June 24, 2002


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Krishna Prasad

'Why not listen to the message instead of shooting the messenger?'

Anil Ambani has a lovely story to tell of a meeting with some investors in New York a couple of years ago. After the presentations were made, one of the investors got up and fired at him pointblank: "Mr Ambani, your company is in great shape but have you looked at your shape lately?"

The Wharton-educated scion of Reliance Industries, India's only private sector Fortune 500 firm, took it as an affront: "That's a personal question. Can we discuss it outside?" But the investor wouldn't let go: "No, Mr Ambani. The others in the room may not ask you this, but I certainly will."

And why is that, asked the son of Dhirubhai. Pat came the reply: "Because if you want us to put money in your company, we want to be reasonably sure that the man in charge is fit and fine." At which point, says Ambani Junior, he had to confess that he hadn't looked at himself in the mirror recently.

After he returned home, Anil, 43 on June 4, did as told. He stood in front of the mirror (he looked plump and obese). He stood on the weighing scale (he weighed a full 105 kilograms). Mr Ambani got the message and embarked on an astounding fitness regimen for a captain of industry who has it all.

He began waking up at 5 am five times a week, and began jogging as much as 100 kms through the streets and bylanes of Bombay. Since then, he has shed almost 35 kilos. And, at nearly 70 kg today, he presents a healthier figure to himself, to his family, to his investors, and to his shareholders.

The Anil Ambani experience demonstrates a peculiar ability businessmen have to confront a problem without beating around the bush, when the writing is on the wall and bottomline comes into their view. But it is also remarkable for three other reasons:

# The Ambanis are not particularly renowned for letting it all hang out in public. Yet, Anil unashamedly speaks of the episode in newspaper and television interviews.

# A foreigner's blunt observation did not provoke a xenophobic backlash from Anil. On the contrary, it egged him on face the truth, introspect and act accordingly.

# And, in spite of his wealth, power and status, Anil did not rest easy. He did what he thought was in the best interests of his and his company's future.

All of which are in stark contrast to the righteous indignation with which the National Democratic Alliance government has reacted to a story in Time parts of which dealt with Atal Bihari Vajpayee's health and personal habits.

For more than two years now, the bachelor-prime minister's condition has been India's worst-kept secret. Those who look at him from up-close whisper of large breakfasts and leisurely evenings. And those who look at him from afar snigger at his fumbles and foibles during the discharge of official duties.

If India were a company, like Anil Ambani's, and if the citizens of the country were investors in it, there is every reason to feel concerned at the state of its CEO.

But the corridors of power are made in Bollywood: its denizens can choose to believe what they invent. So, just because an oh-so-loyal media is a strange partner in a conspiracy of silence on Mr Vajpayee's true state, it can believe there's no problem.

The moment Time breaks the 'Code of Omerta' all hell breaks loose.

'Biased,' 'Baseless,' 'Bundle of Untruth,' 'Cheap,' 'Flippant,' 'Gibberish,' 'Ill-advised,' 'Ill-informed,' 'Malicious,' 'Pathetic,' 'Patronising,' 'Sub-standard,' 'Supercilious,' 'White-supremacist,' 'Without foundation'... the adjectives are tripping off the tongues of the pipers.

On one level, the official reaction is interesting because here are a set of people, who have never missed an opportunity to run down the English media, taking a magazine article as if it were a treatise on the subject; and almost begging for a foreign certificate of good health.

Hear the external affairs ministry spokeswoman: 'It certainly does not fall into the category of the kind of reporting expected from Time magazine.' As if Henry Luce's chosen ones come from a planet not inhabited by other magazines and newspapers.

On another level, the political reaction is interesting because, unlike Mr Ambani, there is no effort to admit to a problem and no desire whatsoever to solve it. Instead, there is loose talk of malice and imputation of motives; and a witchhunt to fix the problem-spotter instead of the problem.

Indeed, there is much that can be questioned in the 1,992-word Time story, exactly 330 of which dealt with Mr Vajpayee's shape, not counting a detailed infographic on all that is wrong with the PM's head, heart, stomach, liver, kidney and knees.

It is so low on attribution, the story wouldn't have got into any Indian rag. And the timing, taste, tenor and tone of such a piece against a democratically-elected leader all leave much to be desired.

But that is AOL-Time-Warner's problem. The real problem is of an extraordinary Indian inability to face the truth -- as a country and as individuals -- and to fool ourselves with the untruth. Almost as if it is a sin to be warned; almost as if it is a mistake to be prepared.

Certainly, no country can be expected to project its prime minister as being of fragile physical and mental strength, especially with war in the air. Truth to tell, more than Mr Vajpayee's love for a sundowner or deep-fried trout, it is the inference that a man who is not all there controls a nuclear arsenal that has caught everybody's goat.

Certainly, no coalition whose longevity rests solely on Mr Vajpayee's can be expected to issue attestions of the PM's health, especially the lack of it. In fact, that probably explains why everybody on either side of the great divide in the Bharatiya Janata Party is falling over each other to back the PM and hit back at Time.

And certainly, no country needs to take its lessons from a magazine produced from the land of Ronald Reagan who, on-air and at the height of the Cold War with the Soviet Union, albeit in jest, said: 'We begin bombing in five minutes.' And, wasn't nuclear Russia run by the man Jay Leno disparagingly calls 'Boris-buy-me-a-booze-Yeltsin'?

But, none of that, though, explains why we should not listen to the message instead of trying to shoot the messenger; which is that we are saddled with a gerontocracy. At 54, Bill Clinton has been retired for a-year-and-a-half after two terms. At 77, Mr Vajpayee is gasping to complete his first full-term.

The Sangh Parivar may be slapping its thighs in delight at reports of the Time reporter's passport being probed. But when Time tells the world that it fears for the safety of its man, democratic India looks no different from those South East Asian dictatorships which ban publications at the slightest pretext.

There is an even more dangerous flip-side to the government's tirade against Time. That, somehow, the prime minister's health is beyond public debate. All India sees Mr Vajpayee walking and talking with much effort; it sees him forgetting his own foreign minister's name; it sees him say something and denying it everytime. Aren't the people entitled to know why?

If a magazine article on the PM's health and habits is an intrusion into his 'personal life,' guess who turned his knee operation into a public spectacle? By couching all efforts to shed light in the tricolour, the government's media-managers are only doing a disservice to the cause they think they are trying to serve.

In the end, though, the aggressive reaction to a story in a magazine few people read in India has only served to spread the word. The Time article only appeared in its Asian edition. It was picked up by only one English daily. The government's reaction, though, has ensured that everybody gets the message.

The world knows that 77-year-old people have aches and pains and memory lapses. But in painting Mr Vajpayee as a super human being with sterling qualities in the pink of health his aides are serving him ill.

If the son of our canniest businessman could face his foreign interrogator head-on, without shame, why can't our politicians without hinting at a Western conspiracy to undermine a civilisation that is several thousand years old? And, hey, is India Inc in even half the shape as Reliance Industries?

Perry free to go wherever he wants to
Foreign hand behind Time article: Jana
After raising a storm, Perry keeps mum
Time concerned about Perry's safety
Time reporter summoned for holding 2 passports
PMO sends rejoinder to Time article on Vajpayee
Journalists unhappy with Time article on PM
BJP activists burn copies of Time
Samata condemns Time article on PM

The controversial article on the prime minister

Krishna Prasad

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