Last week, on 23 December 2015, the Bharatiya Janata Party suspended Kirti Azad—the former cricketer and MP. Azad was suspended for defying the party’s orders and publicly raising the issue of corruption in the Delhi District Cricket Association (DDCA), particularly during the presidential tenure of Arun Jaitley—the finance and information and broadcasting minister of India—from 2000 to 2013. Late that evening, I got a call from Times Now asking me to appear for the channel’s 9 pm show—The Newshour. As is customary, I was asked about my views on the matter before my interview was recorded, and I expressed them. They were not very complimentary to Jaitley. Within minutes, I got a call, this time, to ask me if I could express myself on the matter with some caution. I answered that the only caution I would exercise was journalistic. I soon received another call from a person more senior in the organisational hierarchy, and we ran through the same conversation. To be fair to the channel, in all my years of appearing on various shows, this was the first time any representatives had suggested that I exercise restraint in expressing my views. A few minutes later, I got called once again claiming the OB (outside broadcasting) van that was headed to my flat was stuck in traffic. Coincidentally, the van never made it.
Somehow, where Jaitley is concerned, such coincidences are the norm across the media. This is a phenomenon Praveen Donthi, a staff writer with The Caravan, has described in some detail in his excellent May 2015 profile of the man. Having spent the first few years of my reporting life outside Delhi, I first encountered Jaitley in Bhopal in 2003 when he had come to take charge of the BJP Assembly campaign against Digvijaya Singh, then chief minister of the state. During that period, Jaitley would hold a daily mid-afternoon press conference to puncture some claim or the other of the Digvijaya administration. In the evening, he would hold court in the presence of a select few journalists from the state as well as several of those who had traveled from Delhi to report the elections.
Very early on I realised the pointlessness of such interactions. There was very little information on offer, much gossip and an attempt to foster an intimacy that seemed to favour only one side—Jaitley. I can still remember a story he related at one of the evenings I attended. Jaitley was explaining why he felt India Today, under its then editor Prabhu Chawla, was gunning for him. The story, that involved columnist Swapan Dasgupta and Chawla was scurrilous and unprintable. But I do recall being taken aback by the ease with which Jaitley could betray the confidences of even those such as Dasgupta—who continues to be considered close to him—to a complete stranger. Four years later, I met Jaitley again at the BJP office in Ahmedabad where I had gone to cover the 2007 Gujarat Assembly elections. As I spoke to Jaitley, Dasgupta sat at his feet taking dictation for a press release. By then I had spent a few years in Delhi, and nothing that Lutyens’ insiders put themselves through in their need to be close to power could surprise me.
This intimacy, fostered as it is by gossip, with a select number of journalists serves as a conduit for the numerous stories in the media that reflect Jaitley’s viewpoints. His network of journalists is formidable. His proximity to owners such as Shobana Bhartia of the Hindustan Times or the Jains of the Times of India completes a circle of influence in the media unmatched in Indian politics.
This circle of influence extends to industrialists, top lawyers, bankers, television anchors, editors and Delhi socialites. Isolated from the rest of the country, it has always had access to power under any government, so much so that getting work done at the very highest level is a matter of a phone call or two. It is a circle that has managed to convince itself that Jaitley is a misfit in his own party, a moderate among the hardliners of the Sangh. During the campaign in Madhya Pradesh and Gujarat, I had seen enough evidence of his belief in hardline Hindutva, but in the circle of privilege around Jaitley, this reality is subsumed in the false intimacy created by class, accent and access.