Home > coverstory > Some reports win readers, not friends Prabhu Chawla

There is a joke about me that some of my more gentrified colleagues are fond of telling. “If Prabhu had the same nose for wine as he does for stories, he would be a more complete sort of chap.” It’s no secret that my social graces are blunt and certainly, I need to know a lot more about wine. But I take the jibe as a compliment. As a former teacher, journalism opened up vistas that I could only dream about. Outside the classroom, the real world of hard-as-nails people and die-hard politics took on its own character and inexorably drew me in. Always curious to know, I discovered this amazing similarity between teaching and journalism: the more you tried to find out, the better it was. The more you told, the better it would get.So, the nose helped.
Those were tumultuous days. The Emergency had unleashed political demons on India, and as a reaction, people’s power was coming to the fore. Moreover, people’s aspiration demanded that somebody, anybody, take on an iconoclastic role to demystify dynasty, and expose the rot and hypocrisy in politics, bureaucracy and business.
India Today was a perfect place to be. it was a natural place for a person like me, who reveled in digging up dirt, knowing more, driven by a chase sequence that can rival any in a movie. And there were always people to encourage that and fearlessly promote investigative journalism – still a key reason for my abiding faith in India’s democratic system and the need for a free and fearless press. That motivated me, after India Today, to work as Editor with the Indian Express in early 90s, another institution known for its pushy, break-the-news. Back at India Today as Editor these past four years; it’s been a completion of a 25-year circle, not just of a career, but also as a person who thrives on investigations.
The first rule of investigative journalism is: nothing is sacred except the real story. We simply went at it. Until then, government and business dictated the rules, both looked for pliant journalists and tame stories. We made our own rule: if you’ve got something to hide, we want to know. If you’ve taken people for a ride, we’re there to tell that story. minister for disinvestments Arun Shourie was editor of The Indian Express at that time was a key driver of this ‘new journalism’, backed by the redoubtable Ram Nath Goenka who thought nothing of taking on Indira Gandhi and her trusted lieutenants like AR Antulay and business houses like Reliance. MJ Akbar, then editor of Sunday magazine, would soon churn the country with stories about the Bhagalpur blindings. Relatively new, born in the fires of the Emergency, India Today and its founder-editor Aroon Purie is of similar mettle, he takes chances and gives his people freedom to pursue a story in the best tradition of journalism.
So I have had my share of investigative hunts and successes as well. Some have shaken readers. Others, if I may mention without false modesty, have shaken governments.
A story that comes to my mind instantly was headlined ‘Loans to the Dead’. Published in August 1985 in IT, it was a two-pager about how a manager of Punjab & Sind Bank in the Piparia Dhani village near Lucknow, was embezzling funds in concert with local dealers of agricultural equipment. The bizarre scheme involved, under the pretext of a scheme of the government’s 20-point plan, giving loans to the dead, forcing poor farmers who had not taken loans to pay back these fictitious loans or forfeit their land, and short-changing people by supplying sub-standard equipment bought through bank loans. The amounts weren’t staggering at Rs 86 lakh. But when the story broke about this manager Daljit Singh Bedi and his powerful links in the bank which enabled him to duck six transfer orders, the sordid racket came to an abrupt end.
For me, the satisfaction was seeing the truth come out, the guilty punished and justice served. It was all about making an impact. And that is the holy grail of the profession.
in 1982, I had written about how then chief minister MG Ramachandran favoured certain liquor barons with licences for distributing so-called Indian Made Foreign Liquor and arrack. It caused a furore, as it was the first time anyone had written something about the ‘demi-god’ which reeked of corruption. I followed up with more hard-hitting story in early 1987 when upon re-election MGR announced prohibition, but only for arrack. IMFL continued unabated. it stank of corruption, and raised a hue and cry. since then, I have been persona non grata with MGR and his successors.
In 1992, after the first flush of newsbreak in the Times of India about the Harshad Mehta-engineered stocks scam, there was a curious, near-instant silence by the paper’s crack reporting team. I picked up scent (by then I was at Express) and strung together a series that put a number to the scam amount, the extent of involvement of banks and players, RBI’s ambivalence, UTI’s corruptible influence and the not so active response by then fM Manmohan Singh. Such reports don’t win friends, they win readers.
Another story comes to mind. I bumped into foreign minister Madhavsinh Solanki in Zurich in 1992. I asked him casually what he was doing there. He innocently mentioned that he had been sent by the then Prime Minister PV Narasimha Rao on a special assignment. Our reporter followed this tip-off independently and we discovered that he had delivered a letter to his Swiss counterpart requesting him to ignore India’s request against Bofors payoffs for the time being. The Express broke the story. The minister was naive to have even accepted the role of a letter-bearer. I was delighted with the scoop. Solanki would have been less than delighted. His government was red-faced. So was he, and without a job.
It’s relatively easy to know when a story is a story than to live with its aftermath. Some, usually those with vested interest, see you as a villain. While those who benefit from an investigative journalist’s scoop see you as a friend. As always, the truth lies somewhere in the middle. A ‘nose’ is a friend or enemy to nobody but is faithful only to the story.
I received a heavy dose of that home truth in 1997, when I disclosed the findings of the interim report of the Jain Commission to investigate Rajiv’s assassination. I was then with India Today. The report was explosive. It contained damning evidence of security breach. The UF coalition government had had strained ties with the Congress and its ambitious president Sitaram Kesri. What made it trickier was the report’s conclusion that the DMK leadership – by then UF partners – had handled security at Sriperumbudur shabbily and harboured suspected Tamil terrorists.
That created a pressure for the Congress to pull the plug on the UF. Desperate measures by Prime Minister I K Gujral for power-sharing were diluted by the knowledge, made public, of how his government was asking Rajiv aides to play down damning parts of the report. Gujral lost his job, and polls were called.
I was hounded by accusations of conspiracy to giving away state secrets to doing this deliberately to damn both the Congress and the Third Front (the BJP would gain). But fortunately, at India Today, we saw the story for what it was: a scoop and its follow through. The consequences were known. But a story is a story is a story, and it must be told.
The thing is, it isn’t about old wine, or good wine. A story, unlike a wine, has to be imbibed while it is still fresh. As an investigative journalist will tell you, the newsie’s nose, unlike a wine-mister’s, cannot wait for the ages.
(The writer is Editor-in-Chief of India Today)