The rules of the game in modern India are very simple, even if the structure it creates is a horribly tangled maze. In this country, it is okay to do practically anything: use fake promoters, accept bribes, commission murders, intimidate media, manipulate courts and grab power. The one big rule: don’t get caught. This book is about the reality every citizen, and all visitors, experience in myriad ways. For years, I struggled to find a structure to write about that India, and even this narrative remains an incomplete rendition of a complex web.
Every individual in that web has a stake in the perpetuation of the system, and each one of them contributes to denying poor access to instruments of democracy. The courts in the world’s largest democracy are crowded and expensive, the police corrupt and cruel, the powerful television and English-language media far too urban, and the political class busy plotting to grab power.
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.
Excerpted with permission from the book A Feast of Vultures: The Hidden Business of Democracy. Author: Josy Joseph; Publisher: Harpercollins; Pages: 256; Price: Rs 599.
Published Date: Jul 29, 2016 14:34 PM | Updated Date: Jul 29, 2016 14:34 PM