Big fight at the Press Club

August 21st, 2009

The Press Club of India (PCI), Delhi is one of the most democratic places on earth. Sure, as with all enterprises run by journalists, this one too tends to get mired in verbiage, fruitless mudslinging (frequently using facts that are incorrect) and name-dropping. It also runs - God know how.  And having finished their work, when journalists come here, they tend to attack the bar, leading to some piquant situations where alcohol plays a big role in the outcome.

The PCI is democratic because since its inception, it is a place where women can walk in drink or not drink, without the risk that some kind of value judgment will made on them. During the Emergency PCI was the place where newspersons would hang out asking each other how their day was.

But the daily humdrum of PCI is extremely entertaining. Once, while watching the fruitless efforts of a colleague to flag down a waiter, a British journalist commented sympathetically: “yes, I know, it is difficult to tell the waiters from the journalists”.

Last week a famous Bangladeshi singer was invited to PCI. Every Bengali who follows culture has heard of her. So it was a philistine who introduced her: “And now, Ms Lisa Mohammad will sing a song”, mispronouncing her name.

Sacrilege! But the audience bore it and after Ms Ahmad had corrected the journalist for getting her name wrong, she began singing.

The songs were beautiful enough to bring tears to the eyes of some. When the concert came to an end, she said her last song would be a piece of Rabindra Sangeet Bengalis revere: the national anthem of Bangladesh ‘Amar Sonar Bangla, Aami tomake bhalo bashi’. Everyone stood up, except four persons who were sitting in the front row. They continued to sit.

The song ended. The singer bowed low and folded her hand. Suddenly there was a loud comment in the midst of the applause. It was a term of abuse in Hindi that begins with a B.

The golden moment was broken. The singer did not know who the abuse was meant for. Others craned their necks to see who had made it. Those who were sitting got up to beat up the person who was abusing them. “Who said that” one of them asked. One journalist bounded up in front and shouted: “I said it, and I will say it again. You were sitting when the national anthem was playing. I will fix you.”

A crowd gathered as a fistfight started. The singer was paralysed and the security staff whisked her away. A sublime evening dissolved into a brawl. But then that’s journalists for you! fight at the Press Club digg:Big fight at the Press Club newsvine:Big fight at the Press Club reddit:Big fight at the Press Club Y!:Big fight at the Press Club

Reporting from the Parliament

July 25th, 2009

As Delhi swelters, for a reporter, Parliament is the place to be. Although strict and complex rules reign in the press galleries of the Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha (how you sit, what you can carry, how you communicate with those sitting in the House, are all governed by rules), you can get a sumptuous lunch for Rs 13, because of the catering by Indian Railways, there is always a place where you can catch a snooze and the huge Parliament House library complex offers a temporary office.

Little wonder then that reporters - and some who are reporters only in their spare time - like it when Parliament is in session. You are away from the beady eyes of the bosses in the office and once in the press gallery, can do pretty much as you like.

Entry to Parliament is much more difficult now, after the attack on it. There was a time when it used to be a more open, accessible place. Veterans recall that once, when Ananthashayanam Aiyangar was Speaker, a couple of reporters in the press gallery were reading something of a racy nature. One was telling his colleague something about a picture when the glossy magazine slipped from their hands - and fell on the desk of the Speaker.

Today you could probably be jailed for this. At that time, Aiyangar summoned the reporters. They stood trembling before him for nearly 10 minutes when he lifted his head from the paper he was reading and recited all the rules that the reporters had violated. But, he told them, they could go, he was letting them off this time. Nearly fainting with relief, the reporters scurried out, but not before one of them timidly wondered if he could have the magazine back.

What? asked the Speaker. This is now the property of the House. I have to study it, he observed and told them to leave.

Covering events in the House is endlessly fascinating - and quite entertaining sometimes. These days the most riveting is the exchange between Speaker Meira Kumar and Rashtriya Janata Dal chief Lalu Prasad. It is clear that they don’t much like each other. Equally interesting is the occasional exchange between Home Minister P Chidambaram and the Left.

And to sign off, reproduced here is an excerpt from Chidambaram’s reply to the demand for grants for his ministry in the Lok Sabha. He’s talking about the incident in Shopian in Jammu and Kashmir where a boy went missing and his body was discovered in a graveyard. He says: One example which an Hon. Member has said is about a boy missing. An incident of a boy missing is not new. Boys are missing; sometimes boys and girls are missing; and a boy and a girl together are missing. This is nothing unusual. If there is something wrong, if there is something criminal, if there is something evil, if there is something sinister about that incident, you have to register an FIR, investigate and find out if there is anything wrong.” from the Parliament digg:Reporting from the Parliament newsvine:Reporting from the Parliament reddit:Reporting from the Parliament Y!:Reporting from the Parliament

Dalits and mainstream media

June 17th, 2009

Why do problems of Dalits get such little exposure in mainstream media? How should this be addressed? Do modern newsrooms need Dalit representation - maybe in the form of reservations - to make them voice Dalit concerns?

