It is rare in Indian journalism for the same journalist to be at the centre of two major investigations, 30 years apart.
In 1989, Narasimhan Ram was Associate Editor of the family-owned newspaper The Hindu when he, along with Chitra Subramaniam, dug into the #Bofors gun deal that set the stage for Rajiv Gandhi’s downfall.
In 2019, Ram, now the chairman of The Hindu Publishing Group after having done his time as Editor-in-Chief, has bit into the #Rafale aircraft deal dogging the BJP-led government of Narendra Modi.
Q: How would you compare the response of the media to the two scandals?
N. Ram: At that time, there was a real race in the media to the get to the bottom of the deal. Newspapers like The Indian Express under Arun Shourie went hell for leather. The Statesman under C.R. Irani too did its bit. Express opened its pages to Ram Jethmalani, who asked 10 questions a day to the then Prime Minister. India Today helped to take the story forward.
There has been not been a like response from the news media this time. Although there has been a fair bit of investigation, it has mostly been in the digital news space, through sites like The Wire and Scroll, but it is not quite the same thing. I must also mention The Caravan; it’s an excellent publication for long-form journalism and has done some useful investigative work on Rafale. The Indian Express was on to the story initially but has stopped or should we say, paused, since we haven’t heard the end of the Rafale scandal yet.
Q: Why do you think the rest of the media has been reluctant to join in?
N. Ram: Broadly, the chilling effect is in play, the overarching fear of Narendra Modi. But it is also a reflection on the increasingly comprised character of the so-called mainstream media. Whatever independence the media enjoyed back during the Bofors days appears to have eroded. There is a kind of quiescence.
The Hindu put in a lot of resources, human and financial, into the Bofors investigation and went all out. That does not appear to be the case now, with news organisations, whose business models are already under attack, overeager to give the benefit of the doubt to the establishment, quite unlike then.
Q: In 1989, when your uncle G. Kasturi, as Editor, declined to carry any more instalments of Bofors in The Hindu, you went public and handed out your story to others. Would today’s media carry the Rafale story if you gave it out?
N. Ram: I am not sure. I think a few would carry it but not on the same scale newspapers around the country carried the Bofors story. There is a lot more fear today, probably what you would expect from weakened and compromised news media. That said, I am very pleased The Hindu carried the Rafale story prominently now, because it did not carry the final Bofors stories then!
Q: What kind of future do you envisage for investigative journalism in this scenario, going forward?
N. Ram: You would think the rise of social media would amplify the findings of investigative journalism and give them a boost. However, because of the nature of the medium, and because of the relentless avalanche of news and events, there is a tendency to ‘move on’ towards the trivial and the tactile. In the era of shrinking attention spans, it will become increasingly difficult for a story to survive beyond a few news cycles unless it is very big and unless others join in. In the end, this kind of accent on the superficial can only render our democracy shallow.
Screenshots: courtesy N. Ram and The Hindu
Photograph: By special arrangement!
Also read: How The Indian Express is covering Rafale compared to Bofors
Ravi Nair: the journalist who pushed the Rafale deal into the national consciousness
Bofors expose in Columbia J-school alumni’s list of “50 great stories”