The confrontation between Information and Broadcasting minister Smriti Irani and Prasar Bharati chairman A Surya Prakash has been projected as an epic battle between a political baddie and her victim, the righteous chairman of the public broadcaster.
It’s far from the truth. It’s a soap opera being played out in the Modi government that promises moral conflicts in episode after episode, but without resolution because the characters don’t have much to separate one from the other.
A turf battle has been couched in as a war over autonomy. But what’s that autonomy? Autonomy of an organisation controlled and funded by the government that is used to dishing out Goebbels-esque propaganda under the garb of news?
Image credit: PIB
Autonomy of a broadcaster headed by someone who is politically aligned to the ruling party and the government’s ideology? Someone who runs, what’s called dirty tricks department, in a perfectly Orwellian set-up?
At the centre of the public spat between Irani and Prakash are issues of functional autonomy, not autonomy from the government control and freedom to advance interests of democracy, freedom to educate and entertain people in a non-partisan manner.
Irani and Prakash went on collision course over three main issues that are in public domain. One, Prasar Bharati turned down the ministry’s proposal to appoint an IAS officer from the ministry to its board. Two, the public broadcaster blocked appointment of two journalists, Irani’s nominees, to senior editorial positions on high salaries.
Lastly, the board rejected the ministry’s demand to clear payments to the tune of Rs 2.9 crore to a Mumbai-based private firm. The production company was commissioned by the ministry for providing footage for the opening and closing ceremony of International Film Festival of India (IFFI), which had always been done by Doordarshan.
Furious with the board decision, the minister blocked funds to pay salaries of nearly 5,000 employees of All India Radio and Doordarshan. Salaries for the month of January and February were paid from Prasar Bharati contingency fund. The ministry released the fund later after Prakash made the matter public.
The two protagonists went to high-ups, possibly the prime minister or key officials in the PMO, and were advised to sort out their differences. For the time being, the current episode has ended.
Where does it leave the more meaty matter of autonomy being raised by the Prasar Bharati chairman?
As a former journalist who cut his teeth in The Indian Express and worked for over two decades there, does Prakash really think AIR and Doordarshan are autonomous news delivery organisations?
Did he take up the job to assert the public broadcaster’s autonomy, which would imply keeping it insulated from the government’s interference and influence, or to make AIR and Doordarshan even more embedded to the government’s agenda?
What he is referring to is the autonomy of his turf under the Prasar Bharati Act. To that extent, his battle against the ministry’s encroachment is justified, laudable and even courageous.
But Prakash’s definition of autonomy is too narrow to merit seriousness. As an appointee of the government and as a person who holds political views completely in sync with the Modi dispensation, the talk of autonomy is facetious.
By his own admission, and that goes to his credit, Prakash is aligned to the ideology of the RSS, BJP and the Modi government. Let’s turn to Prakash’s interview to The Hindu in which he opens up about his political affiliation.
To a direct question, “How would you describe your relationship with this government”, Prakash says, “I am seen as a friend of this government for two reasons: (1) ideological affinity and (2) shared political experiences with seniors in this government and the party.
So let’s not quarrel over his politics because he has never made a secret of it.
His response to another question is a more telling giveaway. “Do you think this government stands committed to the letter and spirit of the Prasar Bharati Act? Prakash says, “Of course, I have no doubt about it. …If you look at the circumstances in which I was re-appointed, I do not think the vice-president, the prime minister and others would have wanted me back if they did not respect the autonomous nature of this corporation.”
Since when did a government become a beacon to promote autonomy and freedom of media organisations? Forget India, which among the democratic countries is most notorious for subverting freedom of the press. Even in the advanced democracies, England and the US for instance, public broadcasters BBC and PBS have to fight with their back to the wall to report and write freely.
Prakash should remember what his former newspaper, The Indian Express’s editor Raj Kamal Jha said in the presence of Modi. That people in news business should wear criticism from governments as a badge of honour, not seek government’s endorsements.
AIR and Doordarshan don’t enjoy even a semblance of autonomy and independence. They have to operate under the thumb of the government, which controls the purse strings and manpower. The only purpose for which the successive governments have used radio and television is for image makeover, crass propaganda, to run down the opposition and muzzle dissents in any form.
Prasar Bharati is the creation of non-Congress parties. The idea of an autonomous public broadcaster cropped up during the Janata Party government of 1977-79 as a result of non-Congress parties’ bitter experiences during the Emergency when the fundamental right of freedom of expression was suspended.
The Janata Party set up a committee under BG Verghese, which recommended an autonomous public broadcaster. Finally, almost two decades after the Verghese report, Prasar Bharati became a reality in 1997.
Successive governments since then have refused to let go of their hold over it through stratagems of financial and administrative control. It remains a “caged parrot” that “speaks in its master’s voice”, to borrow a Supreme Court phrase about the CBI.
BJP governments under AB Vajpayee and now under Narendra Modi, like the Congress governments, have ensured that AIR and Doordarshan are reduced to working as a tool for publicity and propaganda.
Prakash is well within his right to fight his turf battle with Irani. But as a former journalist, he should know that his sanctimonious tone about autonomy is unconvincing and laughable.
Having drifted from soap opera television to politics, Irani has mastered the art of role playing. Modi has chosen her to lead I&B for a purpose. She has no fidelity to ideological purity; she fits in well with the BJP’s Congressised version. But she is firmly aligned with Modi’s agenda. Her mass appeal and tested television persona is an asset.
Prakash is a man of integrity and conviction. He has been a loyal BJP apparatchik. With his proximity to top BJP and RSS leaders, he has proved his mettle in the fight against Irani.
But on substantive issues of genuine autonomy of public braodcasters AIR and Doordarshan, Prakash and Irani need not quarrel.
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