The Indian Media Takes On The Prime Minister¿s Office

IN Media Practice | 31/08/2002
The Indian Media Takes On The Prime Minister¿s Office

The Indian Media Takes On The Prime Minister¿s Office


By Sevanti Ninan

The media is aggressively taking on perceived wrong doing. But sometimes the motivation comes from its own alliances and partisan sympathies.

In India the Prime Minister¿s office is watching its flanks. It doesn¿t know where the next attack is going to come from and what it is going to be. The media has turned unusually aggressive in the last couple of months, and the government on the whole and the PMO in particular is feeling the heat.

One newspaper, the Asian Age has taken to keeping up a daily barrage of investigations into the transactions of India¿s most politically powerful industrial house, Reliance, owned by the Ambanis. Regardless of which party is in power, the Ambanis have the reputation of being able to call the shots in the making of policy in areas in which they have business interests. Much of the attack on the PM¿s office has been trained on the PM¿s principal secretary Brajesh Mishra and his officer on special duty, N K Singh. Both have been accused of tailoring policy in the telecom and the power sectors to suit the Reliance group.

On Sunday April 22, the editor of Asian Age M J Akbar wrote of Singh, "It is extraordinary that a bureaucrat with such proven links to a corporate house should be appointed to the PMO in the first place; it is appalling that he should remain there despite allegations made by the president of the BJP…" Sections of the Bharatiya Janata Party, Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee¿s own party, have also been gunning for these two officials.

The Indian media today is feisty, but also partisan. If Mr Akbar accuses the PM¿s office of being allied with Reliance, his own paper is now part-owned by another powerful media business owner, Subhash Chandra, who was one of the country¿s wealthiest men until his shares took a nose dive on the stock market. Mr Chandra¿s dealings with an arrested stock broker Ketan Parekh are now under investigation by India¿s Central Bureau of Investigation. Subhash Chandra is one of the few businessmen in the country who has had the nerve to take on the Ambanis in the past.

Cross media nexuses have sharpened the edge of the attack. Asian Age¿s daily attacks upon the Ambanis and occasionally on the PMO find an echo in Zee News, the newschannel of the Zee TV network owned by Subhash Chandra. And in March when a journalistic sting by a dot com company called Tehelka threatened to topple the government, Zee TV ran the incriminating spycam footage (which included allegations about members of the prime minister¿s family ) across all fifteen channels it owns, at prime time. Zee was negotiating at that point to buy a stake in Tehelka.

That is not all. Zee TV, the flagship entertainment channel of the Zee network runs a weekly fiction series titled Pradhan Mantri (Prime Minister) in which there is an entirely recognisable and totally unflattering caricature of Dhirubhai Ambani the patriarch and owner of the Reliance group of industries. The concept and story
of this serial are by M J Akbar.

The media assault on the prime minister¿s office began in early March with Outlook magazine running a cover story titled "Rigging the PMO" which named the same officials in the prime minister¿s office and the industrial houses whose interests they were allegedly promoting. Before the government could fully recover it was hit by a typhoon in the form of a journalistic sting., which introduced spycam journalism into the Indian media scene last year, floated a fictitious defence equipment supply firm called West End and set about secretly video taping politicians, army generals and defence ministry bureaucrats whom they approached for deals. They paid out bribes of different amounts to some sixteen people in the ruling establishment.

When the story broke the defence minister had to resign because his party president and live-in friend Jaya Jaitley was on TV networks across the nation in hazy footage that showed her deflecting a bribe from these " dealers" to a party aide. Worse, the the president of the Prime Minister¿s own party was also shown accepting cash as a bribe for agreeing to put in a word with the Defence Ministry. He too resigned. Journalists have since gone to town, describing this image

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