#It's Her Business

Nobody Lets India Down More Than Indians: Chitra Subramaniam

As part of our Editors’ Series, SheThePeople.TV speaks to Chitra S Duella, the journalist who broke the Bofors scandal story back in the late ’80s, for her take on what’s making news in India today, whether it’s the Agusta Westland case or the Panama Papers. The co-founder of TheNewsMinute weighs in on India’s positioning on the international stage, with perspective from an incredibly varied career. Oh, and she definitely doesn’t pull her punches!

1. Did you feel at any point in your career that you were stereotyped as a woman? Or does that increasingly become irrelevant when you break major stories like the Bofors scandal?

Stupidity and stereotyping are universal and constant, Bofors or no Bofors. The degrees and cultural settings however vary. I was ticked off as only a stringer, only a back of the book journalist, doesn’t know politics, certainly not geo-politics, only a part-time reporter while male editors added their names to my work. At the WHO, which is a policy-setting organization, I was quite amused to find that people without medical degrees were not taken seriously. 

Stupidity and stereotyping are universal and constant, Bofors or no Bofors

In the 21st century the labor market doesn’t fully recognise the role of women as nurturers of society and wage/salary earners. Misogyny is prevalent in offices and newsrooms the world over. Subtler, maybe now because over the years, people especially women have succeeded in giving it a name and a face and they recognize the behavior pattern. At its base are insecure human beings who can only ‘grow’ by putting others down. Racism is part of this pattern.

Chitra SD Of The News Minute

In India there’s an additional layer of difficulty because women are mainly seen through their relationships – daughter, wife, mother and sister. All else is threatening. As a consequence successful women are looked at with suspicion and envy. Men and women will always try to co-opt or criticise independent womento mask their own insecurities. My work doesn’t define me any longer so I do manage to laugh at it all every now and then.

In India there’s an additional layer of difficulty because women are mainly seen through their relationships – daughter, wife, mother and sister. All else is threatening.

2. Does it surprise you ever that the Bofors scandal cast such a long shadow and it’s not over yet? There are questions related to the Panama papers, AgustaWestland and the kickback trail?

Initially yes. I was 29 then and thought good would win by its very nature. Now, I expect the worst and am willing to be surprised by the best – it’s a form of self-protection. Greed for wealth is a human sentiment and dirty money will always travel faster than legal instruments to curb its flight. Look at the AgustaWestland drama – greedy politicians are at the base of it. The government is struggling to get to the bottom of it not because of facts but because of a process that thrives on corruption. 

The same applies for the Panama Papers. Most of the politicians, the G-20, G-7, G-77 and other groupings didn’t ‘discover’ the Panama Papers. Many of them are lawyers who worked in high-profile law firms. Are we to believe that the heads of multilateral and bilateral funding agencies or politicians didn’t know what was going on? They are part of the corruption.

3. If it’s not too difficult a task, could you take us through some of the major highlights of your career — what do you consider to be the biggest ups and downs? 

My career can be divided into three strands – journalist, diplomat and entrepreneur. Bofors was a high – it contributed to the fall of a government. Multilateral trade and reporting on the Uruguay Round from Punta del Este to Marrakesh and seeing the birth of the World Trade Organisation (WTO) was important. India sold itself for a pair of shoes during the talks saying yes to everything without securing any gains for the country. A good contrast was the work of very committed Indian diplomats negotiating the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) where New Delhi stood its ground. One of them, Navtej Sarna, is now our High Commissioner in London. The Bosnian war and unable to reach safety during curfew in Sarajevo gives me goose pimples even today. 

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Working with Dr. Gro Harlem Brundtland at the World Health Organisation (WHO) as the lead on communications and policy analysis for the tobacco control treaty was a splendid experience. Together with Dr. Franklin Apfel, I designed a global media advocacy campaign called “Tobacco Kills –Don’t Be Duped” across 198 countries. During this period, I worked with Roberta Walburn, the lead attorney in the Minnesota case which resulted in the over $7 billion settlement against the tobacco industry. At the WHO tobacco negotiations, India succumbed to pressure from the United States (US). Tobacco kills one million Indians annually. Tobacco control in India continues to be a victim of political and business lobbies. 

As an entrepreneur in Switzerland promoting ethical business practices between Europe and India through my company CSDconsulting was highly instructive. My clients included Fortune 500 companies. Working closely with Mr. Ramadorai, the then CEO of Tata Consultancy Services (TCS) I saw the difference that ethical business and commitment to the best adds to a business. I negotiated TCS’ marketing contract with Ferrari. I think I was the only woman with a technical team in the garages of the F1 car during the races. We even managed to bring Michael Schumacher’s racing car to Davos! 

