Ruchir Joshi | Apr 12, 2015
Before I come to the actual contents of The Tweet, let me clarify a few things. One, my opinion of V K Singh will forever be influenced by what a gruff, old General sahab once said to me over his lunch-time gin: “What can you say about a chap who doesn’t know his own damned birthday?” Two, like one or two other lieutenants of the Great Namander, picked for their ‘glamour’ or ‘profile’ rather than any innate ability to run a ministry, V K Singh is clearly suffering in the field, his command under threat, and the stress is showing in the series of bad decisions (read tweets) that the ex-COS has recently made. Three, there are a few good things we should have retained from our erstwhile angrez rulers and keeping retired senior military men out of active politics is one of them.
The unwritten rule in the UK and quite a few other European countries is that, once you rise above a certain rank in the military, you automatically bar yourself from anything like a political career. This is a good rule: it keeps top-level command decisions from being influenced by anybody’s future ambitions; it stops old generals, air marshals and admirals from interfering in military matters; it ensures that the defence minister will always be a civilian providing critical checks and balances for the armed forces; it protects against a certain military mindset from bleeding into civilian life, where the requirements of a democracy are fundamentally opposed to the unquestioning obedience all top brass have got used to over their careers. In short, it’s regrettable that any retired general should enter politics in India. In any case, V K Singh was an utterly avoidable choice, and it’s now clear that he’s out of his depth in the job he’s been given. Next, I myself am not a great devotee of Arnab Goswami, but the one thing I wouldn’t call the man is ‘bikaau’. Other than this, V K Singh’s tweet has more than a grain of truth in it, especially the bit about ‘presstitutes’.
Let me explain. When I started freelancing for newspapers in the early ’80s, a ‘dada’ type guy a few years my senior explained things to me succinctly. “Listen, in the Indian press you can attack anyone. You can investigate and blow the lid off anyone’s shenanigans: politicians, policemen, filmstars, cricketers — anyone except the big business houses.” Having spent his career trying to overturn this omerta with highly mixed results, the man is now a highly respected journalist. And not enough has changed since our conversation 30-odd years ago. Across this time, I’ve heard countless stories of journalists getting the sack when they tried to carry a story the financial powers-that-be didn’t like. Adding to the embargo about big business houses, there has also been an ‘honour among thieves’ type code in place: as far as possible don’t carry stories critical of fellow journos. Recently, there have been two exceptions to this, when the scale of the story engulfed the code — first in the Nira Radia business and then the Tarun Tejpal case. Occasionally, under pressure from the foreign press and the various net-mavericks, there have been some notable exceptions to the ‘don’t touch the business houses’ rule. Other than that, it’s fair to say that Indian reporters and journalists have always worked under some pressure of self-censorship and compromise, the boundary lines shifting depending on which news group or TV channel you work for.
In the months before the last Lok Sabha elections, a new twist seemed to have been added to the general moral destitution of our fourth estate. Suddenly, reports began coming in that the Sangh Parivar team was ‘pressing hard in the opposition’s half ‘ — that is, they were being aggressive in challenging or getting removed journalists deemed hostile to them. This was happening even as rumours abounded that the volteface of certain “secular” editors was because they had been simply bought over. Whether the stories were true or not, certainly eye-catching were the musical chairs being played in a fast blur among people in the country’s top editorial organisations. Add to this the various takeovers of TV channels by this or that business house and you can sort of see the route to the abusive coinage of ‘presstitutes’. It’s an untrue cliche that minds steeped in military manoeuvres usually lack a sense of humour and are blind to irony. History provides us several examples of witty and self-aware generals but perhaps V K Singh is not among them. Had he been, he might have hesitated before broadcasting this little coinage, realizing that if the Indian fourth estate is a house of ill-repute, then its most frequent customers, not to mention its managers, are people from his own political formation. He might also have given a thought to all the ‘keeping’ our politicians owe to the oligarchs. In any case, one coinage often inspires another — so I, for one, would much rather be a presstitute than a polstitute.