Old Habits Die Hard

Old Habits Die Hard

Aaj Tak is the latest to make a charge of corruption against a minister. Too bad the rest of the media refuses to report on it.

By Rajyasree Sen

Published on :

It seems to be tough times for the ruling party of India. Suddenly like Chicken Little they have to run helter-skelter because the sky is falling around them. Accusations, counter-accusations, you almost feel sorry for the persecuted lot of them.

First, it was Robert Vadra’s turn. Arvind Kejriwal alleged that Vadra had assets disproportionate to his wealth and pointed a finger at Vadra’s relationship with DLF for his sudden fortune. That this wasn’t new news of course missed everyone. The Economic Times had raised the matter in March 2011. But not one newspaper or news channel at that time including ET itself – did any follow-up reports. So you can’t blame poor Vadra for carrying on running through Lodi Gardens, pumping iron and posting fitness tips on Facebook without a care in the world. Little did he know that the tides they were a turning. And the rest as we say is history.

But as was expected, the media interest in the Vadra case has already started waning. And just when the Congress heaved a sigh of relief and thought that the dust was settling, another allegation has reared its ugly head. This time around, the Congress can’t blame Kejriwal and the Opposition or any foreign hand for it. Seemingly following the old adage of letting someone cast the first stone and then the mob stepping in, Aaj Tak decided to conduct a sting on the country’s Law Minister, Salman Khurshid – who had just headed off to London after swearing to lay down his life in defence of Madame.

And before you could say “Bob’s my son-in-law”, the government has another corruption charge on its hands. This time it’s the innovatively named Operation Dhritarashtra. It was aired on Aaj Tak on Oct 9, 2012 with the headline “Khul Gaye Khurshid Ke Trust Ke Pole” (A rather rude way of saying that the lid’s been blown off the Khurshid trust).

Salman Khurshid and his wife run the Zakir Hussain Memorial Trust which works with the physically handicapped. According to the sting op, the Union Ministry for Social Welfare and Empowerment had granted Rs 71.50 lakh to the Trust to distribute tricycles and hearing aids to the disabled in 17 districts of Uttar Pradesh. The exposé claimed that the Zakir Hussain Memorial Trust had siphoned off this money and never conducted the camps or handed out the aids.

The sting op started dramatically enough with interviews at Salman Khurshid’s constituency with the beneficiaries of the trust who are supposed to receive the tricycles and hearing aids. The beneficiaries interviewed claimed on camera that they had not received any aids from the trust. The channel claimed that the Khurshids had forged signatures of senior officials on documents claiming camps were organised, which never took place. Documents were also submitted to release funds which were never dispersed to the beneficiaries. Many of the beneficiaries who were named, do not even exist. The Ministry of Social Justice had even asked for a probe into the activities and operations of the trust. Even the field reports seem to have forged signatures. While on one hand the equipment was never distributed, on the other the camps were never held.

Louise Khurshid, in her defence, sent an affidavit to Headlines Today claiming that the trust activities are above board, and that the claims of false documents and signatures were basically – false. But the affidavit which she sent and which is endorsed by a JB Singh, Mainpuri’s Chief Development Officer was also found to be fake, which JB Singh says on camera to the team. Subramanian Swamy who was a guest on the show did say that if the Khurshids had been careless and misled by their teams, which is quite possible, they are still answerable and responsible for the functioning of the trust and the matter needs to be investigated. Kiran Bedi said that while it needed to be investigated, the question was by whom would it be investigated.

While Khurshid has refused to speak to Aaj Tak/Headlines Today, it hasn’t stopped him from hitting out with a number of threats to Kejriwal or the channel. (Kejriwal, following the sting, has asked for Khurshid’s immediate resignation.) Khurshid has in the meantime also spoken to NDTV 24X7 and spouted sparklers like, “We’ll take care of Mr Kejriwal in due course, don’t worry” to calling Kejriwal and the Today Group “worse than guttersnipes” and also said that “he’s been waiting all his life for a fight like this”. Which was the most bizarre statement of the lot.

Whether the exposé’s claims are accurate or not, only future investigations can reveal. What is impressive is that suddenly no ruling party seems to be off-limits. It’s as if Kejriwal has opened up a can of worms, and everyone has the courage to take on Goliath.

There is a disconcerting pattern which cannot be ignored, though. While Khurshid was on every panel discussion post the Vadra affair, shouting Vadra’s innocence to anyone who had tuned in, he’s strangely silent on the accusations being hurled at him. (Much like Vadra is conspicuous in his absence – and I must say sorely missed by his facebook friends who are now bereft at the sudden loss of their celebrity fitness guru.) Khurshid has given an interview to NDTV 24X7, which also carries his wife’s “Briefing Note” refuting the claims made in the sting in toto.

And that’s where the second part of the pattern can be spotted. Khurshid may be silent simply because it seems no media house wants to touch this story with a barge-pole, much like they behaved in March 2011 after the Vadra-DLF relationship had been questioned by ET. The media has carried news of his threats to sue Kejriwal and Aaj Tak. But nothing on the allegations made in Operation Dhristarashtra – either just relating the charges, agreeing with them or questioning them. It’s almost as if the media has taken the title of the sting op to heart and decided to turn a blind eye to it. Or could it be a simple case of envy, that commenting on or replicating the details of the sting op would give a competing media house publicity, so the media would rather ignore the findings of Operation Dhritarashtra?

Or is it that Louise Khurshid was correct when she told Outlook over a decade ago that, “I must say all the local scribes love me”.