This was the issue debated in a day-long seminar on Dalits and the Media. There were no highfalutin names present here, just ordinary reporters who are known to have an interest in Dalit issues.

Ravish Kumar from NDTV was cogent, blunt and interesting. “I have a problem with the Dalit middle class. Why do they constantly want to be someone else?” he asked. “They change their names, never take anyone home, never talk about themselves…” But must a Dalit always feel a Dalit to be noticed? He answered his own question: he was invited to a Dalit home and when the teenaged girls showed him their room, the walls were decorated not with pictures of Babasaheb Ambedkar but Shahrukh Khan.

A Dalit government servant, who invited him to have dinner at the Marriott, told him that his other colleagues would not break bread with him even in a hotel. The government servant told Kumar, “To such Dalits I say: use humour. Ask these people, OK, you won’t come to my house, but at least come to a hotel. How much will you run from us? How long?”

Kumar said it was impossible to divorce Dalits from the violence that seemed to follow them. But occasionally there were good news stories that were a joy to do: He recalled the Dalit settlement in Ahmedabad where, the only thing dividing a Dalit seth and a rich upper caste Patel was caste. They were happy to do business with each other, they handled volumes worth crores of rupee every day but the Dalit was never allowed to visit Patel’s home. The Dalit seth lived in an opulent house in the Dalit quarter of Ahmedabad - which is wealthy from all accounts - but never went to his partner’s resident. “I told Patel I will give you untold riches. You live in the dalit locality, next to your partner for a year. He spat at the camera,” Kumar said.

So how will Dalits and svarna society come to be at peace with each other? There were many questions about the public perception of Dalits. “Hindu festivals like teej get so much publicity in the newspapers. But Babasaheb’s birthday doesn’t get a single line,” said one dalit from the audience. “Why?”

A suggestion was that possibly until the Dalits were physically accommodated in newsrooms, newspapers would continue to ignore issues they considered important. Ramkumar, a journalist working in Saharanpur, UP, explained how in that city, every newspaper had a Muslim reporter to translate and understand the implications of the fatwas that neighbouring Deoband issued. Like that, maybe to understand Dalit issues, it was important to have representation from the community.

But is that really right - that only a Dalit reporter is capable of understanding the pain of being a Dalit? Hard to say. Recasting a newsroom along caste lines could have a profound implication for newsgathering and bringing out newspapers.

But underlying this, there is another question: of the relationship between Dalits and power. There are many, who consider that despite being a Dalit leader, Mayawati is not really a Dalit because she has changed her mindset, is mimicking the oppressors. So is being a Dalit a mindset?

Why should we charge Sonia Gandhi with perpetrating a regency but excuse Mayawati from the charge of being undemocratic? There is a significant Dalit vanguard that is critical of the way Mayawati functions. Why is it so shy of coming out and saying so in the open?

Erring on the side of political correctness is the worst thing a reporter can do - because this means he wants to be seen as good but stops telling the truth which is what reporters are supposed to do. What do you think? and mainstream media digg:Dalits and mainstream media newsvine:Dalits and mainstream media reddit:Dalits and mainstream media Y!:Dalits and mainstream media

All eyes on Jayalalithaa

May 15th, 2009

All eyes are on Jayalalithaa once again. In 2004, it was a hasty and ill-considered National Democratic Alliance (NDA) decision to snap ties with the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) and shift to the ADMK, led by Jayalalithaa. DMK got 40 out of the 40 seats in the Lok Sabha elections on the back of a powerful alliance in Tamil Nadu plus Pondicherry and the NDA was thrown out.

This time, anxiety reigns in AK Gopalan Bhavan, the headquarters of the CPI (M), for they’re getting a strong feeling that Jayalalithaa, meant to be one of the most important bulwarks of the Third Front, is going to cut and run.

Initially, Sitaram Yechury called Jayalalithaa, earlier today. She didn’t take his call so the CPI (M) spoke to Chandrababu Naidu and got him to call her. “We’ve heard rumours that you’re talking to Narendra Modi,” began Naidu carefully.

“Well, anyone can talk to me,” Jayalalithaa replied and after a few pleasantries, the conversation was over.

Jayalalithaa has only one objective: somehow dislodge the Congress from supporting the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam government in Chennai. If this happens, the government falls and if the Congress supports ADMK, well, Jayalalitha is Chief Minister!

