Aniruddha Bahal, a life which is instructive to journalists of our times
It’s possible you haven’t heard of Aniruddha Bahal. Let’s concede a generation these days is leaping every 10 and not 30 years. That journalism is just a career where your ideology, and not news in itself, is the building block.
So Bahal talks. In his autobiography “A Taste for Trouble” he tells us of his journey. He is still tall, he is still loose-limbed and he is still in business. But he knows your editors don’t talk about him, there are no anniversaries on his “stings,” there are no recollections on news pages which has just carried one more interview of Shobhaa De.
Not that he minds. His career has never been about occupying the floor which faces the Indian Ocean. Celebrities and politicians are there to mock, and not to grovel. If today he is addressing us, its for Indian journalism to pause and think. To see if something better comes out of his life he has just allowed us in.
So let me take you a quarter century back, when a young lanky “Outlook” reporter accosts me in South Africa, hitches on to a free ride which is taking us to Wanderers, arguably a callow to me, who by the end of the cricket tour had ripped the very cushions on which we sit, high in the press box, where cricketers are just scarecrows in whites on ground below and public a nuisance which tries to peek into our privileged world from time to time.
Bahal is aghast some of us bet on cricket matches. Brazenly, loudly as if it’s par for course. He hangs a few of us out to dry in his report. Heads roll. Elephants in the room are yanked out of the door. Bahal has just swung his first axe at the hierarchy. They now call him an “investigative journalist” and he thinks he better takes it seriously. Never mind, the subjects of his attention are wary and hushed silence would greet his entry into rooms henceforth.
Next is his interview with Manoj Prabhakar. The Indian all-rounder claims he was offered big money by a team-mate to underperform in Sri Lanka in 1994. The cricket board first sues, then holds a sham of an inquiry by a former Chief Justice of India. The inquiry predictably finds nothing amiss. Aniruddha is now a pariah in cricket establishment.
But life is good. His editor in Outlook, the celebrated Vinod Mehta, has just found an ace in him, to breach the citadel of rivals India Today which is now a weekly. Dossiers on corruption by Pakistan cricketers are landing at his door. Now he doesn’t have to plead: He invites himself to my rented apartment in London for the 1999 World Cup. I watch him with game’s high and mighty. Cricket’s TV czar Mark Mascarenhas is by his side; he is moving in Imran Khan’s cadillac, or whatever, We are now his poor cousins.
There are signs that he is now serious about cricket journalism which he had once thought was a guest role for his magazine. He is lured by Mascarenhas to launch a cricket magazine but just in nick of time, Tarun Tejpal, his mentor at first India Today and now Outlook, scoops him into the upcoming dot-com bubble: How about seeking investors and starting one of our own?
He had already booked a domain “Tehelka” and together with Tejpal and adman Suhel Seth he hops on to a plane to Mumbai where an investor agrees to bet his $8 million on the proposal. One doesn’t know what clinched that deal: If it was their names, now well-known, or the promise that similar stings would be so big you won’t need to spend big bucks on advertising.
It arguably was set to change the face of Indian journalism.
Tehelka began with more muck on cricket. The Hansie Cronje saga was just about roiling world cricket. It was too good a moment to lose for gents whose trousers had recently acquired deep pockets. Prabhakar again was a vehicle. This time as an undercover reporter. For weeks and months he is visiting the likes of Sunny Gavaskar, Ravi Shastri and Ajit Wadekar, those he had allegedly informed about the team-mate who had offered him big money to underperform in Sri Lanka. That team-mate he alleges is Kapil Dev. This undercover documentary, Fallen Heroes, measured Richter 10 on scale of Indian media.
Bahal had wetted his beak. He is riding a tiger: But he is nothing without his identity which needs fresh validation all the time. He now wants to probe whether India’s defence establishment is open to lure if the bait is good enough. This digging took him deeper into the country’s highest corridors. A defence minister had to resign (temporarily though); a party president (Bangauru Laxman of BJP) was caught on camera with cash. Tehelka seized masses’ imagination. But it earned Bahal sworn enemies: Not just political establishment. Even the media pond had turned toxic. Cricketers were enemies you could afford. Not those who had power, police and premises where the law is enforced.
Those 13 years and what he lost
From this moment onwards, midway through the book, Bahal’s journey is instructive for journalists of ours and next generation. He is spending more and more time with lawyers and in front of commissions and courts. From ISI to naxalites to insurgents to raid by CBI, he is dragged through the mud along with his crack team. Let’s give him an ear at this stage:
“Then again, between 2001 and 2014…for these 13 years, it becomes affidavits and writs and replies to applications and other legal stuff, as I am involved in several court proceedings…If I tabulate the days (I spent in court), it adds up to 676 days, or nearly two whole years of my life. I am discounting here the many days I spend preparing for the court proceedings, giving statements to police officers and spending time at the offices of my lawyers.”
This is also the period when Bahal parts with Tehelka. He also gives up his stakes in the company and brand which he had helped seed and grow. He is not too enamoured of Tejpal’s “professional ethics” but not bitter enough to discount a “brilliant editor and writer” in him. He has launched his “Cobrapost”, an online venture, where he sells his exposes to willing media houses, mostly TV channels, and even anchors himself as a stylised “Tony B” making a fool of celebrities on Channel V. Cobrapost is today a decade and a half old, and has umpteen revelations on India’s parliamentarians, banks, IT companies and media, among others. It should’ve shaken the system. It doesnt. Bahal is more of a Lone Wolf now.
So Cobrapost runs. Bahal is back to authoring new books which once fetched him international contracts in millions of Indian rupees. They also ran into multilingual editions. He is still venturing into destinations nobody does: The likes of Basra and Baghdad, Najaf and Erbil. He’s still hopping in and out of jets. But it’s not the same. His a voice which needs a ship that floats on money. Editors who could splash what he brings on to the editorial tables. All that pomp and pizazz.
Bahal tells us of the choices Indian journalists are left with. He tells us that every piece of journalism becomes “investigative” if it is dug deep enough. To be independent, and ambitious, be ready to have fewer and fewer friends, find editors who support but exact a price, possibly gallows that Powers have in mind for you. Or suck up to them, and be so good at it that ownership of a media house comes in a gift wrap. Those who are neither, fall through the crack, and are struggling to pay the EMIs for the rest of their lives. It’s a 1-9-90 ratio between the three and Bahal is in that rare 1%. Where does it leave India’s gullible billion is better not fathomed.
We are still in touch, small-town boys, two daughters each, one each of similar name and spelling; and we both wake up at night worrying about the exam in physics (maths in my case) next morning. Aniruddha has been unfettered; I too have been free from the constraints of editorial desks. Our world view is dissimilar though but its not worth losing your shirt. We both probably know that journalists in this country are either Useful Idiots to Powers; or Useless to matter.
And then there are some.
(The book "A Taste for Trouble", published by Context (Westland) is available on bookstores and on Amazon to buy)
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