Downside? Clearly that the main culprits in the Bofors case did not go to jail. 

Downside? Clearly that the main culprits in the Bofors case did not go to jail. Also, I found it shameful that India was unable to negotiate anything significant for itself during the GATT-WTO negotiations or that it willingly settled for a minimum baseline at the tobacco negotiations (Framework Convention on Tobacco Control). 

My experience points to one thing quite unequivocally – nobody lets India down more than Indians.  

4. As the co-founder of The NewsMinute and as a social commentator, do you feel this juncture right now is one of the most challenging and interesting times for the Indian media? What are some of your concerns in what you’re seeing today? Both in the media landscape in the country, and the realm of public debate?

I have two principal concerns. Lack of knowledge and as corollary, an abundance of arrogance. The aggressive language of politicians, bureaucrats, star journalists or NGOs is quite shocking. We take everything personally – it’s as if we can’t have a discussion without bringing I, me and mine into it. Where is this coming from?

Technology is going to change the way people who have access to it think. In my view, that places a huge responsibility on journalists because we are expected to be free, honest and accurate. Journalism is a public good and a journalist has to earn the right to lead everyday. I am only as good as my last story.

Technology is going to change the way people who have access to it think. 

When Dhanya Rajendran, Vignesh Vellore and I decided to launch The News Minute (TNM) we were sure of one thing – we wanted to be good journalists. Our target audience was people and everyday was a new challenge and a different opportunity. The TNM team is very young and they bring new perspectives, new horizons and new ways of looking at social, economic and political issues. We try to capture the vibrancy of India’s democracy in our work.

Public debate in India is dismal and the prime responsibility for this rests with politicians and some of India’s English-speaking public intellectuals who are self-promoting bigots in disguise. It is no accident that this group – India’s G-37 – are the ones who appear regularly on all our national television networks talking about arms control one instant and malaria the other. 

5. Do you think Indian media is too insular? Not half as interested in global affairs and more interested in regional news? Easily manipulated thanks in part to the prevalence of Whatsapp and social media?

Media and politicians all over the world are insular. I once worked for a European head of state who read her local newspaper first thing every morning. They pay my salary, she would quip! I am okay with people not being interested in what’s happening globally. Human beings the world over are primarily concerned only with their immediate needs and pursuits. What bothers me deeply is the serious absence of knowledge and empathy among India’s top dogs who influence public opinion. How many different news outlets do they read other than a few Anglo-Saxon ones? How much do they read about India in another tongue? 

What bothers me deeply is the serious absence of knowledge and empathy among India’s top dogs who influence public opinion

As for the influence of Whatsapp and social media – why blame technology for human stupidity and arrogance?

6. You have a unique standpoint, as you split your time between India and Switzerland where do you see India positioning itself on the global stage at the moment? 

For now India’s positioning has made no dent whatsoever. The first year of the Narendra Modi government was important because we finally had a Prime Minister who was visible and articulate in key global settings. Then came branding projects like Make in India, etc. That made politicians, bureaucrats and PR companies happy but where are the 13 million jobs we must create annually? Switzerland, a country of some 8 million people has over 10 global brands. How many global brands do we have in India with a population of 1.2 billion? Branding is not a PR exercise. 

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A section of the media and the G-37 have played a negative role in this. Other than ensuring their meal tickets, people speaking for India in international forums are generally selfie-obsessed subalterns with no depth. We all hailed the end of the war last week – how many articles did we see on the millions of Russians who perished in the last war or the Japanese? It is okay to completely align with the US – why pretend to be independent?

Unless a country is economically and militarily strong – or both – nobody really cares. We are struggling to bring two Italian sailors to justice, we enter into arbitration with an arms manufacturer and we are the world’s largest democracy.

Finally, we must also stop comparing ourselves with China – Beijing is on another planet. Apropos, they just slapped us on the NSG.

7. Any major issues you feel that India, as a collective, is just not paying enough attention to at our own peril? 

Water. If our politicians really care about India, they would address India’s water crisis on a war footing.

8. Do you consider yourself a feminist? And if so, why?

Yes. I was raised with equal opportunity. This meant I had the luxury and the difficulties of charting my own course. I am acutely aware of the luxury of choice not enjoyed by millions of women around the world. I see battles women have to fight everyday. I strive to add my bit to it in the hope that what I have received from mothers and grandmothers is securely transferred to daughters and granddaughters without any rollback.

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