The numbers are like this. The Assembly has 235 MLAs. The halfway mark right now is 117. DMK has 95 and is currently supported by ally Congress which has 35 making the alliance a comfortable 130-strong.

Over the last few months, all other alliance partners have drifted away from the DMK and have joined the ADMK. They number 38 seats, including PMK, the Left parties and Vaiko’s MDMK. So 38, when added to 60 seats of ADMK is a minority but when the Congress supports it… presto! the government falls.

This is the politics of Tamil Nadu. That is why the DMK is being super careful on the Lankan Tamil issue and on everything else. And that’s why DMK insisted Sonia Gandhi and Manmohan Singh come to Chennai for the public meeting. If publicly the allies appear on the same platform it is that much harder for them to walk out of the alliance. eyes on Jayalalithaa digg:All eyes on Jayalalithaa newsvine:All eyes on Jayalalithaa reddit:All eyes on Jayalalithaa Y!:All eyes on Jayalalithaa

Madhya Pradesh Congress needs to reinvent itself

April 13th, 2009

So the first seat of this Lok Sabha election has been won! Sushma Swaraj, the BJP candidate from Vidisha, needs only the Vidisha Returning Officer to hand her Form 21 C (testifying that a candidate has won an election). The circumstances of her victory are bizarre, but are also a comment on how and why the BJP will get more than 20 out of 29 seats in Madhya Pradesh.

Rajkumar Patel was the Congress candidate fielded against her. As a candidate, when you file your nomination you need to submit ‘Form A’ in the original that proves that a candidate is a particular party’s official choice. According to Patel, he “forgot” that this has to be filed in the original: he tried to file a photocopy and by the time he procured the original the nomination deadline was over. As all the other candidates in Vidisha are of no consequence, Swaraj knows she’s won and has – more or less – stopped campaigning.

It is not that Patel is a novice. He was an education minister in Digvijay Singh’s government. This means he is a Digvijay Singh man. Singh, his mentor, had taken a vow not to fight elections for ten years after he lost the state elections in 2003, a period that will be over in 2013.

In the meantime, Madhya Pradesh is slipping out of Congress hands. There was no clarity whether Suresh Pachoury, the state party chief was going to fight the Lok Sabha elections or not. Pachoury has served in the Rajya Sabha for five terms – the maximum permissible – and was moved as party chief for this reason. One way to establish his leadership would have been to lead, contest and win a Lok Sabha election. He suddenly developed cold feet and has stayed out of the fray. Digvijay Singh, the tallest Congress leader, is watching all this and laughing.

Arjun Singh, the other person who has been Madhya Pradesh’s face in Delhi for several years, is caught in a family drama that rivals Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi. His son Ajay, aka Rahul, and his daughter Veena were locked in a public quarrel for the Sidhi constituency. Finally the Congress ticket was given to a third person and the claims of both ignored. Veena Singh is contesting the election as an independent. This resulted in Arjun Singh dabbing his eyes publicly while campaigning for the Congress candidate from Salempur, UP, where he commented poignantly: “Aisa hota hai, kabhi kabhi is umr me (This happens in old age).”

Madhya Pradesh watchers say the Congress is going to get three seats from the state: Chhindwara, held by Kamal Nath; Guna held by Jyotiraditya Scindia and Kantilal Bhuria from Ratlam. A fourth would be a bonus.

In a state where the opposition is decimated, the ruling party tends to become its own opposition. This is what is happening in MP. Sushma Swaraj and Shivraj Singh Chouhan are taking out ‘nyaya yatras’ all over the state. You would have thought they were the ones to be at the receiving end. But no, they are blaming the Congress-led central government for the plethora of development-related problems that plague Madhya Pradesh. West Madhya Pradesh has areas that get electricity once in eight days. There are days when even Bhopal gets water once a day. Roads have shown marginal improvement. To the people, the BJP-led state government’s response is: the centre is not giving us coal so we cannot run thermal power projects which means you get no electricity. Such is the infirmity of the Congress that it is unable to nail this patently absurd argument. The drama unfolds relentlessly meanwhile: recently the Chief Minister led a Satyagraha at a thermal power plant and seized a lump of coal there – ‘This coal is Madhya Pradesh’s. Give our coal back to us,” was the rallying cry.

Unless the Congress can pull itself up by the bootstraps, it will take years to reinvent itself, And reinvention is needed urgently. Pradesh Congress needs to reinvent itself digg:Madhya Pradesh Congress needs to reinvent itself newsvine:Madhya Pradesh Congress needs to reinvent itself reddit:Madhya Pradesh Congress needs to reinvent itself Y!:Madhya Pradesh Congress needs to reinvent itself