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View: Niira Radia did no wrong

November 29, 2010 16:37 IST
As a lobbyist, says Virendra Kapoor, she was within her right to co-opt whoever she deemed fit in her enterprise to service the interests of her clients.

She broke no law. If she did, by now she would have been charged since these tapes belong to early and mid-2009.

There is much hand-wringing in the media over the publication of transcripts of telephone conversations between a corporate lobbyist and a number of senior and not-so-senior journalists.

Crocodile tears are shed on the alleged decline of professional standards in the media. The Internet is chock-a-full with sharp criticism of the journalists heard on tapes talking with the powerful woman lobbyist who boasts of a very influential network of friends in high places.

Though these conversations took place at the time of the formation of the United Progressive Alliance-II government last May, the recent publication of their transcripts by two magazines has further stoked controversy. Admittedly, even at that time the names of leading media professionals featuring on the tapes were in circulation.

There is little doubt that the lobbyist Niira Radia would have carried on her activities undisturbed were it not for a bitter fight between two brothers over the carving of the huge industrial empire left behind by the founder.

Since she represented the interests of one of the brothers, the other is alleged to have used his superior connections in the bureaucracy to have her phones tapped.

By the time Radia and her business clients discovered this, the damage was done. Subsequently, a Deputy Inspector General of Police-level officer in the Central Bureau of Investigation was transferred.

Having read the printed transcripts and heard some of them on the Internet, one can make a few points without any hesitation.

One, Radia did no wrong. As a lobbyist, she was within her right to co-opt whoever she deemed fit in her enterprise to service the interests of her clients.

She broke no law. If she did, by now she would have been charged since these tapes belong to early and mid-2009.

Mind you, this columnist has never met or talked to her. If there is really something incriminating against her on the tapes, it is not clear from those available in the public domain.

Frankly, if these tapes establish anything it is the utter venality of the political system. And, of course, secondly, the larger-than-life image media hacks like to portray of themselves.

The fact that she successfully saw her friend, A Raja, appointed as the telecom minister in spite of the huge telecom scandal perpetrated by him in the UPA-I speaks volumes about the entire process of government formation.

Neither the prime minister nor anyone else in the Congress party had the gumption to say no to Raja being repeated as telecom minister once Radia and company had got the better of his rivals in the Karunanidhi durbar.

The tapes establish that Radia was no bit player in the PR game. She talked easily with the top honchos in the field of commerce, industry, politics, bureaucracy, journalism, et al.

Now, how many can claim to get on to the phone with Ratan Tata, easily the most respected business tycoon in the country, and discuss at length what sort of tuxedo jacket he ought to wear to a formal dinner.

Frankly, it is Tata who comes out poorly from the taped conversations while Radia oozes charm and power.

However it is worth noting that Tata is on record saying that they had to rely on the services of the lobbyists in order not to be done in by their rivals who wielded superior cunning and clout in the corridors of power.

Besides, he had good reason not to want Dayanidhi Maran as telecom minister since the latter had sought to bully them to part with an equity stake in the Tatas' DTH project before granting permission.

About her other powerful client, Mukesh Ambani, if he is caught discussing the family dispute or anything else with Radia, we have no clue since the tapes in the public domain do not feature him.

The only mention of Mukesh is when Vajpayee's foster son-in-law, Ranjan Bhattacharaya -- of all people -- is heard offering his services to Radia in order to make Raja telecom minister in the Congress-led government. He quotes Mukesh to the effect that 'Congress to aapni dukaan hai (the Congress is our shop)'.

The import of that statement, if true, being that on payment he can get anything from done in the Congress-led UPA government.

Incidentally, it is to Radia's credit that she has managed to bag the accounts of both Mukesh and Tata, who, as is widely known, have never been on the best of terms given their vastly different business philosophies and practices.

As for my tribe, well, the tapes truly reflect the character of each journalist featured there, though some of them do deserve the benefit of doubt. For, it is considered polite not to say a direct no even to an unreasonable request.

Every once in a while media professionals are approached by people who they may have come in contact with as part of their normal workaday routine and asked to do things which do not strictly fall in their professional domain.

Now, by no stretch of imagination can it be said that Radia's request to Vir Sanghvi or Barkha Dutt to ensure that Raja is made telecom minister was legitimate. She could do so because of the confidence and close intimacy she had developed with these journos over a period of time.

Far more amusing or questionable, take your pick, is the reaction of Dutt and Sanghvi to Radia's request that they intercede on Raja's behalf with the Congress bosses. Here one is prone to give the benefit of doubt to Dutt.

Though one would have liked her to have cultivated the no-nonsense image like her late mother Prabha Dutt, who was the first woman chief reporter of The Hindustan Times had acquired whereby no PR person would dare ask for such an unreasonable favour, yet Barkha is no more guilty of a professional misdemeanor than merely stringing Radia along by promising to put in a word for her nominee for the telecom portfolio.

Frankly, in this day and age when you carry an image of a cut-and-dry person who would give a tongue lashing to anyone seeking your assistance in pushing the case of a ministerial hopeful, as a journalist you would lose out on inside information and tips which these clued up lobbyists and 'fixers' are usually great repositories of.

On the other hand, Sanghvi is in a class of his own. In fact, the printed transcripts bring out the stark difference between Dutt and Sanghvi. While she sounds hesitant to carry on the conversation and seems keen to fob Radia off by promising vaguely to talk to this or that Congress leader, it is the editorial director of The Hindustan Times who is heard mentioning his proximity to Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi.

Referring to the Congress party in proprietorial terms, he makes it sound as if both the mother and son are available on tap for him to give them advice. Given that the Gandhis' chosen way of enhancing their mystique is to make themselves unavailable even to senior ministers and chief ministers for months on end, Sanghvi's claim to walk in and out of 10 Janpath at will does entitle him to take over Radia's job as a most prized lobbyist in the entire country.

The point is that each journalist heard on the Radia tapes has to be judged on merit. Clearly, his or her reputation would colour the conclusion one is likely to draw from the talk he or she had had with the lobbyist.

However, one fails to understand the holier-than-thou attitude of a section of the media. Now, journalists, on the Radia tapes or otherwise, too are prone to the same pressures which affect politicians, bureaucrats, lawyers, etc. If everyone is chasing Mammon, it is unfair to expect that media professionals would stay immune to the malaise.

Besides, in recent years even the pretence that the Fourth Estate is a higher calling requiring higher standards of professional and individual rectitude has been abandoned.

The media is like any other profession, always mindful of the bottom line.

Just like in all other professions, there are good and honest journalists. And then there are the rotten eggs.

Unfortunately, in these permissive times the good ones seem to fall behind while the rotten ones climb the ladder of financial and professional success through manipulation and corporate patronage.

ALSO READ (external links): Barkha Dutt on the allegations against her
Vir Sanghvi: Setting the record straight
From Outlook: The Radia tapes

Virendra Kapoor