Ashish Khetan, 38, grew up in Barabanki, Uttar Pradesh, and went on to become one of India’s best known journalists. He has worked with Mumbai Mirror, the Indian Express, Hindustan Times, and Tehelka, and done exposés in India, unearthing many a scam. His investigation on the Gujarat riots of 2002 led to the conviction of a number of its perpetrators. After years of working with established TV and print media, Khetan founded his own investigative journalism website, Gulail.com. In March 2014 he officially joined the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) and is now contesting the Lok Sabha polls from New Delhi constituency.
What do you count as your five biggest journalistic achievements?
In terms of stories or values?
In terms of stories.
In terms of stories, obviously my work on Gujarat will figure right at the top because it’s very rare that a journalistic work helps in serving the cause of justice.
In such a direct way, yes.
In a very, very direct way. Because that piece of work was eventually accepted as a piece of evidence and on the basis of it, many were convicted, including Babu Bajrangi. That’s one. There are many other important stories I did. I think my work on the Maharashtra irrigation scam was also very important. We did that story when nobody was talking about the irrigation scam in Maharashtra. And we actually exposed how the Congress and the NCP combined spent over Rs 70,000 crores over the last 10-12 years without any addition to the irrigation capacity. And the only people benefited were contractors who later turned politicians and joined the NCP, the BJP or the Congress. So, the scam was done by the Congress-NCP but the contractors also had BJP linkages in the form of Ajay Sancheti, who is considered very close to (Nitin) Gadkari. This actually shows the root of the problem in our country. Wherever you go, you’ll find this kind of fixing between the Congress and the BJP while they have a slug-fest in public, where the BJP says of the Congress, “You are corrupt.” Or the Congress says of the BJP, “You are communal.” But when it come to the basics, you will find contractors, mafia, criminals, and corrupt politicians both in the Congress and the BJP.
Also, the National Rural Health Mission (NRHM) scam done by the Mayawati government in UP, where the money was meant for the poorest of the poor. Women living in remote areas were encouraged to go to the nearest PHCs (primary health centres) and deliver babies over there, so they could get good medical care, enough nutrition in terms of iron, calcium and so on. The baby is taken care of, vaccination is properly done. For this, government money was supposed to be used in ensuring transport. But no such vehicles, no such arrangements were made. But the principal health secretary sitting in Lucknow had, at any given point of time, at least 10 or 15 A/C cars waiting for him, bought from the same corpus of funds.
Big newspapers in UP were also involved in the scam. They were the beneficiaries. One component of the scheme was promotion, to reach out to as many people as possible in rural areas, to put out bills and hoardings telling people, “You are entitled to these benefits.” These big newspapers walked away with the contracts (that) they would publish these entitlements in their newspapers and put up hoardings, but no actual work was done.
You are one of the rare journalists who have seen justice done as a direct outcome of your stories. Why politics, then? Did you feel your stories were not resulting in justice for most part?
Every story, whether it is Gujarat, or terror cases, the National Rural Health Mission scam, or Maharashtra irrigation scam, the eventual outcome was almost insignificant or sometimes there was no result. Gujarat, I would say, at least the foot soldiers were prosecuted and convicted, but the conspirators at the top are still at large. But nothing happened with the NRHM scam in UP. The case went to the CBI, but nothing came of it. The irrigation scam in Maharashtra, caused huge hue and cry initially. Ajit Pawar resigned and said he would not take any ministerial responsibility till his name was cleared. And his name was eventually cleared. There was an in-house inquiry and they gave him a kind of a clean chit and he came back in the government as deputy chief minister. And people have to go on with their daily lives. You and I as journalists can persist with a story, but ordinary people, they have to move on. So, the moment public pressure recedes, the politicians take advantage and move on to next stage. Public institutions which are supposed to ensure effective action and justice at the end of the day are so compromised, their integrity has been so weakened systematically over a period of time, that they don’t do anything.
Joining politics is putting your career as a journalist at stake. Were you concerned?
