survive under the ‘live and let live’ doctrine that Vajpayee loosely followed. But the detractors would have to pay the price by not being included among those favoured by the establishment and would be viewed with suspicion.
Big Brother - then and now
At Outlook, we violated the Lakshman Rekha on a few occasions and came out bruised, and on one occasion, battered. Ironically, many of the so-called anti-establishment stories were possible not only because of the initiative taken by individual reporters, but also because the situation that prevailed was democratic enough to allow journalists to interact with bureaucrats. The latter were not monitored closely by the Intelligence Bureau or tabs kept on who they were meeting. This meant a reasonably healthy interphase between the fourth estate and the bureaucracy which resulted in both the plusses and the downside of government policy coming out in the open.
This is in sharp contrast to the ‘Big Brother is watching you’ atmosphere that prevails today when officials prefer to clam up rather than discuss routine policy matters with journalists in private. They refuse such meetings for fear that a negative report appearing in a newspaper or on a TV channel might be indirectly attributed to them and invite the wrath of the state. Moreover, they fear that journalists may pass on their names as the source. As a result, the negatives of policy remain shrouded in layers of PR and suspect data, which often obfuscates uncomfortable truths till they appear on independent websites.
During the Vajpayee years, it was not just bureaucrats but even ministers met journalists and shared their thoughts in off-the-record interactions. These briefings were not always in praise of the government but were often critical of certain initiatives being taken on behalf of vested interests. Similarly, even BJP Parliamentarians and those belonging to its trusted allies were open to meeting reporters and voicing their concerns. Such meetings are rare today. A minister or a lawmaker violating the code of silence is marked as a rebel and marginalised.
Reportage on what led to Kargil
Outlook published several reports critical of the NDA-1 government. We attacked the Pokhran II nuclear tests, questioned the role of the RSS as an extra-constitutional authority and revealed gaps in the disinvestment, farm and social welfare policies. We also did a series of stories on the Kargil War, which exposed the Army as well as the defence establishment. The two, we reported, had lowered the guard along the Line of Control (LoC), ignoring warnings from the field of a significant enemy build-up.
Outlook’s feedback was the Army top brass had erred in ruling out the possibility of a war. It had apparently brought into the thesis that there would be no conventional engagement since India and Pakistan achieved nuclear parity in 1998. The feeling of complacency further set in after Vajpayee’s Lahore bus ride and the Indo-Pak peace initiative. Kargil happened a few months after these.
For our post-mortem of Operation Vijay, we met officers stationed in the Drass-Kargil sector as well as those in military operations at the Army Headquarters. We were not denied access. The reports that followed did upset and hurt the defence establishment. The Army even summoned the editor and reporters involved to a Court of Enquiry under the Official Secrets Act to Leh in the freezing month of December, but eventually dropped the plan. However, in all this, the PMO did not step in. My editor, Vinod Mehta, had it from his sources that the government had every reason to be upset but it also realised that our reports were factually correct. Official assessments of the Kargil War later revealed that lack of preparedness led to Pakistani intruders taking up positions on the Indian side of the LoC and surprising the Indian Army.
The triad in the PMO
But the investigation that hurt Vajpayee and brought out his vengeful side was a two-part expose on the functioning of the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO). In it, Outlook looked at the trio of Brajesh Mishra, N.K. Singh and Ranjan Bhattacharya who controlled the PMO. Of these, the first was a former diplomat and a close aide of Vajpayee, the second a suave bureaucrat drafted in by Mishra and the last was the foster son-in-law of the Prime Minister who held no official post but allegedly wielded considerable clout.
The three, it was revealed in an interview to Outlook by Expenditure Secretary EAS Sarma just before his retirement, had a role to play in several projects, policies and licences cleared by the PMO, sometimes even bypassing the cabinet. It was alleged that corporates, including the Hindujas and the Reliance Group, benefited from these decisions.
When Rigging the PMO hit the stands on March 5, 2001, it created a flutter. Vinod Mehta was invited to 7 Race Course Road to talk things over. He later recalled that meeting in his book, Lucknow Boy:
“Vajpayee summoned me home for tea. It was an unhappy meeting. N.K. Singh, Vajpayee conceded, could, if necessary, be shown the door. Brajesh and Ranjan were another matter. I had got it all wrong, Vajpayee mildly scolded, those two were pure as snow.”
Vinod returned to office and told me that the “Prime Minister had drawn the Lakshman Rekha but he had also admitted in a roundabout manner that something was wrong in the PMO.” He told me to go ahead with the second part of the expose.
Vajpayee, we learnt, was most upset because Vinod had missed the subtle message sent out during the tea meeting which was: ‘attack the government but don’t attack me or those close to me’. If the rumour mills at that time were to be believed, then my editor would lose his job or Murali or I would have to be sacrificed
My colleague Murali Krishnan and I got down to giving the final touches of the cover story, PM’s Achilles Heel, which hit the stands in the last week of March 2001. It once again looked at the trio that ran the PMO, but additionally focussed on specific deals in which Ranjan Bhattacharya was linked. Vajpayee, we learnt, was most upset because Vinod had missed the subtle message sent out during the tea meeting which was: ‘attack the government but don’t attack me or those close to me’. If the rumour mills at that time were to be believed, then my editor would lose his job or Murali or I would have to be sacrificed.
Indirect punitive action
Outlook had primarily sinned by violating the limits drawn by Vajpayee. As a punishment, the owner of the magazine, Rajan Raheja, was soon targeted by the Income Tax department. His offices were simultaneously raided across 12 cities by 700 officials; for weeks together, Raheja was interrogated from early morning till late at night. The raids were called off only after Vinod wrote to Vajpayee asking him to spare the owner and not take him to task for a story the magazine had published.
No case was ever filed against Outlook for the two-part expose. But a message was sent. The magazine’s spirit was broken. It took months for us to recover. In the interim, there was no one who came to our defence. Very few in the media believed that we had been targeted. The editor was repeatedly told that the raid on the owner could not be seen as a freedom of the press issue. A press conference called by Vinod at the Delhi Press Club was attended by only a handful of reporters. But for a few statements from friendly columnists, the mainstream media, by and large, maintained a stoic silence.
The tepid response was reflective of Vajpayee’s immense popularity. Unlike Modi, he was known for sharing lighter moments with journalists and granting interviews. He also knew how to laugh at himself. All those who met him were impressed by his wit and charm. Perhaps that hid the darker side of him.
When Outlook carried the transcript of an intelligence video of the speech he made to kar sevaks in Lucknow on December 5, 1992 (a day before the Babri Masjid demolition), it did not raise eyebrows. In it, Vajpayee is repeatedly heard alluding to the “levelling” action that was to follow the next morning at Ayodhya, indicating that he knew what was coming. That did not quite dovetail with subsequent statements in which Vajpayee had described the razing of the mosque as an “unfortunate event that should not have happened” almost as if it had surprised him. Yet no one raised any questions.
During his tenure, it was not just Outlook which was targeted. There were few others like Tehelka who dared to cross the line. They too had to pay the price for dissent.