All journalists inevitably face temptations where they think they can influence government and other policy-making rather than merely accurately report it. It is the nature of the profession that incestuousness often transmits through a process of osmosis. The membrane between politics and the media or government and the media is known to be porous and their roles can easily permeate between the two sides. The trick is to be able to successfully resist those temptations for the longest period of one’s career.
I express this broad view as a backdrop to the latest in the round of controversies unfolding in India. Ved Prakash Vaidik, a seasoned journalist and scholar as well as a self-proclaimed upholder of all things nationalist Indian, is being buffeted from different sides for meeting Hafiz Saeed, the founder of the terrorist organization the Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), during a recent visit to Pakistan. Under normal circumstances, a journalist meeting anyone at all would be unexceptionable. It is reasonable to view the 70-year-old Vaidik’s meeting with a man widely accused of waging jihadi war against India and proclaimed terrorist as nothing more than doing his job as a journalist. What complicates this meeting, however, is that Vaidik has almost consistently cast himself in the role of someone who has the ear of the government of the day and, in particular, the incumbent government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi whose leadership virtues he has extolled in lofty terms from a public platform. Let us just say that Vaidik has not always done his damndest best to disabuse his many interlocutors over the decades of their perception of his proximity to the powers that be. In a sense, from what I have read and seen he has been known to come across as a journalist plus.
As political controversies go, Vaidik’s meeting with Saeed is an open invitation to be exploited by political detractors of all hues. It is like an early morning bonus hard-on that pops up without any effort. (Sorry to be crass but my mind gives me no choice in the matter). To his credit, Vaidik did not try to hide his meeting with Saeed but, in fact, nearly bragged about it by releasing a photograph of the two together. The controversy has occurred or has been made to occur because Vaidik is seen as a high-profile Narendra Modi acolyte whose meeting with one of the most wanted men in India is begging to be given a mischievous partisan twist. Politicians everywhere are not known to be subtle. They cannot afford to be subtle. In cricketing parlance, if you bowl them a half volley, they are obliged to hit it over the boundary. The Vaidik-Saeed meeting is a political half volley.
It is being implied or at least wondered whether the meeting between an effusive advocate of the new prime minister and a man accused of orchestrating the November 26, 2008, Mumbai terror attacks and many others, has any hidden official backing. The purpose of so wondering is to put the new government on the defensive. It is a fair and reasonable political strategy that any smart political party would eagerly exploit. I have no quarrel with it. As bogus controversies go, this one at least has the merit of grabbing some measure of serious attention. That said, it seems unlikely that Vaidik went to meet Saeed as part of a spectacularly far-thinking plan to engage a man who harbors visceral hatreds for India and who inspires visceral hatreds in India. If it was indeed part of a plan, then it was laughably inept.
This will turn out to be short-lived media-politics theater that will give Vaidik his seven and a half minutes in the limelight. He has said he is going to write about his meeting with Saeed as part of a series of articles resulting from his Pakistan visit. My limited interest in the story relates to the role of a journalist which Vaidik has been. I started out saying that all journalists inevitably face temptations where they think they can influence government and other policy-making rather than just accurately reporting it. This goes to the heart of journalistic neutrality.
Baba Ramdev, a popular yoga teacher with some fairly powerful political connections with whom Vaidik is closely associated, has tried to mitigate the meeting by saying that Vaidik being a patriotic Indian would have tried to cause a change of heart in Saeed. That begs the old question—Is it the role of a journalist to compel a change of heart? The purist might say an unequivocal no. Those who accept moral contamination as the objective reality of the profession might say it is not so straightforward and is necessarily layered. And what do I say? I conveniently say with apologies to Ghalib that the world is a children’s playground where spectacles unfold and conclude everyday and I am just an amused bystander. The only observation I would make with some assertiveness is that it is obvious that Vaidik was acutely aware of the attention he would receive as a result of the meeting. He is relishing it.