See, as a journalist, the space for the kind of journalism I was doing was increasingly shrinking. There are hardly any good newspapers or TV news channels which would like to carry such stories or support a journalist in terms of time and resources in order to persist with such stories. Because investigative journalism takes time – it involves money, it involves running around. And also, when you work on 10 stories, on eight out them, you don’t get anything. So there is nothing to show for them.
One year ago, I quit a TV network I was working with because I went to them and said, “Look there is a story that this man who has been convicted in the Pune German Bakery case and has been sentenced to death is actually innocent. And I have the evidence of his innocence.” In normal circumstances it’s a huge story that an innocent man has been sentenced to death. And it’s not about religion. It basically shows that the police can fabricate evidence to assuage public pressure. There is no accountability of the police and that is the biggest reason real culprits get away and keep carrying out blast after blast, one heinous crime after another.
But the channel was not interested. So, a person’s guilt is a story, but, in mainstream media, innocence is not. That is why I quit and decided to start a small website. I knew even then it’s not going to be easy because to fund this kind of journalism, it’s not easy.
Are you planning to continue doing that?
No, I can’t now because…
There are lots of journalists who are in mainstream politics and continue to be editors so…
See, I will always be accused of being partisan and not criticising my own party, so it’s not possible now. The element of neutrality is important even though it doesn’t really exist There is a joke going around these days, I don’t know if you have seen it. There’s this poster being circulated on Twitter: “Breaking News! Media has decided to not join the BJP government. But the support from outside will continue.”
Okay, you know how the media works better than most people do. Tell me, how do you analyse the sort of love-hate relationship that they have had with the Aam Aadmi Party?
See, the media is part of the problem today and it’s not only in India, but also globally. It’s the same big money which has come to dominate our democratic institutions, our parliament, our assemblies, our public policies, our governments and also our media. So, media is part of the establishment that the AAP has set out to change and confront and take head on. So, the backlash is obvious…
But there has also been a lot of amplification of the AAP because of the media.
See, the Aam Aadmi Party is not against journalists, per se, or journalism, per se. Our fight is not with ordinary reporters, journalists, even editors. The majority of our journalists, including the majority of our editors, if given that free space, would like to practise objective, rigorous journalism. But we all compromise. We compromise not because we want to make money, but because we want to continue with our jobs. Where would you go? You go to one organisation or another, there will be a list of holy cows in the first one, a list of vested interests in the other. I met a journalist from a leading newspaper the other day, and she said that in the newsroom, the editor in chief of the newspaper had issued a diktat to all journalists, that if there was a story against the AAP it will be on page one. This is what we are fighting.
You know, it’s interesting, I get the point you are making. But at the same time you also understand that the Aam Aadmi Party has also become the one story people will read about, otherwise no editor would offer to put it on page one, no matter what the vested interest.
This is a newspaper which claims to do journalism in public interest but doesn’t have a circulation of more than 10,000. So it’s not about that.
You also understand how the political and bureaucratic system works from within. It’s not as black and white as people from the outside might think it is. But the kind of self righteousnessthat is associated with the AAP, do you think it can work against it?
If some of our utterances or public statements made by our leaders are seen as self righteousness, then I think we need to maybe change the tonality of it. Because self righteousness is not at all our…
It maybe the interpretation, it may not be the intent.
Yes, the intent… See, everybody who has come to be associated with the Aam Aadmi Party has had a sterling track record of public service in different fields. They all have been grappling with the same system and have not been able to bring about any effective change because they were working from the outside. So, they decided to come into politics because they realised they have to be within the system, sit in government and then they will be able to achieve something.
And, we are not shying away from scrutiny. All we are saying is this is election time now, right? What do we have? We have, today, I think only Rs 12 to 14 crore in our party coffers. The party has given me 40,000 pamphlets, just 40,000 pamphlets, to fight the elections. Nothing else. Not a single penny. No candidate has got any money from the party. 40,000 pamphlets are not even enough to fight a (local) councillor election.
