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February 23, 1998


Varsha Bhosle

Conspiracy Theory

I've just received this bit of engaging news from one of my pals from within The Times of India intergalactic mission control room. The word percolating down from its boardroom is: favourably market Congressman Murli Deora, even if it means spiking everything his opponents -- including that darling of good-copy-lovers, Balasaheb Thackeray -- may accuse him of. For instance, Balasaheb, at his totally successful Thakurdwar rally, continuously referred to Deora as "Murli Bevda." Now, this is the kind of tickling stuff that's instantly lapped up by the media. However, all Thackerayisms on Deora were summarily dropped from the tiny report on the rally in the ToI.

Actually, this is a new turn of events. Before the advent of Sonia Gandhi into active politics, what was being whispered to foot- reporters was -- and, no, there never are written memos on hidden agendas of press campaigns -- favourably market the BJP at any cost. I might add, the initial moaning and groaning from the CPM about the BJP being given too much complimentary coverage was not *entirely* a figment of pinko imagination.

At that time, I was pleased (it fit my own fundie agenda :) But then I heard that the ToI was being sympathetic to the BJP because of its vehement swadeshi opposition to letting in international media houses such as that of Rupert Murdoch's. Personally, I disapprove of such bans -- I think Indian reportage can only benefit from foreign competition. However, the ToI was so flush into upping the BJP that, instead of honest-to-goodness reporters like Raote or Chaware or Date, the delicately urbane resident editor, Dina Vakil, was ordered to cover the rural campaign trail of Atal Bihari Vajpayee...

Which had the entire Press Club of Bombay in splits for a month. Every glass of hard rum in that Azad Maidan-situated club was downed with a story of what exactly was in store for Ms Vakil and how she would probably react to it. In fact, V Gangadhar even did a hilarious spoof in Sunday on how a certain editor would cope with the facilities available in places like Jalgaon in interior Maharashtra; how much that editor knew of the nitty-gritty of rural politicking; and what the editor's fundamental concerns about the travel plans would be... Unfortunately for most readers, it was purely an insider joke -- one which really brightened the week for even those of us on the periphery of the press. Well said, Mr Gangadhar!

With the Bihari Bandicoot's run-in with the Income Tax Department and his involvement with Ashok Jain in the FERA scam, one doesn't need to be an Einstein to deduce that some sort of deal seems to have been struck between Bennett Coleman and the Congress Party. I'm told by yet another foot-soldier that Murli Deora was the person instrumental in fixing an understanding between Prime Minister I K Gujral and other concerned parties...

But few such trade-offs leave proof behind -- and I'm simply dying to know how the pay-off will manifest itself post-polls. But even if real media insiders like Pritish Nandy or Kumar Ketkar know the gory details, the chances of their blowing the whistle on it are next to zero. Self-preservation is a compelling force. And the largest-circulation daily *is* the Gabbar Singh of the media world.

So how do these things work, you might ask. Simple, really. Murli Deora has made tenancy laws the fulcrum of his South Bombay constituency campaign, and alleges that the BJP-SS government "deliberately sabotaged" the tenant ownership scheme, under which tenants would be allowed to acquire ownership rights in the properties they occupy. Deora published statements in various newspaper ads that tenants would be evicted from 1 April, 1998, and that legal heirs of tenants would have no tenancy rights and would be liable for eviction.

Upon which, the Mumbai unit of the BJP straight-away filed a criminal complaint against him under Section 153 of the IPC for propagating "false information" about the Supreme Court judgment, for creating fear in the minds of voters against the judgment, and for trying to create enmity between landlord and tenant. Chief Minister Manohar Joshi clarified that the government would take care of tenants while drafting the new Rent Act. But more significantly, he specified that the present bill to replace the Rent Control Act that's pending in the state legislature was introduced in 1993 by the then *Congress* Housing Minister Chhagan Bhujbal!

