Can the Indian media dare to stand up against Modi government?
With the NDTV fiasco, the ruling regime has bared its teeth.
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The penny dropped in the studio when Nidhi Razdan, host of NDTV's Left, Right and Centre asked Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) spokesperson Sambit Patra to apologise or leave.
Sambit had crossed the red line. A guest on the channel, he had accused NDTV of having an "agenda".
Sambit sounds conceited, or perhaps he is. Young in politics and ambitious, he knows belligerence and arrogance are skills required to become "successful" party spokespersons nowadays. He is not alone. All political parties school their spokespersons to acquire studio-fit skills.
Nidhi is not among those who set the tone of debate for verbal pyrotechnics with match-ready spokespersons. She is young but seasoned.
Did Nidhi cross the red line on June 2? A lakshman rekha of sober, balanced and objective presentation of news, set by NDTV and its editors?
To journalists, politicians in the Opposition and people of liberal persuasion, Nidhi had scored a victory over an arrogant and power-drunk minion of the Modi government.
Her outburst against Sambit's accusation was a tit-for-tat response that journalists loved. In the end, the feisty NDTV anchor had done to the BJP spokesperson what Arnab Goswami does to Congress spokespersons on a daily basis. Sweet revenge of beleaguered liberals against nasty nationalists.
Sambit was sitting too far away at distance to notice whether he had a mischievous glint in his eyes. He had provoked one of the top anchors in the business. He had brought NDTV on par with Republic TV. That was a victory for BJP, millions of its new-age supporters and army of trolls.
Why did Nidhi lose her cool? Sambit hadn't hurled any obscenities in stating NDTV has an "agenda". It was politically unwise and an incorrect thing to say. But by no means worth losing the sobriquet of the "sober, balanced and liberal voice" of the nation, which NDTV has acquired and which Nidhi, as its executive editor and star anchor, is part of.
Did Sambit have an inkling of the dish that was cooking in the South Bloc or CBI headquarters? And perhaps wanted to play a victim card while the government was working on unleashing the pliable "caged parrot" CBI against NDTV for an alleged economic offence?
Was Sambit instructed to play the victim card to garner the sympathies of the nationalist, populist BJP's constituency? One is unlikely to find out merely on the basis conjecture and coincidence.
What is certain is that Nidhi had walked straight into Sambit's trap even if it there wasn't a trap laid with grand strategy by the BJP! NDTV has several cases of alleged financial transgressions stacked against it for years.
In any case, there is no case for a CBI raid at NDTV offices for an economic offence or defaulting of bank loans, which can be handled by the authorities concerned other than the CBI.
Was Sambit instructed to play the victim card to garner the sympathies of the nationalist, populist BJP's constituency?. Photo: Screengrab/NDTV
Therefore, one can't rely on the Sambit-Nidhi studio spat to determine the trigger for the raids that came barely 72 hours later. As senior journalist Rajdeep Sardesai has pointed out, the studio incident couldn't more than surround sound.
NDTV's past conduct also suggests that like any mature news organisation, it would hold itself back from engaging in a slinging match with studio guests. It would answer by doubling its efforts to excel in newsgathering, exposing the government and its wrongdoings but not by joining a slugfest.
When the Modi government decided to bar NDTV Hindi from broadcasting for a day for the alleged breach of national security laws after a terrorist attack on the Pathankot airbase in November 2016, it chose to handle the crisis with a conciliatory approach.
It appealed to the government for a review and the proposed ban was put in abeyance.
However, after the CBI raids on the channel's promoters, NDTV hasn't pulled punches. It has fired its own salvo and joined the battle with the Modi government.
The statement put out by the channel makes its intent clear. "It is clearly the independence and fearlessness of NDTV's team that the ruling party's politicians cannot stomach and the CBI raid is merely another attempt at silencing the media. No matter how much the politicians attack us - we will not give up the fight for freedom and the independence of media in India."
So what next? Where does the battle go from here? Will NDTV stay true to its word to fight the BJP government, which too has made apparent its intent - if there was a doubt - to put down the independence of the media?
The fig leaf has dropped. Pretensions and optics are no longer veiled. To begin with, the optics were no more than illusory. Now the government has bared its teeth.
The question one must ask is: Is Prannoy Roy prepared to play Ramnath Goenka, the maverick media mogul who fought Indira Gandhi before, during and after the Emergency and later Rajiv Gandhi's government?
He didn't give up when Sanjay Gandhi forced advertisers not to advertise in The Indian Express, when banks were prevented from advancing loans.
Even after the government moved to take over the board of The Indian Express and unseat Goenka as chairman.
Ramnath Goenka risked the very survival of his newspaper to support the Jayaprakash Narayan-led 1974 protest movement. After Indira Gandhi returned to power in 1980, he faced a barrage of cases and raids but didn't surrender to power.
Ramnath Goenka didn't fight back with empty words. His weapons were news stories that exposed the government's wrongdoings and energised the people. He made the best use of the instruments that democracy could provide.
We need another Ramnath Goenka to fight a draconian dispensation. Who is that individual in media today?