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Mainstream, VOL LI, No 28, June 29, 2013

On Nikhil Chakravartty’s 15th Death Anniversary

Monday 1 July 2013, by Neerja Chowdhury


Undoubtedly, the media challenges today are very different from the ones that were faced by the previous generation of journalists. It is a new scene altogether with the competitiveness of 24-hour channels, the compulsion to “break” news—and many channels openly take credit for it, so as to woo more viewers—the “hunger” of the corporate houses to use the media for purposes different than the dissemination of news.

There is the new technology, which facilitates quick access to information, unimagined in the past. And the instant and across-the-globe outreach of the social media, which enables ordinary people to express their views. This, and the irreverence of the medium, is a welcome trend but it also poses a huge challenge on how to prevent, without inflicting a censorship of views, irresponsible damage to reputations.

Social media has also changed the rules of the game and politicians are increasingly getting away from the interview mode of facing journalists and answering questions which could be uncomfortable, and resorting instead to having their “one way”, say, through the twitter or the blogs.

Just as politicians are supposed to be accountable to their voters, who elect them to power, so also are journalists accountable to their readers and viewers for the accuracy of information they provide. That was the traditional.—and old-fashioned if you want to call it that—view. For, after all, it is information which helps people formulate their opinions, so critical in a democracy.

Understandably, the younger journalists today do not want to be lectured about how good the old times were. It is also true that the challenges today have become that much more complex.

But when we bemoan the disappearance of the previous generation of media personalities, like Nikhil Chakravartty, we are paying a tribute not just to their ethical values—this included not betraying confidences, even if it meant letting go of a crack story, and that is why they had such a network of “sources” who gave them information, and what is more they commanded the respect of politicians across the political divide. But in remembering them, we are also remembering the more basic tenet of media functioning that they followed—the legwork which ensured an accuracy of facts they put out in their column space. Unfortunately, the greatest casualty today is accuracy of the information provided.

Media doyens like Nikhil Chakravartty did not rely on one “source”. They corroborated information given by one with information given by others, to ensure that somebody was not planting something on them for their own purposes. Journalists learn very quickly that politicians—as also others—always give infor-mation selectively. And that the picture can be rounded off only when you talk to several people.

Nikhil Chakravartty once remarked to an official in the Prime Minister’s Office, who gave him some information: “Don’t worry, I have already had this piece of information confirmed by several others.”

At government receptions, it is normally journos who queue up to talk to the Ministers present, and this was no different then. But when Nikhil Chakravartty used to go to these events, the Ministers—old-time journalists will tell you this—used to queue up to talk to him. This was so because he was so well-connected, and so clued in, that Ministers often wanted to get information from him. This was as true of the Indira Gandhi regime, as of the Rajiv Gandhi Government, or the V.P. Singh, Chandra Shekhar, I.K. Gujral, H.D. Deve Gowda Ministries, and of course when P.V. Narasimha Rao was the Prime Minister, who he had known closely for many years.

H.K.L. Bhagat once asked him: “You will be able to tell me whether they are going to keep me in the Cabinet. What is your information?”

Nikhil Chakravartty constantly encouraged younger reporters, tipped them off, was happy to hold discussions with them, and gave them important steers. Many of us would call on him in the evening—he would mostly call us individually at tea time, and many of us would similarly call on Madhu Limaye at his Pandara Park residence and he was equally welcoming and supportive to journalists.

Sometimes there were pakoras with the tea—when we would find Nikhilda reading, sitting in his easy chair He once told me: “Get to know Rajesh Pilot, he is emerging as P.V. Narasimha Rao’s blue-eyed boy and Rao will use him to clip S.B. Chavan’s wings.” That is precisely what happened, when Pilot was appointed Interior Minister when Chavan was Home Minister. Chavan was a very close associate of Rao but Pilot’s appointment gave the then PM flexibility of functioning in the Home Ministry, a game he was adept at.

Once I went to see Bhuvanesh Chaturvedi, who was a Minister of State in the PMO during Narasimha Rao’s premiership. Nikhil Chakra-vartty was sitting there. Chaturvedi had just returned from an important trip with the PM to the US and was talking about it, about what had transpired in Washington and how Rao had handled the then US President. Bill Clinton, who had been impressed by him. When Chaturvedi went out of the room for a few moments, Nikhilda turned to me and said: “You know, it is better sometimes not to interrupt the person who is talking to you. If you ask questions they suddenly become conscious of the information they are revealing which may not be the case when they are in free flow and you may in the final analysis get more information that way.”

I had been interjecting Chaturvedi’s “free flow” with questions—and learnt a very important less that day.

Nikhil Chakravartty had a knack of getting people to open out to him and win their confidence. Politicians would talk to him openly because they trusted him that he would not betray their confidence, and the information which was meant to remain off-the-record would really remain so, and would neither be anecdoted at parties nor used in articles.

It is not unnatural for journalists to subscribe to political views/ideologies and the Mainstream was started in 1962 to kick off a debate on major issues facing the country, reflecting different points of view. It would reflect the views of the highly respected journalist C.N. Chitta Ranjan, who helped Nikhil Chakravartty bring out Mainstream, or of Socialist Ram Manohar Lohia or the Leftist Mohan Kumaramangalam.

But Chakravartty was staunchly opposed to journalists getting the Padma awards and had himself turned down a Padma Vibhushan given to him during V.P. Singh’s prime ministership.

It was an open secret in political circles that during the 1975-77 Emergency promulgated by Indira Gandhi, Narasimha Rao used to write anonymous articles in the Mainstream opposing it. But towards the end of his life, there was some tension in his relationship with Rao because an unpublished play written by Rao, based on his life, which he had given to Nikhil Chakravartty to read, made its way into the first issue of the magazine Outlook when it was started. Nikhil Chakravartty had given it to the editors of the magazine, also friends of his, to read it. But later, as he said quite sadly, that he had given the manuscript to them on the understanding that it would not be used.

The author is a senior journalist and political commentator whose columns regularly appear in different publications.

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