He looks like any tourist on the North Goa coast, with a sarong-like garb, an atypical pony-tail and a salt-and-pepper beard. But one of India's most written-about editors is optimistic about the launch of the weekly printed edition of Tehelka. (At the time of publication of this interview, the first edition has hit the stands).
How are plans for the print edition of Tehelka doing?
We've come a long way. It has been a very long and difficult battle. We've finally got an office again. Our team has grown again from four to 32 people. More importantly, we've been able to hold true to our original vision, which was to focus on public interest journalism. Journalism that is not affiliated to any political party or business house.Our money is now coming in from advance subscriptions. This is essential to protect our editorial core. Our weekly paper will be out by January 31. There's been an enormous interest in that. It's the only question I get asked wherever I go.
Do you think the model works then, journalism that is fiercely critical of the Establishment?
Absolutely. I think we often end up underestimating the reader and the citizen. Any decent form of democracy needs the active participation of the citizen. For that you need a press which is determined to be resolutely non-partisan. We need a media which is aligned to the public interest. For that, there would be a lot of takers.
You could say that has never happened before. (We have a pre-launch) order for 150,000 copies for a Tehelka paper. It could be called the single-biggest press media launch in our country. The people have stood with us not because we've exposed corruption. That we've done, but for the past two-and-half to three years we've held out, we haven't run away, and we've not begged for mercy. We believe that we've done the right thing, and the public support has been there.
Would you agree that there seems to be a kind of resurgence in hard-hitting, expose-oriented journalism. The Indian Express is a good example of what is possible...
I think it's a very good example. Besides the Express, there's also The Hindu and, to some extent, some of the channels on TV. India's reading public and viewership wants to know the truth. They want the press and the other media to represent them, and not represent vested interests. There's enough room for a hundred Tehelkas. I do believe the public will support it. We may have not got the money, but we got a whole lot of public support and affection. In dark times, it has seen us through.
Of course, the response of the State was wholly unexpected...
From Tehelka.com the website, to a weekly paper. Is it going to be a more difficult challenge?
In a sense, a newspaper makes it more difficult to pull it off -- in terms of size, scale and economics. But it also allows you to do more. In a country like India, a paper is where the true battle is. You can reach out (to many more) and affect people. Of course, a website is great to reach out to a global audience. But the true arena (for the battle of ideas) is here...
What will your paper be like?
At the heart of the paper are two C's. Crusading, constructive journalism. We will not only expose, and knock those doing wrong, but also appreciate those doing the right thing. We badly need to create the right role models for the young. It is not just fashion designers and fancy models that can be role models.
Tehelka, the paper, will be well rounded. It will look at society, art, culture, crime and people. After all, a good paper should affect the quality of life in a society. It needs both high brow and gritty journalism. Of course, we've had the best writers and columnists in the world writing for us. Our paper will come out on the weekends, and will be India's first national weekly.
When you see politicians using Tehelka-like approaches to net other politicians, like happened in the recent north India elections, what do you feel?
I'm quite happy. Anyone exposing anyone is good. It leads to cleansing (of public life) even if they may be doing it entirely for their own interests. Any society needs deterrents against crime and corruption. Right now in India the problem is so widespread, that people think they can do it and get away with it.
For much of the last decade, the dominant view was that journalism was just another commodity. Do you see the tide turning?
I think journalism is in the process of transforming. India is going through difficult times. The economic boom is good. But there are other social realities that need to be kept track of. The country is morphing. In ways both good and bad. We need to redefine things in keeping with our basic Constitutional principles which, in my view, are very important.
I believe Indian journalism will do some great work in the coming years. It will fulfill its mandate. I'm very optimistic about India and Indian journalism. The future is very good. But we have to strive for it, it won't just happen for us. My attitudes were shaped by the years spent, after my teens, reading a great deal. When I came into journalism, the people I admired most were the people who wrote well and the people who spoke well. Today, the people I admire most are those who have a moral spine.
Today, it seems that every young journalist in India wants to work with Tehelka. This was one of the most gratifying things.