Chidambaram was rough to journalists who were critical of his working as Finance Minister

Senior Congress leader and former finance minister P Chidambaram being produced at a CBI court in the INX Media case in New Delhi on Monday, August 26, 2019. (Photo: PTI)
Senior Congress leader and former finance minister P Chidambaram being produced at a CBI court in the INX Media case in New Delhi on Monday, August 26, 2019. (Photo: PTI)

P Chidambaram, Congress leader and India’s former Finance Minister, faces the toughest challenge of his life today. A journalist who has covered finance ministry during Chidambaram’s tenure reminisces about the past. 

It appears there will be no immediate respite for Congress leader and former Finance Minister P Chidambaram, who is currently in the Central Bureau of Investigation’s (CBI) custody. His petition for bail in the money laundering and corruption case related to INX Media was dismissed by Supreme Court on Monday. The lawyer-turned-politician who has always portrayed supreme self-confidence often bordering around arrogance perhaps never imagined life could take such a sharp turn for him. As a friend of mine casually said that Chidambaram had typically worn confidence or perhaps over confidence, but insiders said he appeared a tad shaky after his bail was rejected by the apex court.

I first met him in 2004 sometime in July, after he presented the Union Budget. It was a customary post budget interview, which I had to do along with my editors. Chidambaram had just been given charge of the finance ministry by the then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. However, before I could ask him the questions, I almost had to go through a short interview myself in which I had to answer a couple of questions on finance. Later a senior official of his team told me that that was a routine drill. “He would check how much you know and then proceed,” he had said. In fact, Chidambaram often displayed arrogance.

On another occasion, he had suddenly decided to hold a press conference. Naturally, those covering the finance ministry had to rush to North Block at a short notice. The presser started much later than the scheduled time. What irked media persons was Chidambaram’s rude announcement that he would not take any questions. He read out what was written as a press statement and that was distributed to the journalists. A few journalists threatened a walkout. An unsettled Chidambaram said people who did not wish to be part of the proceedings were free to leave. There were rumblings but no one dared to boycott the presser.

These were not isolated incidents. 

During UPA-II era, the Indian economy and particularly the health of Indian public sector banks was on a decline. After Chidambaram returned to North Block as finance minister — he also served as India’s home minister for over three years— he had the daunting task of putting things in some order. The non-performing assets (NPAs)–- loans that do not fetch returns— at public sector banks were rising at an alarming level. I was with Hindustan Times at that time and had done a news report indicating the crisis like situation in the state-owned banks. There was no problem with the data that was given in the story. The problem was a picture that we had carried. It was a picture of a smiling Chidambaram. I was promptly called to the finance ministry and handed over a long corrigendum, in which Chidambaram, the finance minister, complained how the story and the picture had no correlation and it was grossly misleading for the readers. 

Many other journalists who covered finance ministry during his tenure complained about his strong likes and dislikes. While he hosted warm and lavish gatherings for journalists covering his ministries, he would also take note of those invited. Many names would get struck off at the whims while others had to go through the humiliation to show their press cards at the entry and the name would then be matched with the list given at the gate. So much for the warm invite!

Cut to the present.

Let me begin with a disclaimer. I am no BJP fan. But at a time, when the pitch is getting sharper for press freedom and many have registered their protest against current finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman for barring journalists to enter the North Block without prior appointments with officials, a few who have covered the ministry during the UPA-I era would recall that things were not very different then too. Of course, PIB (Press Information Bureau) accredited journalists never needed prior appointments to enter the North Block but negative coverage of the ministry or the minister when Chidambaram was in the driving seat were taken up “internally” often the journalists were “marked”. Chidambaram would even decline to talk to those who wrote stories which “did not go down well”.

“People were scared of him, journalists were scared too…and if you wrote things that put the finance ministry in a not-so-good-light, Chidambaram often would take drastic steps to ensure that you had a rough time,” recalls a journalist friend, who has also been covering the ministry for over two decades.

Yes, Chidambaram loved the media. He loved being in the news but he had his strong biases. He was never kind to journalists who were not his “friends” and one had to be very careful while covering the ministry with him as the minister.

Leave a Reply