When a government can boast, years into its rule, that none of its ministers has had to face a corruption case, it can mean one of two things: that the country is led by an exemplarily incorruptible set of politicians; or that the country is populated by inept journalists.
Good investigative journalism should dig out information that the government hopes to hide.
When The Hindu accessed government documents and published a series of stories that suggested the Rafale deal was not quite all it was cracked up to be, written by the group’s chairperson N Ram, the Centre initially dismissed the reports.
Now, the government has accused The Hindu of “stealing” documents from the Ministry of Defence and has warned that it could use the Official Secret Act, 1923, against the newspaper.
The arguments presented by the government to the Supreme Court – which is currently hearing a series of review petitions regarding its December 2018 verdict that there was no need for a Central Bureau of Investigation inquiry into the Rafale deal – appear to acknowledge three things: one, that the report is authentic; two, that it has failed to protect at least one “official secret”; three, that it is willing to use an act enforced by a paranoid colonial power under threat of losing its dominion, in order to gag the press.
N Ram has contended that Article 19 (1) of the Constitution, which grants citizens the right to freedom of expression, and Sections 8 (1) and (2) of the Right to Information Act, protect his publication.
One would think the reports had endangered the security of the country.
What they have in fact pointed out in the series, with evidence, in that the government bypassed mandated procedures, causing a 41 per cent hike in the price; that the government did away with bank guarantees and waived anti-corruption clauses; that parallel negotiations conducted by the prime minister’s office in 2015 and by the national security advisor Ajit Doval in 2016 had prompted the Ministry of Defence to object, citing that this would weaken the position of the Indian Negotiating Team; that the Indian side’s acceptance of pricing based on an escalation formula instead of a fixed benchmark price cost the exchequer 55.6 per cent more; that the delivery schedules were not met, among other things.
Does the government believe, then, that it is an “official secret” that taxpayers’ money is being unnecessarily lost?
If this is the case, does the government not worry that it couldn’t guard this “secret”, even knowing that there have been demands for information on the deal both from the Parliament and the public?
The petitioners have charged that government officials supplied erroneous facts during the Supreme Court’s hearing of the initial case – an extremely serious accusation.
A report by the Comptroller and Auditor General was tabled several years after the deal was signed, and its findings have been challenged by the petitioners, based on the reports published by The Hindu.
Can the government’s response actually be that the evidence is inadmissible because it was “stolen”?
The bench will resume its hearing on March 14.
At a time when the public has been growing increasingly disillusioned with the apparatus that constitutes a democracy, the three branches of governance, has the “fourth estate” finally stepped up?
For too long, we have been watching talking heads on prime time television shows, debating issues in a manner that makes no real difference except to viewership ratings and in turn advertising revenue.
Where were the good, solid investigative stories that have traditionally brought corrupt governments to book?
Could it be possible that a government which breaks the promise printed on every bank note and turns currency to paper overnight could actually be corruption-free?
There has been the occasional murmur about suspicious business dealings, about the use of political influence for personal gain, but no report has been substantiated indisputably with evidence.
The media organisations which have tried to take on the government are fighting a series of defamation cases.
When a government that has so far relied on claims of defamation now accuses a publication of breaching a law that was enacted to combat espionage, we know the media is doing something right.
With elections round the corner, and unrest along the national borders, this would be a good time to get rid of jingoism in the press.
It would be something of a delicious irony if the name “Ram” were to lose some of its resonance among the current lot of government groupies.
More Columns by Nandini Krishnan:
Abhinandan Varthaman: Hero, yes, but victim firstTokenism won't stop terror attacks
Pulwama attack: When humans become symbols
The legislative dangers of election year
Priyanka and the inheritance of power
The G.O.A.T vote: When opinion offends
The hooligans in our homes
Why the Ambanis should rule India
Five statues the government should build
Nandini is the author of Invisible Men: Inside India's Transmasculine Networks (2018) and Hitched: The Modern Woman and Arranged Marriage (2013). She tweets @k_nandini. Her website is: www.nandinikrishnan.com