Thing is, whereas the Indian Express issued the report under the heading "Deora misleading tenants, says BJP," even today, the ToI headlines the issue with "Give tenants ownership rights: Deora." To get a fair perspective on *any* report, one has to scour at least ten different newspapers to get at some semblance of the truth. A commentator's job is not a matter of reading one headline and shooting off his/her mouth as many seem to think...

Take, for instance, the Income Tax Department's reopening the investigations into the charges against the Bihari Bandicoot. The Statesman of 27 December, 1997, reported that "Though initial inquiry revealed that the allegations levelled by journalist Madhuresh Kumar in a public interest litigation had substance, the probe was suspended, and the CBI dropped the case on cue." Kumar had alleged that soon after Kesri was elected to the Rajya Sabha in 1967, the fortunes of his children and grandchildren had grown manifold. Kesri had constructed a five-floor building with a shopping complex at Danapur in 1991-92; a plot was purchased in Patna in the name of his daughter-in-law in 1989; and a farmhouse in Gurgaon and other immovable assets were bought by Kesri's grandchildren subsequently.

The ITD's investigations revealed that the charges against Kesri's son, Amarnath, and three daughters were, in fact, substantiated. The scrutiny confirmed not only the existence of fixed properties as mentioned by Kumar, but also the concealment of income. And that, surprise, surprise, most of Kesri's grandchildren do not pay income tax...

Then, of course, you've read my story on Ashok Jain's FERA violations, Alok Jain's opening of a London-based bank account for Kesri, and the subsequent "human rights abuse" campaign -- still faithfully being waged by the ToI...

The Statesman adds, "The CBI, directed to conduct a probe by the Delhi High Court, is eager to stop the investigations and has even given a clean chit to Sitaram Kesri. The agency claims that its investigations have failed to establish criminality... It has gone ahead and sought permission to close the investigation." Oh yeah? How convenient. What's the bargain, guys?

In the meantime, another government agency -- supposedly free from political/bureaucratic influences and censorship under the Prasar Bharati -- has sullied its own daaman: Balasaheb has refused to record his election speech for broadcast on the national network of All India Radio. Apparently, AIR took objection to Thackeray's "caustic remarks" on Sonia Gandhi...

The "objectionable" points raised by Balasaheb were that a foreigner should not be PM, that the Gandhi family is involved in the Bofors scandal, and that a national monument be erected at Ayodhya, with allotment of separate plots to Muslims and Hindus...

Balasaheb avers, "They say that whenever you speak, you repeatedly attack Sonia Gandhi. I would like to ask the same question of them. You always, everyday, talk about eradicating casteism and religious fanaticism. Why should we perpetually listen to these allegations against us? Whenever they accuse us of being religious bigots, we have no other way but to tell the public the truth... I wouldn't like to disrespect anybody's religion but who is she to make all these allegations against us? Does she have a moral right to do so? If she does not, then why should we tolerate it? If people are so open about criticising us, then what is the sin we have committed (in criticising her)?"

How can anybody in his right mind find fault with this logic...? Whether Balasaheb is a Nazi or not -- till we call India a democracy, his right to his own defence is not subject to the whims of the bureaucracy. During election time, how he presents his case is between him and the people.

Confession time: I *am* beginning to fear the consequences of my own anti-Establishment stand... it all seems way out of my league. I would be responsible, should my actions reflect on my folks. However, Aai is dauntless enough to have told me, "No, go ahead. If you falter at that first step, there's no limit to the compromises you'll begin to make. We can take care of ourselves; you do what you think is barobar." That's the stuff that makes her tick, and that's why I proudly trumpet that "Bhosle."

The off-ness about the reportage on Deora's Rent Act campaign, the Ashok Jain FERA scam, the Kesri IT case, AIR censoring BT's speech -- don't they stink of a deep political conspiracy? The UF government, the Congress, the ToI -- what a tangled web they seem to weave... And the dark Shakespearean motif continues to ring in my ears:

" All is not well. I doubt some foul play.
Would the night were come!
Till then sit still, my soul.
Foul deeds will rise,
Though all the earth o'erwhelm them, to men's eyes

No, all is not well in the state of India...

Varsha Bhosle

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