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dna edit: A lot more than mere hacks

Tuesday, 18 March 2014 - 11:51am IST | Agency: DNA
Journalists are blurring the line between political reportage and electoral contests

It is possible to view the scramble among journalists to join the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) from varying perspectives. You could say they wish to acquire power, enticed by it because they have glimpsed, over years of reporting, the privileges the political class enjoys. Or that AAP is their desperate gamble to find a lucrative alternative to employment in the media that is haemorrhaging under multiple crises. Or you could accept at face value what they say — that they have plunged into politics to reform the system.

But one thing is for sure, you cannot accuse the journalists who have joined AAP of being 'the insider', a term invoked to describe all those, media personalities included, who are integral to the elaborate power-grid of Lutyens' Delhi. Most of them didn't even occupy the top perch in the media houses they worked in and, barring former TV anchor Ashutosh, they won't even get readily recognised in shopping malls.

Indeed, the AAP breed of journalists is remarkably different from that of, say, MJ Akbar, Rajeev Shukla, Pritish Nandy, Chandan Mitra, and before them, Shrikant Verma and Chandulal Chandrakar. Akbar, for instance, became an editor in his early twenties, scaling the pinnacle of glory and fame through his successful launch of The Telegraph subsequently. The Congress under Rajiv Gandhi fielded Akbar in the 1989 general elections as the modern face of Muslims. He won, but the assassination of his mentor in 1991 saw the old brigade shove him off centrestage, from where he hurtled back into journalism, unable to regain his famed touch.

Unlike Akbar, Rajeev Shukla was never the paragon of professionalism, but was nevertheless quite the envy of those wishing to be networked into Lutyens' Delhi. His talent for negotiating with the political class became palpable during the Rajya Sabha election of 2000 — he bagged the maximum number of votes in UP even though no national or regional party had endorsed his candidature! Then again, Pritish Nandy bridged the seemingly irreconcilable worlds of poetry and politics through his valiant efforts to inject modernity into the staid Illustrated Weekly of India. The magazine was shuttered, but Nandy subsequently shuttled his way into the Rajya Sabha, courtesy the Shiv Sena. BJP was the vehicle Chandan Mitra rode to the Rajya Sabha too, wearing the now-very-familiar hat of owner-editor, in his case of The Pioneer. Insiders they all were.

This isn't a modern malaise. Poet Shrikant Verma was perhaps the only one among Dinmaan's luminaries who supported the imposition of Emergency, was said to have been Rajiv Gandhi's Hindi tutor, and credited with having coined the rhythmic but corny slogan for the Congress in the 1980 election: Na jaat pe, no paat pe, Indiraji kee baat pe, mohar lagegi haath pe. Ultimately, he became the Congress spokesperson. Chandulal Chandrakar reported on the Congress for a Hindi daily, became its editor, and ended up contesting on the party ticket from Durg, Madhya Pradesh.

Now, glance at the profiles of these journalists who have bagged the AAP ticket till now. Though AAP calls Rajmohan Gandhi a journalist, he is better slotted in the category of scholars. Despite being Gandhi's grandson, he isn't your typical insider. When did you first hear of Jarnail Singh? Right, when he flung a shoe at Union minister P Chidambaram in protest against his reply over the anti-Sikh 1984 cases.

Mukul Tripathi? He came into limelight only two years ago, through his allegation against Salman Khurshid that he had siphoned off funds earmarked for the specially-abled. Who in Delhi had heard of Monoram Gogoi, deputy editor in the Assamese channel DY 365? These four aren't even satellites orbiting around Delhi's power-pack, let alone belonging to it.

Once upon a time, Anita Pratap could have boasted a hotline to the resplendent residents of Lutyens' Delhi, not the least because she had been the correspondent of the Time magazine for nearly eight years. But she had been largely forgotten in Delhi, where memory rarely extends beyond the day before yesterday. The AAP ticket had her contemporaries gush: is she living in India? Then again, Ashish Khetan is more a name in journalism than outside it, having won plaudits for his sting operations exposing the Gujarat government's lackadaisical attitude towards bringing the riots accused to book and, recently, for exposing what is now popularly called the Snoopgate. His journalism has been edgy, and he has been trying to kick-start his website, an option journalists are likely to consider increasingly in a professional ambience in which the freedom of expression belongs to media-owners, not the hack, and where revenue is shrinking rapidly.

Indeed, you will have to sit down these AAP journalists to fathom, psychoanalyst style, their motives in contesting the elections. But outsiders they surely are, deserving of the title of aam journalist. Add to this list also those who quit their profession to work backstage. Nagendra Sharma, for instance, quit a national daily to become the media advisor of Arvind Kejriwal, as did Nachiketa Desai to volunteer for AAP in Gujarat. In AAP's inner circle is Bibhav Kumar, who had been a TV reporter for a couple of years. You could go on and on.

AAP may also be attracting journos because of its origins in a social movement. Activists and journalists have a symbiotic relationship — the former require the media to focus on issues they are campaigning on, the latter see them as sources for stories. This is precisely why the early nucleus of AAP consisted of Manish Sisodia and Shazia Ilmi.

But this tradition isn't new to the country. India's anti-colonial struggle saw Tilak, Gandhi, Azad, et al employ journalism as a vehicle to broaden and deepen the national movement. No wonder, in India's first Lok Sabha, 45 members were classified as writer-journalists, and the second saw the figure rise to 50. Then cynicism and pessimism set in — the fourth Lok Sabha had only 24 people in this category, plummeting over the years to just seven in the 12th Lok Sabha. In the outgoing Lok Sabha, only eight described themselves as journalists. But this figure is in reality still lower as the list includes LK Advani and Kirti Azad, and two others who are owner-editors. So will the 2014 election lead to a renaissance of journalism and politics? Ah well, they must first get elected to craft that. Remember also, power has a strange way of twisting noble intentions.

 

The author is a Delhi-based journalist.




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