Virendra Kapoor is a political commentator based in Delhi
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Mahua Moitra's speech and Sandeep Bhushan’s book

IT TOOK JUST one speech for the Trinamool Congress MP, Mahua Moitra, to become the darling of what the Prime Minister deprecatingly calls the Khan Market gang. Her maiden elocution in the Lok Sabha, doubtless well-practised and well-scripted, was enough to endear her to the secularist-liberal English- speaking chattering classes. Unfortunately, her overnight celebrity was soon tempered by the hush-hush talk of plagiarism, with critics pointing to a column in the Washington Monthly in its 31st January, 2017 issue. That column was headlined: ‘Twelve early warning signs of fascism’. Of course, Mahua mentioned only seven such signs. But she couldn’t have cited ‘rampant sexism’ in the Indian context while she compressed a couple of them to make it a handy seven from the original twelve.

The Washington Monthly writer had pegged his column to the anti- fascism prescriptions on a poster hung in the US Holocaust Museum. The poster was there only for a few days before being hurriedly taken down. It is reasonable to ask whether she personally saw the poster while it still hung there for all too brief a period. She, however, mentioned the poster at the fag end of her fast-paced oration. The Washington Monthly writer referred to it right at the beginning of his column.

Asked about the plagiarism charge, Mahua vehemently denied it, explaining that her speech came “from the heart”. Which reminds me of the editor of the capital’s leading English daily who some years ago in a column ruminated about the goings- on at a busy airport. All that most likely passes through flyers’ minds while waiting for their flights made a very readable column, indeed. But soon someone exposed the venerable editor, reproducing a Los Angeles Times column several years earlier. The editor’s singular contribution lay in replacing the place names—Los Angeles Airport became Delhi Airport, and such-like contextualising details. Nothing else.

His defence: Yes, he had read the original and ‘I might have unconsciously internalised it’ for him to be able to, equally unconsciously, of course, reproduce it verbatim under his byline. Nobody bought that defence. The plagiarising editor was soon given marching orders. Incidentally, if Mahua cared to look nearer home, she would find that the warning signs she referred to were present in far greater intensity in Mamata Banerjee’s West Bengal.

READING SANDEEP Bhushan’s The Indian Newsroom: Studios, Stars and the Unmaking of Reporters one gained several insights into the nascent broadcast industry’s unseemly goings-on. News and news-gathering takes a backseat to celebrity anchors and almost always owners protect business interests at the cost of good journalism. Full of interesting nuggets from the author who was himself a TV journo for over two decades, the following caught my eye: “(A news anchor) boasted to Lance Price, who wrote a book on Narendra Modi after his 2014 historic win and who was once a communication officer to former UK prime minister Tony Blair: ‘When he (Modi) is campaigning he constantly needs feedback. So, for example, I would speak to him every week or ten days during campaign (on the telephone)… Now he is the Prime Minister, of course, he speaks for far shorter periods, but earlier he would speak for one and a half hours or two…’” In this context, let us mention an owner-editor of a television channel, who makes it a point to reach late for scheduled meetings and then airily apologises, “Sorry for the delay, you see, when the Prime Minister calls he does not leave… I had to stop the car and stand on the roadside to finish the conversation which went on for nearly half-an- hour…” Now, who is playing whom is not in doubt.

THEY TELL YOU to switch off your engine at traffic stops for two or more minutes to conserve energy. But here we have drivers of gas-guzzler SUVs and pricey sedans parked inside the Parliament House complex snoozing happily on reclining seats with the engine running and air-conditioning at full blast even as their bosses conduct the nation’s business in the two Houses of Parliament. The only time I remember being short with my driver was when I caught him dozing off quietly with the car AC running despite my earlier warning on finding him wasting petrol and pressuring the engine. It is not always about the money. It is more about a mindset that cares little for public spiritedness.