Apologies if the title of this post led you to believe that an upcoming release of Microsoft’s enterprise email client is its subject matter. The topic is technology alright, but not the technology of electronic mail. The technology of smoke-and-mirrors journalism perfected by some esteemed members of the Indian media is, in my view, equally interesting and fascinating.
The Congress-led UPA govt is neck deep in the muck of the 2G scam. A former minister is in jail. A close associate of his is found dead in mysterious circumstances. Chances of derailing the investigation and bailing out the accused are stymied, primarily, by a Supreme Court that is monitoring the case with determination. But the said chances are also jeopardized by a few good men who, wittingly or unwittingly, are arrayed against the government in this sordid affair. Among them is a man called Arun Shourie.
This man is a powerful opponent to take on. His power does not draw from any position or post conferred on him by a higher authority. It emanates from the immense credibility and conviction he carries with the thinking people of the country.
It is in this backdrop that Outlook magazine comes out with a cover story alleging that Shourie, as disinvestment minister in the NDA government, favored Tatas in the disinvestment of VSNL. The magazine claims it has unearthed a “monutain of documents” in this connection. Some of these documents — presumably the tip of the said mountain — are published in the magazine. I read these secret documents several times and found nothing sensational about them. In fact a summary of them is available in the CAG report that the magazine refers to. As you know, anybody with an internet connection and a mouse can do the needed point-and-click to download a CAG report. These documents definitely are not, for example, excerpts from Martin Ardbo’s diary about the Lotus account, or extracts from A Raja’s diary about Swan Telecom. Outlook spalshes these documents all over, and creates an aura of intrigue, mystery and sleaze. In fact, Outlook goes a step forward: a letter marked (not by Shourie!) as “personal and confidential” is claimed to have been marked as “private and confidential”. What’s with a few liberties with truth when a Great Conspiracy is being exposed, eh.
The NDA government decides to disinvest 25% stake in VSNL through the “strategic partnership” route. Bids are invited.
It so happens that the government decides that some 770 acres of land owned by VSNL are not really needed by the company. This land is designated as “surplus land”. It is decided that the strategic partner (SP) shall not have any stake or rights in the property. Instead, the plan is to “demerge” the land into a separate company/entity.
VSNL is a listed company. The market price of its scrip reflects the company’s ownership of surplus land also. Accordingly, after demerger, VSNL’s shareholders shall acquire stake in this new entity proportionate to their shareholding in VSNL.
A clause is added to the effect that in the event that the demerger does not materialize, the SP may acquire rights in the property by paying for 25% of the land value, subject to the government’s consent.
Tatas win the bid for VSNL. Reliance lose.
The demerger does not happen. Tatas claim legal and other hassles in hiving off the land into a separate entity, and so propose (in accordance with the aforementioned clause) that the government allow them to pay for 25% of the land value (which value, by the way, shall be determined by property prices obtaining as of the day of sale of the land).
Enter Outlook. “Shourie’s Gift to Tatas”, bellows the cover. What is the “proof” that he favored Tatas? The fact the the demerger did not happen during his tenure as minister!
There are actually a litany of allegations. The main part of the cover story confines itself to the land aspect of the allegations. But the magazine’s Woodwards and Bernsteins, knowing perhaps that on the question of land they are on shaky ground (no pun intended), also add various supplementary claims to the main claim, perhaps to strengthen their case against Shourie. These supplementary claims have nothing to do with the land question.
So a few questions to Outlook naturally arise.
Let us dispense with the more ludicrous part of the story first: the supplementary allegations. These claims relate to the facts that VSNL’s tax liability was written off before disinvestment, that it had substantial cash reserves at the time of disinvestment, that BSNL’s and MSNL’s ILD traffic was assured to it post-disinvestment, yada yada, blah blah etc etc. But, Einstein, (or is it Bernstein?): how exactly do these claims prove that Shourie “gifted” anything to Tatas? All these decisions were taken before the bids were opened! These decisions would have “benefitted” — if they benefitted at all — whoever the successful bidder was going to be, which the Tatas just happened to be! The only way these decisions could have helped Tatas specifically was if Shourie manipulated the bids to help Tatas win. If Outlook’s “mountain of documents” includes evidence to that effect, the magazine and its sleuths should not waste a nanosecond in presenting it to the nation pronto.
The second question relates to the Big Claim: that land was “gifted to Tatas. In its infinite wisdom, Outlook claims that disinvestment of VSNL should have been halted till the demerger question was settled. That’s a point that is definitely worth debating with Outlook’s smart set of journos over a glass of beer, but still: how does that claim prove that Shourie “gifted” the land to Tatas? What if Reliance had won the bid? (Easy, smartypants, Outlook would have then proved that Shourie gifted the land to Ambani!)
The fact of the matter is that till date Tatas have no ownership in the surplus land. The question of its demerger remains unsettled, and the action rests with the government. Nowhere in Outlook’s pages is this point clearly, explicitly stated — perhaps because doing so would not really help advance the magazine’s line.
The only way Outlook can justify its wretched story is by conjuring up a deep-rooted conspiracy that, to make sense, must have been hatched only after the disinvestment. So, for argument’s sake, let us assume that the the demerger did not happen due not to the complications involved with the process (as claimed by Tatas), but to inaction on part of NDA/Shourie. Is that inaction deliberate? Did Shourie collude with Tatas? Jumping to a conclusion in the affirmative raises another question: Did Outlook’s Bernstien go around asking why UPA-1 and UPA-2 also sat on the decision? The disinvestmnent happened nine years ago. Of these nine years, Shourie was in power for only two years, whereas the Congress successfully completed a scamful seven years. Who in the current dispensation did Outlook talk to to ascertain as to what did the two UPA governments do in the demerger department? What does Outlook’s “mountain of documents” reveal about the government’s intentions on this matter? Moreover, since the decision-maker today is Congress, not NDA, surely Outlook’s cover story ought to have been on the latter’s inaction? Or is Outlook the Rip Van Winkle of Indian media : waking up after several years, rubbing eyes in disbelief when told that the NDA governemnt is long gone?
Just as intriguing: Outlook does not talk to the Tatas either! That makes it TWO key players that the mag does not talk to in the process of unearthing the great truth, the first being the UPA government. Why was the Tatas’ version of the story not covered?
Finally, a concluding note. Saikat Datta, Outlook staffer, claims in response to Rajiv Mantri’s blogpost that the “discovery” of surplus land “just” ten days before VSNL’s disinvestment “should have halted the whole process”. I wonder why. Are there any international best practices on this matter that Datta can quote? I do not expect a proactive, energetic government to bring its key policy initiatives to a grinding halt because there are obstacles in its way. I expect it to work around those hurdles creatively, pursuing the end goal relentlessly.
But I am on a different point. It is not only Outlook that can define standards for others. Media consumers want journalists to aim for high standards too. Let us expect Outlook to uphold the highest principles of journalism. This story was about land. Tatas are into realty. I believe Outlook’s promoters, the Raheja group, are also into realty. Journalistic ethics demand that Outlook should have made a full disclosure of its promoters’ business interests in a box story along side the main story. Why was this not done?