Chats of Arnab Goswami expose the Government even more than the anchor and businessman
The sensational chats between Republic TV’s owner Arnab Goswami and former BARC Partho Dasgupta reveal the ugly underbelly of the media, the government and the regulators
T he government has not yet responded to the growing demand for a formal inquiry into the controversial WhatsApp chats retrieved by Mumbai Police and submitted as part of its charge sheet in the TRP (Television Rating Points) scam. But the chats do call for a deeper probe because like the Radia Tapes, they reveal the nexus between business, regulators and the government.
The chats also raise uncomfortable questions about the breach of military secret and operational details, the Balakot air strike, speak of ‘buying’ a judge and manipulating Television Rating Points. Even the supposedly independent Telecom Regulatory Authority (TRAI) does not come away unscathed. The Home Minister and the PMO, the chats indicate, were not averse to arm twisting TRAI and the rival channels of Goswami.
The casual suggestion of ‘buying’ a judge, made apparently in all seriousness, appears to attract contempt of court. And it remains to be seen if the Supreme Court, law students and the Attorney General react as pro-actively as they have in the case of several cartoonists, journalists and stand-up comics.
Former Defence Minister A.K. Antony has raised the breach of military secret. No man in uniform, he says, would have leaked sensitive details of the air-strike at Balakot. He pointed out that such details are not even shared with all cabinet ministers. Only three or four cabinet ministers, the National Security Advisor (NSA) and three or four bureaucrats, he says, would have been privy to the operation.
One of these civilians, he suspects, leaked the military secret to Arnab Goswami three days before the air-strike. This, he says emphatically, is an act of treason and the guilty must be punished. “Leaking of official secret is a criminal act, leaking official secrets about sensitive military operations amounts to treason and is an anti-national activity; whoever is involved, must be punished,” he added.
Three hours after the Pulwama terror attack, chats show, Goswami was gloating to Dasgupta, saying “We won like crazy”. While Goswami was in all probability referring to the coverage of the attack on his TV channels, the boast in hindsight appears jarring and inappropriate. A shocked and outraged nation was in mourning but the TV anchor seemed exulting in having capitalised on a tragedy to get more eyeballs.
Three days before India retaliated by hitting Balakot in Pakistan, Goswami appeared to know what was coming. But more significantly, he seemed certain that the military action would be carried out in such a way that people would be ‘elated’. Both Goswami and his friend arrive at the same conclusion in the same chat. The ruling party would sweep the poll and that the strike was a good thing for the ‘big man’. Goswami cannot resist the temptation of saying that when he mentioned “people will be elated”, he was quoting the ‘exact words used’.
“How can a lobbyist, a businessman have the confidence of dropping the name of the Prime Minister every second minute and threaten to fix rivals,” wondered Congress spokesperson Pawan Khera. “The confidence with which Arnab Goswami flaunts proximity with the Prime Minister and his office, it is shocking,” he exclaimed.
Goswami had in an earlier chat told his friend, Partho Dasgupta, that BJP would fall short of a majority in the 2019 election and would possibly win no more than 235 to 245 seats in the Lok Sabha. That is why, when Dasgupta is told that something major was being planned, something that would make people elated, he immediately grasps the significance and exclaims that then the ruling party would sweep the election. A more guarded Goswami agrees that the strike would be ‘good for the big man in this season’. BJP went on to win 301 seats.
In the immediate aftermath of the Pulwama terror attack, Congress and other opposition parties had suspended their political activities and campaign for the election due in April-May. AICC general secretary Priyanka Gandhi Vadra cancelled her first press conference in Uttar Pradesh. Rahul Gandhi tweeted that Congress was putting on hold all political activities and the party stood with the Government. For about 14 days Congress leaders refrained from giving political speeches in public.
In contrast, as if on cue, BJP went on an overdrive. Motorcycle rallies with flag-waving, slogan shouting supporters with patriotic songs blaring from loudspeakers hit the streets. BJP leaders started chest thumping and warning Pakistan. Jingoistic and shrill speeches with a clamour for revenge were made and the party appropriated funerals of the jawans killed in the terror attack. Both Narendra Modi and Amit Shah raised the pitch and began addressing rallies. Two weeks after the Balakot strike, the Prime Minister told an audience in Gujarat, “Tame khush, Desh Khush” (Now you are happy, the country is happy).
The Balakot air-strike itself had generated considerable controversy. In the early hours of February 26, Indian Air Force (IAF) planes thundered near LoC and dropped payloads in the vicinity of the town of Balakot. Pakistan was the first to confirm the attack but claimed there was no casualty except a few trees and a solitary crow.
The Indian government’s version was that terror camps at Balakot were hit. Union ministers and BJP leaders claimed over 300 terrorists were killed. Air Force chief B.S. Dhanoa brusquely declared that giving number of casualties was not the job of the Indian Air Force. Indian Air Force sources insisted that the Balakot terror camp was the perfect target. “It was on a hilltop and there were no civilians nearby, which meant there would be no collateral damage. Moreover, since it was not a madrasa, it meant there wouldn’t be children there. Only a large number of terrorists were there,” reported The Print quoting Air Marshal Hari Kumar.
Air Marshal Kumar claimed only four officers were involved in the initial planning, including him and the Air Force chief Dhanoa. It is assumed the Prime Minister, Home Minister, the National Security Advisor and the Defence Minister knew about the strike.
Satellite data analysis by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute’s Nathan Ruser concluded there was “no apparent evidence of extensive damage and on the face of it does not validate Indian claims regarding the effect of the strikes”. Images from WorldView-2 satellite analysed by the Institute concluded there was “a systematic targeting error”.
The mystery about the Balakot strike persists. If 20 or 200 terrorists were killed in the air strike, it would have been impossible for Pakistan to suppress the news. Terrorist groups would have been shouting for revenge. But curiously there was no such cry, strengthening the suspicion that the strike was not meant to do much real damage but still satisfy domestic public opinion ahead of a crucial election.
But while there is no evidence to suggest it was a charade, the war-game did end in a tragedy. On February 27, Pakistani fighter jets intruded into Indian air space and were ‘chased away’. But in the process, mysteriously, an IAF helicopter was accidentally shot down in Kashmir, allegedly by Indian ground fire, while an Indian fighter jet which had chased the PAF fighters, was shot down in Pakistani territory. Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman was taken prisoner by the Pakistan military but was released 60 hours later.
There are far too many uncomfortable questions about Balakot, Pulwama and TRP to let sleeping dogs lie. An inquiry by a Joint Parliamentary Committee (JPC) might unravel the working of the institutions and suggest ways to improve their functioning.