An interview with N. Ram, former Editor-in-Chief of The Hindu
How difficult or challenging was the Bofors story?
Challenging, obviously, but in an energising, ‘in-the-zone’ way most of the time after the first year of investigation, 1987.
The investigation went on for more than two years and we published our Bofors stories in several instalments. The ruling party, the Congress, smelt a conspiracy, a plot, and many of its senior functionaries often reacted in a jumpy and highly insecure, if not paranoid, fashion. For us, it was decidedly a team effort, with many people, notably Chitra Subramaniam, Manoj Joshi, Malini Parthasarathy, and V.K. Ramachandran, making good, solid contributions that helped put various pieces of the puzzle together. Swedish Public Radio fired the opening shot in April 1987, alleging kickbacks and hinting at names before switching off; other newspapers, notably The Indian Express, were competing actively to get at the truth. Arun Shourie, a formidable journalist, and Ram Jethmalani, the ace criminal lawyer with his many interrogative questions hurled at Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, were in hot pursuit.
I think what worked for us at The Hindu was a methodical approach, an investigative discipline, a way of journalism that was factual, persistent, patient — and fair and just. We relied almost exclusively on documents, more documents, hundreds of documents, in fact, all of them laid out across pages and published in facsimile form in The Hindu (in the pre-digital age). We played the devil’s advocate on key story angles, verifying every detail.
I remember one occasion when we had made a significant factual error, misconstruing something Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi had said in a closed meeting. We immediately published a correction, with an apology, on the front page and some people outside our newspaper believed the prominence given to the correction and apology was quite unnecessary. But we highly valued our credibility, our reputation, the trust readers placed in us. We believed in fairness and justice and scrupulously avoided throwing dirt on people against whom there was nothing like evidence (Amitabh Bachchan, famously). We did not practise anything that would be recognised as deceit in this era of hidden mikes and spy cameras. We had our own data security methods, which, surprisingly, worked. We got lucky, repeatedly, with our sources.
Our team was bold and confident in linking pieces of evidence, in establishing factual ‘concordances’, in making inferences from sensitive and complex data. Thus, we were able to offer this assessment in a prominent story in The Hindu of October 9, 1989, which the Columbia J-School has chosen to highlight in its centennial ‘50 Great Stories’ site (http://centennial.journalism.columbia.edu/1989-scandal-in-india/):
“If the whole interaction from June 1987 between Bofors and the Government of India can be understood by the public in terms of a ‘fixed’ football match in which all the goals scored against India have been ‘own’ or ‘self’ goals (scored into the Indian goal by Indian boots or heads), it is now established that the Swedish official referee, Mr. Ingvar Carlsson, has been an accomplice in the ‘fixing’ of the game.”
At times, it seemed to be an unsolvable puzzle. After a full year’s slog, we made a breakthrough in April 1988 when Chitra Subramaniam struck gold with a privileged, authoritative source (whom I met and checked out) and who never let us down. And then we were on a roll, you might say.
I did most of the writing through our Bofors investigation, many thousands of words, but others contributed handsomely as well. We had our internal differences, which did turn dramatic in 1989, but what stands out today for me is how well everyone on our team, from the Editor down, pulled together to shape an unforgettable experience. And it was not as though this was the first or last investigative effort by our 133-year-old newspaper!
Analytically, I have proposed in several articles, the Bofors-India kickback affair can be understood in terms of five modes of action.
The first was the decision-making on the choice of howitzer. The second comprised the arrangements for the payoffs. The third was the prolonged cover-up and crisis management. The fourth was the journalistic investigation and expose. The fifth was the CBI’s criminal investigation, assisted by the Swiss Federal Police and the Swiss courts, and prosecution before a Special Court for CBI cases.
What came of it all?
This is a legitimate question we have been asked. Some of the key accused died before the matter came up in court. Others, including Ottavio Quattrocchi, got away from the law. There was also the challenge of reconciling, or rather bridging the gap between, standards of evidence in journalism and under the Indian Evidence Act. But Bofors became a byword for top-level, political corruption, even entering the vocabulary of some Indian languages as a synonym for sleaze and skulduggery. Bofors, I believe, was a game-changer, politically and for Indian journalism. I won’t say more, except that it was eminently worth it.