Chitra Subramaniam and Bofors: The myth of the lone crusader

"You want to be like Chitra Subramaniam, eh?" was the inevitable response from my relatives any time I expressed my teenage desire to become a journalist. In the aftermath of Bofors, the "girl reporter" (in Rajiv Gandhi's words) who brought a government down to its knees became an emblem of TamBrahm pride. She was the Indian version of [Enter name of choice: Bob Woodward, Carl Bernstein, or Seymour Hersh], fearlessly exposing corruption at the highest levels, aided by her very own Deep Throat. That she was hugely pregnant at the time of the investigation just made it all the more romantic. She was the original Vidya Bagchi.

Of course, this is an air-brushed version of journalistic history, carefully edited for maximum narrative effect. Real journalism is less exciting. Whether its Watergate or Bofors-gate, large-scale investigations entail entire editorial teams, logging in hours of mind-numbing drudgery, even as they deal with petty office politics, ego clashes, and competing agendas: of the source, reporter, editor, in-house lawyers, and inevitably the owner. Up close, the editorial process looks messy, petty, even unpleasant.

The Bofors investigation was no different. Twenty five years later, the main protagonists are still rehashing old grievances. In his headline-making interview with Subramaniam, her main source, Sten Lindstrom, dwelt at length on his unhappiness with The Hindu's editors:

The Hindu’s role in all this was that of a medium of communication. I met them because you insisted. I was disappointed. They published the documents as and when they wanted without any respect for the risks other people were taking to get the facts out.

The most explosive documents that involved the political payments were Ardbo’s notes and diary. The Hindu published them several months after they had them. In the meantime there was a serious difficulty. I got a message that my name was circulating in Delhi’s political circles as the whistleblower. This caused a lot of stress and difficulty for me. You will recall the month you were not allowed to call me while we investigated who leaked my name as the whistleblower in India. There were consequences for me and my family. The Hindu seemed unconcerned.

Former Swedish Police chief Sten Lindstrom has dwelt on his unhappiness with the Hindu. Pic: IBNLive

Well, that's one view of the past – and one flattering to Subramaniam since it positions her as the heroine of this drama, with her own newspaper reduced to the role of a minor villain. But it is also understandable since a whistleblower rarely knows what it takes to actually produce a story. His role recedes to the background when he turns over the documents.

There are many reasons to critique N Ram's editorial decisions over the years, but he has rightfully insisted over and again that we recognise the larger effort the investigation required. In an interview given to Mint, he said

Our Bofors investigation was an unusually extended and complex exercise—fact-finding, discovery of relevant documents, making connections, drawing inferences, publishing the document-backed analysis over numerous pages and in many thousands of words. The exercise began in April 1987— the moment Swedish Public Radio came out with an explosive story about the alleged kickbacks to top politicians, military personnel, and others—and effectively ended in October 1989. We were persistent, patient, fair, and just.

Media exposes require diligence, patience and huge amounts of luck. Above all, it is a cumulative effort, both within and between media outlets. The Swedish and Indian publications piggybacked off each other's investigations, and no one source can truly claim sole credit for Bofors. And to Ram's credit, he always insists that Bofors "was decidedly the work of a team, not of any one journalist," often namechecking lesser known Hindu reporters, be it their defence reporter Manoj Joshi, or Malini Parthasarathy, who gained vital information from a member of the joint parliamentary committee, or news editor K. Narayanan who engineered the layout and presentation of the leaked documents.

Of course, Ram too is guilty of his share of air-brushing, preferring, in retrospect, to brush past the "internal drama" that stalled The Hindu investigation – on the intervention of then editor G Kasturi — and led to both his and Subramaniam's exit. But despite its many warts, the Bofors investigation marks a watershed moment in the Indian media's history.

As Ram puts it with rightful pride, "[W]hen I look at that heady experience today, what stands out for me is how everyone, from the editor down, pulled together in the making of a game-changing investigation. Game-changing for journalism and politically, I believe."

Chitra Subramaniam was the original celebrity journalist, her mythological stature a precursor of this era of celebrity anchors and bylines. But journalism is and has always been a team sport. It does indeed take a village to produce a Bofors-gate.

Updated Date: Apr 26, 2012 16:04 PM

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