guardian.co.uk, Wednesday 1 December 2010
Imagine, if it's possible, that Jeremy Paxman and Matthew Parris are recorded on tape advising a corporate lobbyist how to get her favoured MP into the coalition cabinet. Then imagine that this MP is accused of defrauding the national exchequer of billions of pounds. This is the scandal that unfolded in India last week – more disturbing and revealing for the Indian public than anything from WikiLeaks.
In addition to this story, in one of the audio recordings intercepted by India's income tax department (and now widely available on the internet), Vir Sanghvi, a leading columnist and TV host, is heard offering his services to Niira Radia, a lobbyist for two of India's biggest corporate houses, the Tatas and Reliance Industries.
"What kind of story do you want?" Sanghvi asks Radia, and goes on to offer a "fully scripted" and "rehearsed" television interview to her client, Mukesh Ambani, India's richest man. Another tape has Prabhu Chawla, an editor with India Today – India's biggest-circulation news magazine in English – explaining to Radia how Ambani might win his supreme court battle against his brother. "Everything is fixed nowadays," he hints darkly. Barkha Dutt – who hosts a popular TV show called We, the People – can also be heard offering to relay messages from Radia to politicians whom Radia wants to influence in the process of forming a cabinet.
Radia's candidate – A Raja – did indeed go on to become the telecommunications minister. He now stands accused of depriving the national exchequer of $39bn by selling mobile phone "2G spectrum" bandwidth cheaply to, among other telecom companies, Tata – represented by Radia. Under pressure from opposition parties and the supreme court, Raja resigned last month. The journalists caught on tape have preferred to brazen it out, insisting that they were only squeezing a likely source for information.
At first it seemed they might get away with it when such high-circulation mainstream newspapers as the Times of India and the Hindustan Times refused to cover the scandal. But public anger, amplified by the internet, may now be making the censorship unsustainable.
Yesterday Dutt appeared on her own TV channel, claiming she was guilty of nothing more than an "error of judgment". Her prickly defence – that only a naive journalist would see something newsworthy in the oversized influence of corporate lobbyists on political processes – pointed to a deeper rot in the New India beloved of globalised elites. As Sonia Gandhi, the Congress party leader, put it: the country's economy may "increasingly be dynamic, but our moral universe seems to be shrinking ... The principles on which Independent India was founded, for which a generation of great leaders fought and sacrificed their all, are in danger of being negated."
Indeed, for influential Indians the model of a "great" leader today is provided by Narendra Modi, the business-friendly Hindu nationalist chief minister of Gujarat who is accused of complicity in the murder of more than 2,000 Muslims in 2002. Ratan Tata, one of the most respectable names in Indian business, hails Modi as a "dynamic leader".
It is too easy, however, to focus on the moral obtuseness of a few journalists and businessmen. A broader consensus exists within the middle class beneficiaries of India's economy, a wider culture of deference to powerful and wealthy people, and intolerance and meanness towards the poor and defenceless, and their few articulate advocates. Mainstream journalists too have succumbed to this political pathology. What the tapes reveal most vividly is not spectacular corruption – not exactly news – so much as why the supposed watchdogs of democracy have assumed the militant aggressiveness and vanity of the very privileged in a wretchedly poor country.
Ratan Tata, whose conversations with Radia were also recorded, now complains that India is turning into a "banana republic". But Tata's own praise of Modi signified the ethical deficit among India's rich and powerful. Certainly, Sanghvi sounded like a Latin American oligarchist when, criticising the US decision to deny Modi a visa, he argued: "Modi may be a mass murderer. But he is our mass murderer." Claiming to speak for the "educated Indian middle class", Sanghvi asserted that "we are entirely justified in being angered" by Arundhati Roy's recent remarks on India's military occupation of Kashmir.
Marvelling about a "concept of Indian unity" that endorses extrajudicial execution and torture, the social psychologist Ashis Nandy recently wondered if there was "a large enough section of India's much-vaunted middle class fully sensitive to the demands of democracy". Or could it be that, far from upholding progressive values, many exalted Indians, including journalists, will do anything to protect "their new-found social status and political clout"?
Certainly, these revelations and their attempted suppression by mainstream media not only validate Nandy's grim diagnosis. They also confirm his suspicion that, notwithstanding the anarchist culture of WikiLeaks, the future of censorship in India is "very bright".