Journalist Hartosh Singh Bal’s three-tweet bunch late last evening revealing his “termination” from Open magazine has created quite a kerfuffle, and further thickened the conspiracy-laden Delhi air in election season. Hartosh, the political editor of Open, was perhaps the last journalist of consequence and courage in the payrolls of the magazine that tries remarkably hard to stay irrelevant. Open’s only moment of glory under the editorship of Manu Joseph arrived in the form of a docket (the identity of its dispatcher remains a mystery to this day) containing the explosive Niira Radia conversations. There was hardly an editor in Delhi who wasn’t in possession of the ‘docket’. None decided to publish them for a variety of reasons. Mint’s editor R Sukumar even had a long winded, and somewhat unconvincing explanation for his refusal (inability to authenticate the contents) to publish the transcripts.

Open took the gamble, succeeded. Manu Joseph gleefully, and rightfully, tried to milk every ounce of publicity. He was part of the panel that “grilled” Barkha Dutt in a televised show on her omissions and commissions. By most accounts he made a hash of the opportunity, and left himself open to a counter attack thanks to an ill-timed “misogynist” compliment he paid Barkha. Perhaps it was all the fault of a malfunctioning chair in the NDTV studio 

The coverage of the Radia tapes anchored by Hartosh made a lot of people uncomfortable. His essays in its wake are probably the sharpest criticism in recent memory of the politico-business nexus. That was also the only occasion when I interacted with Hartosh and the team at Open. A client who was singed by the revelations was spitting fire. More than losing that big ticket account, our immediate concern then was to put an end to the barrage of stinkers he was directing our way—the hapless PR firm. At the behest of the client who demanded “intelligence” on what more was in store, I spoke hesitatingly to Hartosh. Not surprisingly, he asked us to “eff off” but with kind grace.

I was pretty annoyed by the adversarial air of the meeting, and the circumstances in which it had to take place. I’ve followed Hartosh’s journalism with great interest not least because he like me is an engineer by education. I had heard plenty of stories of his genius from a mutual friend, now in the advertising business, who happened to be Hartosh’s best mate at BITS Pilani. A four hour Old Monk session discussing Godel, Escher, Bach—something Pilani grads specialize in—with him would have been fantastic. But we digress.

Late last night Hartosh reportedly sent an email to his colleagues in Open that he was asked to leave “quietly”, but hinted that his departure would be anything but quiet. The troubling fact today is that a straight talking and honest journalist such as Hartosh increasingly has no place in Indian media. I know readers of these pages are not fans of his acerbic criticism of Narendra Modi, but do take my word he is one of the most intellectually honest and open-to-reason journalists in Delhi. His career, and the manner and reasons for his exit from previous jobs is proof enough. From what I can make out, Hartosh is not quite the “outsider” but always the underdog in Delhi’s clubby world of journalism and letters.

His former colleagues say he quit Tehelka as the political editor on matters of journalistic principle. Ditto at Mail Today. Interestingly, at Tehelka too, it was reportedly a Rahul Gandhi story done under his watch that lit the torch. According to one source, he quit one of his previous assignments in protest over the financial misdemeanors of the owner-editor (salaries being withheld and delayed for junior staff when the promoters rewarded themselves with flashy, new cars). Although a sideshow is comparison, while at Open, he took on the might of the Litfest mafia questioning the right of Britishers such as William Dalrymple to become the “arbiters of literary merit” in India. Predictably it riled up all the brown-skinned augurs of literary taste in the publishing marshlands of Delhi who tied themselves up in knots trying to whitewash the reality Hartosh pointed out. In fact, his credentials as a man of letters are far superior to those in occupancy of the Olympian Heights. Do read his fantastic work of “mathematical” fiction (co-authored with Gaurav Suri).

Hartosh’s political views been consistent and dare I say commonsensical. Along with Manoj Mitta, a journalist at the Times of India, Hartosh has been the most vocal critic of the 1984 Sikh pogrom and the miscarriage of justice that followed. His family background also perhaps explains Open’s coverage of Naxalism and counter terrorism. On several occasions he has punched holes is the Left-liberal project of portraying Maoists as ‘Gandhians with guns’. The piece on Rahul Gandhi and Modi which Hartosh hinted might be the reason for his ouster is just one in a long line of similarly tuned essays. Perhaps, as election time nears, both politicians and media owners get jittery. And Sanjiv Goenka, the owner of Open magazine, getting nervous should not surprise anyone. His father, and the founder of the now-bifurcated group Rama Prasad Goenka was a Gandhi family loyalist who was rewarded not just with a Rajya Sabha seat, but was also a trustee of the Jawaharlal Nehru Memorial Fund, the Indira Gandhi Memorial Trust and the Rajiv Gandhi Foundation. Some readers might recall that Swapan Dasgupta called Sanjiv Goenka the perfect example of a crony capitalist on live TV when the industrialist hailed Pranab Mukherjee’s ‘restropective tax’ Budget as a one packed with “vision and growth”.

After the RPG group’s carving up, Sanjiv has inherited businesses—power generation, distribution, coal mining and organized retail—whose models stand on the foundations of government benevolence. Hartosh probably erred in thinking Goenka would risk the political capital his family had painstakingly accumulated over two generations, for the sake of journalistic freedom, and a hemorrhaging business that is less-than-peripheral .

( Handyman is a PR professional and a brand consultant)

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