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Medium Term: The media and the Chidambaram-Pranab war

Viewers of TV news channels will have noticed a slightly surreal political drama unfolding on their screens

over the last week.      This drama had three elements. The first was the element that was immediately comprehensible to all of us.

An RTI application had turned up a note from the finance ministry to the PMO about the sequence of events in the 2G scam. According to the note, the finance minister could have prevented the scam (in which telecom minister, A Raja, arbitrarily awarded licenses) by insisting on an auction.

 

  The note was signed by a middle-level official of the finance ministry but it noted “the finance minister has seen this note”. To make sense of all this, you needed to notice the timing. The note was written after the 2G scam had been exposed and the finance minister who had seen it was Pranab Mukherjee. But the finance minister who, according to the note, could have prevented the scam, was his predecessor, P. Chidambaram, the current home minister.

 

   If you look only at the facts, the note confirmed what we already knew. Because 2G spectrum had not been auctioned (as 3G later was) not only did the government lose out on license fees (as the CAG has famously calculated) but it also failed to impose a mechanism which would have made it difficult for Raja to favour his cronies and buddies. In its defence, the government could say that the decision not to auction spectrum led to lower prices and that consumers benefitted. It could also say that the problem was not that 2G spectrum wasn’t auctioned but that Raja twisted and manipulated the first come-first served process for his own corrupt ends.

 

   All this is no more than vaguely interesting and mildly significant. But the unearthing of the note was enough to set off two separate storms.

 

   According to the BJP and various other politicians, the note was proof that P Chidambaram was a co-conspirator in the 2G scam. Yashwant Sinha even went on television to declare that the proper place for Chidambaram was in the same cell in Tihar Jail as Raja. And Anna Hazare added his two bits. If there was a Lok Pal, he declared, Chidambaram would be in jail.

 

   For anybody who had followed the 2G controversy, these reactions were hysterical and overblown. There are two separate aspects to 2G. The first is the decision not to hold an auction which may or may not have been wrong but was certainly not a criminal act. And the second was the way in which A Raja abused the system, arbitrarily changing dates, setting impossible conditions for all but his favoured bidders, etc.

 

   To their credit, the TV channels pointed this out. Anchor after anchor made the same point. Even if Chidambaram had erred (and this was by no means clear), there was still no criminal culpability. By putting him in the same category as Raja, the Opposition was deliberately muddying the waters and misleading the public.

 

   But there was a third, more surreal, element to this drama. While the media made valid points about Chidambaram’s limited culpability, they treated the existence of the note as proof of civil war within the Cabinet. Pranab Mukherjee hated P. Chidambaram, they said. Chidambaram was so angry about Pranab’s note that he had threatened to resign. Pranab, in turn, had told Manmohan Singh that he was not backing down. And so on.

 

"The first is that the government may be in even more trouble than we recognise. Its two most powerful ministers are briefing against each other."

   Ordinary viewers, who went only by the available evidence, had a right to be astonished by this interpretation. Certainly, the note suggested that Chidambaram may have made a misjudgement. But the note was not signed by Pranab. Nor did it accuse Chidambaram of anything more than – if you stretch the point – a possible error of judgement.

 

   So, where was the civil war? Why were the channels so agitated?

 

   And indeed, this was exactly the line that Congress party spokesmen took. Abhishek Manu Singhvi accused the channels of creating a story out of nothing. Salman Khurshid went on television to assure the nation that all was well and that there was nothing to worry about. (It is always a dangerous sign when Khurshid delivers this lecture. The last time he adopted this position was before his government shot itself in the foot over Anna Hazare’s agitation.)

 

   And though the anchors listened to the Congress spokesmen, not one channel changed the basic thrust of its story. Day after day, the rift in the Cabinet remained headline news. Viewers may have felt entitled to ask: do the channels know something that we don’t? Why are they persisting with this story?

 

   There was a good answer to these questions.

 

   The channels did know something that they were not revealing to their viewers.

 

   They knew that Pranab Mukherjee and P Chidambaram were at war with each other because both men had communicated exactly this to journalists. Unfortunately for the channels, these declarations of war were made off-camera and off-the-record. So nobody could quote the home minister or the finance minister. But equally, no channel would abandon the story or buy the nonsense that the Congress spokesmen were trying to flog.

 

   If you knew which journalist had access to which camp then you could tell where the stories were coming from. Some anchors had heard Chidambaram’s criticisms of Pranab Mukherjee at first hand over the last few months. Some reporters (many of them Bengalis, for obvious reasons) had access to Pranab’s inner circle and knew how much the finance minister loathed his predecessor. So, though this could not be revealed to viewers, the stories about a civil war had a strong factual basis. The journalists had got them from the horses’ mouths.

 

   The way in which this story has unfolded tells us two things. The first is that the government may be in even more trouble than we recognise. Its two most powerful ministers (or sources close to them, as we say in the trade) are briefing against each other. The Prime Minister is either unwilling or unable to read the riot act to his Cabinet. Each minor issue – such as this note – is like a spark that sets off a flame. This time around, an ailing Sonia Gandhi was able to force an uneasy truce on the two ministers. But, generally speaking, this is no way to run a Cabinet, especially when the government itself is facing disaster.

 

   But, this sorry drama also tells us one more thing. When journalists persist with a story in the absence of any visible evidence, do not think that they have gone mad or that they are being irresponsible.

 

   Sometimes, they know things that they are not allowed to tell you.

 


 

CommentsComments

  • SD Verma 30 Sep 2011

    Contd. ..
    Another point ... why can't the media share your pragmatic POV and clear Mr. Chidambaram of culpability instead of allowing the muddy waters to swirl ferociously? They display a lewd voyeurism.

  • SD Verma 30 Sep 2011

    Vir,
    The pragmatism you display in the first half of this article, you throw away in the second.
    Anyone who follows politics from the sidelines (as I do) and has a half-bit of commonsense, can figure out the animosity between ministers/politicians, without much help. The media is not the sole custodian and guardian of exclusive knowledge.
    Secondly, anyone with any knowledge of running an office will understand the dynamics of "keeping the flock together" and focussed.
    Cont.

  • Niraj 30 Sep 2011

    as if anyone doubted the chidu-pranab animosity.

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