The French Dared. Will our Editors Do the Same?

06 Jul,2021


By Ranjona Banerji


Ranjona BanerjiAnyone old enough to remember the Bofors case and how the media pursued it?


Yes, I see some of you do. It was very exciting. It was 1987 and after Swedish radio raised questions of corruption in India’s deal with Sweden to buy Bofors howitzer guns, it was an a-ha moment for the Indian media. Chitra Subramaniam of The Hindu happened to be in Sweden at the time. And after that, revelation after revelation appeared in morning newspapers and various journals. A milestone for Indian investigative journalism.


Twists and turns, coded diaries, anger and defensive excuses, a government on the run, suicide and shady middlemen – it was like a movie unfolding before one’s eyes. Heroes were made and destroyed.


Fast forward to 2021. Ho hum. Corruption in an arms deal? Really? Must be an opposition plot to defame the world’s greatest government. No?


Out of curiosity I went to Subramaniam’s Twitter account. No, not a word about the Rafale deal. Not even a forward of the Mediapart report on a French judge starting an inquiry into the Rafale deal. Lots about football.


Yes. I am being unfair. People have the right to tweet whatever they want about whatever they want.


So, here’s the intro from the French investigative website, Mediapart, on the deal between India and France to buy Rafale fighter jets:

A judicial probe into suspected corruption has been opened in France over the 7.8-billion-euro sale to India in 2016 of 36 Dassault-built Rafale fighter aircraft. In this latest of a series of investigations about the secret dealings behind the contract, Mediapart reveals how Dassault provided a remarkably generous financial gift to its local industrial partner Reliance Group, owned by Anil Ambani, a close friend of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi.”


It doesn’t leave much to the imagination. If you’re interested in covering corruption that is.


Let’s start with the Bravery awards first. Most Indian news outlets covered the explosive Mediapart investigation one way or another. Mainly this way: French judge to probe corruption in Rafale deal.


So, one WaterLily each for piddling courage in scary “what will the boss say” circumstances.


But Padmas are also important. Therefore, most subsequent reports, if anyone had them at all, became: “Congress says”. “Opposition demands” and so on. This includes the venerable Hindu, at the forefront of the Bofors investigation, and in 2019 with the publishing of the very damning government papers they had accessed on discrepancies in the Rafale deal.


The front page of The Hindu, Sunday, July 4, has the Rafale story above the fold, but not as the lead. “Congress demands” is right there next to an exceptionally bland: “French judge to probe Rafale deal”. I only single out The Hindu because one expected a bit more, given its past stand. Still. Early days. One hopes.


The Telegraph, Kolkata, is a good bit bolder with “The French dare to do what we did not” and is possibly out of the Padma run for this act of journalistic valour in the face of massive Modi anger.


It’s not that the Rafale story is not exciting. It’s not that there are no question marks about the way Narendra Modi changed the earlier UPA deal in 2015. It’s not that the choice of Anil Ambani as Dassault’s Indian partner is not questionable.


But you and I know what the problem is. The overriding fear of the Modi administration and the consequences of alleging corruption against him and his cohorts continues to hold sway. Nothing matters any more.


Not even a juicy story of deals and counter-deals, money changing hands, under the table shenanigans, no, no. Not for us!


Heck it took us months to even acknowledge that the Modi government was possibly lying about both millions of Covid-19 deaths and also about the availability of vaccines.


What’s a few billions of euros worth?


Ranjona Banerji is a senior journalist and commentator. She writes on MxMIndia every Tuesday and Friday. Her views here are personal


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