New Delhi,Arghya Roy Chowdhury(dna): People talk about aam aadmi politicians these days, but Vinod Mehta was probably the first high-profile aam aadmi editor in India’s journalistic paradigm. A BA third class pass, Vinod Mehta had just a little bit of saving to go to London to do something with life.
He didn’t have any fixed plans then, but he was (as he confesses in his autobiography) acutely aware of his ignorance. Thus he self trained himself to garner the learnings of the world. He read his Orwell and his Marx, which enshrined liberal values to his already ‘fiercely secular belief’ even while working in a thermostat company. As fate would have it, Vinod Mehta got the job of editing a failing Debonair magazine at the age of 32. For four decades since then, Mehta went on to become the voice of conscience and fearless reporting for Indian journalism.
In today’s age when high profile journalists are increasingly known for their hubris and self-servicing sermonising attitude, Mehta didn’t let success go to his head. Infact, one of his greatest strength was irreverence and the ability to look at things from a perspective. The irreverence even lead him to name his dog Editor! As an editor Mehta was always known to push the envelope from his early days. In his book, The Lucknow Boy, he recollects how he tried to intellectualise Debonair, even taking the risk of possibly alienating it’s core readers. But he carried on no less, writing columns and reviews himself (under different pen names) when others refused to contribute. He liberally borrowed and even fleeced ideas from foreign magazines and had no qualms in acknowledging this. But soon, he got success with literary luminaries like Ruskin Bond coming on board and Mehta never looked back.
Even as Mehta’s fame for being a reporter’s boss and an independent voice soared, he earned the dubious title of being the most sacked editor in the country, especially for his forgettable stint at The Independent ( one month), India Post (for running an anti-government story) and The Pioneer. But that never doused the voice of rebellion and he never shied away from saying the truth even if it was politically incorrect. He was the first one to commission lengthy pieces from intellectuals like Arundhati Roy, when every effort was being made to quell such contrarian voices.
In journalism, often objectivity and balance are given great importance. But according to Mehta, sometimes they are overrated. In some cases, there is only one side like in the 2002 Gujarat riots or the Sikh killings of 1984, he believed. Even though he had strong beliefs, Mehta was always open to new ideas. Thus by his own admission, he went from being a leftist to centrist to free market champion, though he continued to support the state’s intervention for the sake of elevating the poor.
In his autobiography, he mentions being deferential towards Sonia Gandhi. But he never pulled his punches while criticising the Congress party or Rahul Gandhi. A fierce libertarian, he even published letters to the editor where he was called ‘Sonia ka chamcha’. He was well aware of this criticism and even mentioned it in one of his Delhi Diary columns after the 2014 election. “Although readers of the columns are convinced I am a Sonia sycophant…with a heavy heart (I) pressed the NOTA button,” he said.
Never shying away from taking on the big boys, at Debonair, Mehta commissioned a piece about how Times Of India ‘sold out to Indira Gandhi’s government’ during the emergency. While editing Outlook, Mehta boldly ran stories about Ranjan Bhattacharya, husband of Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s adopted daughter. He egged on journalists like Nikhil Gokhle to do critical stories about the government in the post Kargil era. The Outlook offices were raided after the critical stories about Ranjan Bhattacharya, but Mehta stood firm. He tried to break the monopoly of India Today in the country’s magazine market. He even forced India Today to break from its fortnightly format to publish on a weekly basis. His book about Sanjay Gandhi was a revelation about how even in the largest democracy of the world, state power can become a puppet in the hands of a few self servicing delusionals.
In this day and age when there is almost an omerta of silence regarding the nexus of corporates, lobbyists and politicians, Mehta brought it to public focus by exposing the Radia tapes. It laid bare some of India’s leading journalists and politicians and Mehta also had to bear the brunt of it. But he was unapologetic about running the story even when it probably cost him the job of Editor-in-chief.
Mehta earned even greater respect from his peers and readers for his brutally candid confessions in his autobiography. From having an illegitimate daughter out of a sexual liaison in his past to owning up about getting the CIA mole story wrong, or about his indifferent relationship with many other top journalists, Mehta’ s book was full of blood and flesh, a welcome break from saccharine-coated sanitised autobiographies most celebrities end up writing.
Finally to share a personal anecdote, this journalist once had the opportunity to briefly interact with Mehta during a lit-fest. On being asked, “Just like you give space to Arundhuti Roy, will you give space to (a particular right-wing journalist) to write a counter point?” His blunt answer was, “No, I don’t give space to bigots in my magazine”. The safe answer would have been to say yes , but then it wouldn’t have been Vinod Mehta.