On 21 July 2015, R Jagannathan, the editor-in-chief of Firstpost—an Indian news website that comes under the Reliance Industries-owned media conglomerate: the Network18 group—published an opinion piece on the digital platform. This article, titled GST, Land Bill on Hold: Modi May Have to Rethink Jaitley as Finance Minister, came at a time when the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) was fighting fires on several fronts. Two of the party’s senior leaders, the Minister of External Affairs Sushma Swaraj and Vasundhara Raje, the chief minister of Rajasthan, were embroiled in a controversy over their alleged links with Lalit Modi, the architect of the Indian Premier League (IPL); the Vyapam scam relating to irregularities in the Madhya Pradesh Professional Examination Board (MPPEB) was gathering steam; and the current dispensation was not making any inroads with its much-publicised land acquisition bill. In his article, Jagannathan took note of the BJP’s predicament and argued that the Goods and Services Tax (GST) bill that the party was attempting to push in the parliament would only add to its problems. Terming the GST bill an example of “the finance ministry's weak response to the emerging economic situation,” he went on to criticise, in no uncertain terms, the Finance Minister Arun Jaitley for being an “underperformer.” “Arun Jaitley may be an excellent lawyer and debater, but he has not shown the sharpness required to run the finance ministry,” Jagannathan wrote. He added, “It does not benefit Modi to have Jaitley as FM when he has just three more budgets to go and lots of daily hard work to do.” On 2 August 2015, the article was removed from Firstpost. It can still be accessed on in.com, another news portal that is a part of Network18. Jagannathan has also reproduced the piece on his personal blog, Newsthink, under the headline, The Modi Government’s Achilles’ Heel.
Three or four days after the article first went live, Jagannathan had a meeting with some of the board members of Network18. According to Lakshmi Chaudhry, the former executive editor and co-founder of Firstpost, “a diktat was issued in that meeting that from now on there will be no criticism of certain political leaders. The decision to pull the piece on Jaitley was a part of the same conversation.” A senior official, who has been employed with Network18 for several years and was aware of the recent developments at Firstpost, told me that this directive stated that the website could not carry any criticism of “the big three” in the BJP. No story published on Firstpost could upset the BJP’s troika. On 30 July, a little after this meeting took place, Chaudhry decided to resign from her position at Firstpost.
A couple of days later, Chaudhry announced her decision to leave the organisation during a staff meeting. According to a person who was present at the meeting and has been a part of the website’s editorial team for over three years, Chaudhry told her staff that she was leaving because of “editorial pushback.” This person told me that Jagannathan was also present at the meeting and assured the staff that he is working on finding a middle ground by indicating that he would be “having a discussion with the management.” However, when I reached out to Jagannathan for a response to this story, he declined to say anything.
While Chaudhry, who had been with the website since January 2011, did not reveal the identity of the BJP leaders that this directive concerns, she did tell me that she considered it impossible to run a news website if certain political figures were considered “off-bound.” She said, “I couldn’t have done my job. So I decided to quit. It was a terribly painful decision to make—after four-and-a-half years of hard work—but it had to be made.”
When Reliance Industries acquired Network18 group in May 2014, the takeover was surrounded by a prevailing sense of anxiety about the editorial independence that publications under the media group would be able to exercise. However, according to Chaudhry there were no instances of censorship before this one. “It had been a very hands-off relationship since the takeover; I was never asked to publish this or remove that,” she said, before adding, “but when it did come, it was not negotiable.”