On the other hand, you see the kind of money the Congress and the BJP have; they are spending on mass media, TV campaigns, radio campaigns, poore shehar me Modiji ki hoardings lagi hui hain (You can see hoardings of Modi all over the city). So what we are saying, this is election year, is, have we done scams? Is the AAP responsible for inflation, unemployment, 2G scams, coal scam, the Adani-Modi nexus, the Ambani-Modi nexus, for giving our precious natural resources to crony capitalists? We are not responsible for this, right? So, to focus only on Arvind Kejriwal’s three-bedroom flat, and not focus on the Adani-Modi nexus, not focus on the strictures passed by the Gujarat High court against Modi when it comes to Adani, not focusing on the sweet deals that big industries have got in Gujarat. All that we are saying is, scrutinise us – you are welcome to scrutinise us – but also scrutinise those people who are fighting this election on a plank of lies.
Do you feel that the AAP might be on the back foot after the resignation?
See, because of this media propaganda, there’s some confusion.
But you feel you can clear it by talking to people?
Yes, we are trying to clear the confusion. And when they hear us out, they are convinced. But the problem is in a very small span of time, would we be able to reach out to such a large number of people? The Election Commission has set the outer limit of Rs 70 lakh that you can spend on campaigning. We don’t have that money and other political parties will spend ten times that. That’s the biggest challenge.
What might be some of the areas that you want to work on if you were given a chance, where your constituency is concerned?
See, not only my constituency, but overall, generating jobs, income, encouraging industrialization, fuelling economic growth is big on our agenda. We are against crony capitalists, but we are not against capitalism. We are not against free market. Women’s safety is on our agenda. Schooling, education is on our agenda. In New Delhi, for instance, and in Delhi otherwise also, successive governments have not been able to come up with a reasonable solution to nursery admissions. Like in Defence Colony, you have five government schools, but nobody wants to send their kids to government schools. On the other hand, they are lining up in front of private schools. You are wasting infrastructure, which has been set up with public money because the quality of education has gone down there. Parking is a huge issue in New Delhi, and traffic. New Delhi is cosmopolitan, but there are also resettlement colonies, clusters, slums. And they have their own problems. Water, electricity are huge issues. Civic amenity is a huge issue; corruption in MCD (Municipal Corporation of Delhi), corruption in NDMC (New Delhi Municipal Council), is again a big problem.There’s a huge extortion mafia, which is running the MCD and which has been under the BJP for a really long period of time.
Any particular area or policy or legislation you would like to draw attention to?
Some of the crucial bills, for instance Mines and Minerals Regulation Development Act has not gone through. There are Supreme Court judgements. Everywhere, every free democratic society, even in the US, they have all realized that the most efficient way of allocating natural resources is through auction. This also ensures public welfare, takes care that there’s no loss to the exchequer, and markets remain efficient. But in India most scams have happened because the politicians were working in an opaque system where they could allocate natural resources: iron ore, coal mines, spectrum, public land, etc. to their cronies for peanuts. So there’s a huge loss to the exchequer. That bill hasn’t gone through. It was, I think, cleared by the standing committee but there’s no political consensus to pass this bill.
There are so many others crucial for economic growth, that have not been passed: anti corruption legislations have been stuck for a really long time. And the biggest reason for this is that Parliament hardly functions. The Aam Aadmi Party – I don’t know whether we would be 100, 150, or 50 – whatever number we are in Parliament, we would change it. We would change the functioning of Parliament because when we sit down there and put in long hours discussing public issues, pursuing public agenda, raising questions – by being accessible to people, by being accountable to people, responsible to people, to the common man, we will change the parliamentary politics of the country.
Amen to that. A final question before I let you off. I am asking you this in particular because you have done stellar work on 2002 and Gujarat. Narendra Modi is now a prime ministerial candidate. He’s been given a clean chit. Do you have any concerns with this candidature?
So much has been said and written about this. I would just say one thing. How can you convict, in a court of law, a political ideology that creates space for mass scale murder and riots? And Narendra Modi represents that political ideology.
He is seen to be moving away from that ideology.
Just yesterday, they gave tickets to candidates who are responsible for Muzaffarnagar riots.
So, you are saying they cannot move away from it easily?
No. Because it is seeped in their blood, in their DNA.
(This article first appeared on DNA)