How protectors of shaky corporate and political reputations try to silence journalists

In ‘A Feast of Vultures’, the writer recounts murky deals and attempts to buy his discretion.

When you attempt to unmask the appalling double games of the people that run India and drive its economy, and put together evidence of their duplicity, they will deploy ingenious methods to silence you. It is not always crude intimidation.

I was meeting a former journalist in a coffee shop on the first floor of Delhi’s Khan Market, one of the most expensive retail markets in the world. The winter sun poured in through the tall glass window, making it a very pleasant afternoon. That didn’t help put my companion at his ease, though. Until recently an employee of a Hindi news channel, he had just taken up a well-paying new assignment as the spokesperson of a controversial Mumbai-based billionaire.

The mild February weather had no tempering influence on national politics, where things were boiling over. Yet another scandal had erupted, and the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government led by Dr Manmohan Singh was lurching from controversy to controversy. It was 2011, and the government still had three years to go, but there was a heavy sense of hopelessness in the air. In a few months, the country would witness a huge eruption of anger against corruption through protests in various cities.

The billionaire’s spokesperson had taken a two-hour flight from Mumbai, India’s commercial capital, that morning to meet me.

Only days earlier, his boss’s lawyers had served me and my newspaper a criminal defamation notice after I reported that he was directly in contact with the criminal underworld. We responded to the legal notice, saying we were in possession of official documents to prove our claims, and would produce them in the appropriate legal forum.

Our calm reply appeared to have prompted the business magnate to change strategy. The PR manager started with a profuse apology on behalf of his boss. “It was a mistake. The boss had in fact told his legal team not to send you the notice,” the young man said.

Both of us knew it wasn’t a mistake but the standard operating procedure of India’s rich and famous when an article critical of them appears. Over the years, I have received dozens of notices from some of India’s biggest corporates and most powerful people. For publishing a secret audit report that accused Delhi’s electricity distribution companies of massive financial irregularities, one of them served a notice demanding compensation worth almost a billion dollars. A former army chief would shoot off defamation notices every time I wrote something critical of him.

Mumbai Congress leader Kripashankar Singh, whose astonishing metamorphosis from vegetable vendor to multimillionaire was part of an official probe, was equally trigger-happy when it came to defamation notices. When I reported on a Member of Parliament (MP) who abruptly left a parliamentary committee meeting on serious security matters, which he was chairing, he sent across a notice accusing me of breaching his parliamentary privilege.

The protection of shaky reputations is a flourishing industry.

There are PR consultants whose brief is to alert the rich and famous about any possible adverse reports brewing against them in newsrooms. There are lawyers drafting defamation notices and then there are those who manage the situation if nothing else works. All of them make a killing out of the potential embarrassment of a famous client.

As we settled down after the apology, the spokesperson said, “He wanted me to request you not to write anything more about his links because our efforts to raise FDI (foreign direct investment) have suffered a huge setback due to your article.” Their company – which had manipulated its way to procuring the licence and radio spectrum to operate second-generation mobile networks, and was facing a criminal investigation – was in the market to raise about Rs 3,000 crore from an investor in the Arab world.

The spokesperson then scanned the surrounding tables and, with sweat trickling down his forehead, whispered: “The boss wanted me to tell you that he can take care of whatever your needs are – car, house, whatever.”

I let the silence build, then pointed to a sprawling colonial bungalow across the road. “Do you mean one of those houses?”

Back on familiar ground, he responded: “Don’t underestimate my boss. He can take care of anything.”

I don’t remember who paid for the coffee, but I called off the meeting soon enough.

Not everyone in New Delhi is uncomfortable about making such offers.

On another occasion, a famous lawyer met me at Hotel Ashoka, the gym members of which include, among other notables, the Gandhi family. The lawyer had been spending a pretty penny to exercise next to New Delhi’s influential lot. He was meeting me on behalf of one of his clients, a company I was investigating for allegedly misusing the police to harass its rivals.

The company was backed by a political family that ruled one of the northern states, and had been accused of money laundering and other criminal activities. “If you write the article, they will be ruined. If you drop it, only you and I will know,” he said, adding that there was a budget of Rs 3 crore available for me to drop the story. When I said I should be leaving, his parting shot was that he routinely managed the high priests of India’s judiciary and politics. Why, he wondered, would I let such an opportunity pass? This time I know I didn’t wait for the bill.

My mainstream media job did not always allow me the latitude to report on this aspect of the real India I met behind closed doors and in fancy hotels, and that is finally what set me off on an inquiry into the modern nation state of India. How robust is its democracy? How fair? Have its institutions been maturing over the years? Are the waves of transparency and well-fought elections improving the lot of its poor? Are the cleavages between its institutions deepening, or disappearing? Why do other institutions not challenge the duplicity of the political classes often enough? Is everyone tangled up in a grand conspiracy to subvert the republic? Is there a way to assess and report on this modern India, without self-censorship and varnishing, without betraying my childhood village by the backwaters, without omitting friends, without being seduced by the intimate glamour of the imposing capital city?

The narratives of urban India that truly decide the fate of this sovereign, socialist, secular, democratic republic remain unwritten, unreported. Constitutional lawyers manage and manipulate media coverage and public perception of almost every issue; bribes and intimidation are what you need to get your way; billion-dollar deals go through only if the right people are paid; political parties collect black money to fund their operations; coverage in the media is available for a fee and paid news is officially a business; civil servants assist the political class to subvert the system; “facilitation” is the most successful business in its booming economy. Everything and everyone (with a few honourable exceptions) is on sale. You only need to find the right intermediary and pay the right bribe. The creaky government machinery moves only when the lubricant bribe is applied.

Excerpted with permission from A Feast of Vultures: The Hidden Business of Democracy in India, Josy Joseph, HarperCollins India.

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