Gaurav Agnihotri was apoplectic with anger. The editor-in-chief of the News Tonight Network (NTN) paced up and down his office, as his deputy editor and production in charge quailed in their seats at the conference table in the corner. The bank of televisions that covered an entire wall was showing what was playing on all the other news channels. By now, every news network had managed to get their OB vans into AIIMS and was broadcasting from there. The only channel whose reporter on the spot was calling in on the phone was NTN. Apparently, there was some glitch in the network, which the technicians were working to fix.
‘Just how long is it going to take?’ Gaurav asked yet again, his voice quivering with fury. ‘It’s been ten minutes since they’ve been working on it. That’s a lifetime on live television!’
There was no answer from the men quailing in the corner. They were used to Agnihotri’s wild rage, but this temper tantrum was in a different league altogether. Gaurav stopped his pacing suddenly and switched on the sound of the television beaming AITNN’s feed to the world. Manisha Patel, her immaculately highlighted hair swishing gently around her shoulders, was looking suitably solemn as she did her piece to camera: ‘The Prime Minister has been rushed into surgery. Our sources inside AIIMS tell us that the PM’s condition is stable but serious. The senior leadership of the party has already arrived at the hospital as have Birendra Pratap’s two sons, Karan and Arjun.’
Gaurav felt that familiar mix of anger and admiration wash over him as he watched Manisha on the screen. How did she manage it? How did she succeed in getting in front of the story no matter what? And why was it that every minister who trooped into AIIMS was first stopping by to pay homage at her shrine, taking questions they clearly had no answer to. As he watched Manisha go into sympathetic-listener mode, Gaurav’s mind flashed back to the time that both of them had started as lowly reporters at Doordarshan (DD) News. Coming up against the tired old bureaucracy in charge of DD News, they had bonded over bread pakoras and masala chai in the office canteen, swapping war stories and comparing battle wounds. And then, with a speed that was both astonishing and inevitable in equal measure, they had found themselves in bed, caught up in a passion that took both of them by surprise. Of course, it hadn’t lasted. How could it? They were both Alphas. Both had been competing for the same stories. And neither was willing to back off or compromise. The end had been brutal, with each turning on the other viciously. They hadn’t exchanged as much as a ‘hello’ since then. And now, a decade later, Gaurav felt that old bitterness corrode his insides, as he saw Manisha performing what he derisively referred to as her Oprah Winfrey number.
Her hazel eyes looked suspiciously moist, her voice quivered ever so slightly, as she kept the nation updated with the latest on the Prime Minister’s condition. Of course, there was more emotion than facts in her account. But that was what worked in such situations. And Gaurav had to grudgingly concede that she had got the tone just right: a mix of calm and disquiet underpinned by a layer of barely-suppressed hysteria. The door opened and his production manager rushed in. The link had been fixed. Gaurav straightened his tie and took one last look in the mirror that hung opposite his desk. His salt-and-pepper curls were tousled as artlessly as his hairstylist could manage. The subtle application of bronzer had given his somewhat pudgy face contours it did not, in fact, possess.
Slipping on his rimless glasses (he didn’t really need them but he thought they gave him a suitably ‘intellectual’ look) he headed into the studio, mulling just how he could distinguish his coverage from Manisha’s. By the time he had taken his place behind his desk and been miked, Gaurav knew exactly how he was going to play this. The Prime Minister of India was in surgery, suspended between life and death. The doctors weren’t saying very much about his condition. But the truth was clear to anyone with one and a half brain cells. Birendra Pratap had been targeted in some way at the rally as he went into the crowd. A healthy man like him didn’t just collapse for no reason. There had to be foul play. And if there had been foul play there was only one suspect: Pakistan. India’s perennial enemy number one. The country that had vowed to inflict a thousand cuts on India by using terror as an instrument of state policy. Clearly, it had now decided to up the ante with a direct attack on the Prime Minister himself.
The cameraman counted down, ‘Three, two, one…’ as NTN came back from a break. Gaurav took a deep breath, looked straight into camera, his eyes already bloodshot, his mouth an angry line, and started: ‘This is a sad day in the history of our nation. Our Prime Minister is in hospital, the target of a diabolical attack.
‘Ladies and gentlemen, don’t be misled by all these so-called liberal journalists who are talking about how he has had a stroke or a heart attack. We at NTN are here to tell you the truth: Birendra Pratap was the victim of a cowardly assassination attempt. Somebody has tried to take the life of the Indian Prime Minister. And the finger of suspicion points directly at Pakistan.’