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Why We Need Whistleblowers In India

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Just as America faces the aftermath of Wikileaks, halfway across the globe, in a slightly altered scenario, another of the world's largest democracies is reeling under the onslaught of its biggest, most shocking series of revelations of classified government information ever.

Last month in India, an unknown person leaked raw tapes of the telephone conversations of New Delhi based executive Niira Radia with industrialists, politicians and journalists. Exposing the nexus between big business, politics and the media, the tapes portray a chilling story of how lobbyists can leverage their skills to influence the selection of amenable politicians to key portfolios, ensure their cooperation once in power, and then extract policies and decisions that favor clients to the detriment of national interest. The tapes also expose widespread connivance by the country's biggest media houses and their journalists - who functioned to manufacture suitable stories at best, broker deals with the ruling party at worst.

Radia worked at the behest and in the employ of India's most powerful industrial conglomerates, ostensibly as a public relations executive. In a country where political lobbying is illegal, her de facto influence extended to key portfolios - telecommunications, aviation and petroleum. Two years ago, her sudden rise to prosperity attracted the attention of government sleuths, and on grounds of possible tax violations, criminal charges and anti-national activity, her phone lines were tapped.

But while Radia was being loyal to her paymasters, the others were obviously not. With the leakage of these tapes into the public domain we now see just how politicians in government can sell national interest for personal gain - one partisan decision in telecommunications alone costing the country hundreds of millions of dollars. We now see just how low our journalists are willing to bend, and justify themselves - one of the "star journalists" even getting her complicit TV channel to organize a farcical discussion of issues hosted by a clearly biased, if not, totally ineffective moderator. We now see how big industrialists will deploy all manner of diversionary tactics to take attention away from the message, and onto the messenger - one such corporate leader demanding an investigation into the leakage and attempting to block further publication of the tapes in the name of privacy violations.

5,800 telephone calls tapped. One whistle-blower in government who decided to leak these tapes. A few journalists who decided to brave the heat and publish the content of these tapes in public interest. A handful of political leaders who supported these decisions and are demanding a Joint Parliamentary Committee probe into the issues unearthed. And some stalwarts in the administration who have refused to digress to the source of the leaks, instead focusing on the evidentiary content of the tapes, so that investigation is taken to its logical conclusion. In the specific context of this story - this is great leadership in action.

What we know of the Radia story is by virtue of the Internet, and an army of ordinary citizens and non resident Indians who have filled the gaping holes left by the Indian media - by publishing and disseminating India's biggest news story of the year, through personal blogs, facebook sites and twitter accounts. Till date, the discourse within the traditional media in India remains biased, as newspapers, magazines and TV stations continue to kowtow to corporate muscle. And instead of focusing on the key issues of corruption and complicity in the public domain, and how the Radia tape whistleblowers have aided good governance by exposing a corrupt nexus of power, the discourse focuses on how the leakage harms the grand narrative of India's economic progress in the world.

But good governance goes beyond economic progress (or rather, as in this case, the economic progress of the big corporates). Good governance balances growth with justice. And that's why accountability, transparency and whistleblowing are critical to ensure a level playing field for all stakeholders in the policy process. Until we get that balance right, India's grand narrative can wait.

Read more on this story here - Brand India and the Failure of Common Sense