-Melanie P. Kumar

A subject like politics and the ballot-box is guaranteed to attract attention and this is evident from the crowd thronging, “Samskara,” to hear four heavy-weight journalists, including the Moderator, Madhu Trehan. The audience keeps lapping up every sentence from the word “go,” and joins in with enthusiastic clapping, whenever anything important is said.

Madhu Trehan sets the ball rolling with her provocative remark that all journalists got their numbers hopelessly wrong in the 2014 elections to which Swapan Dasgupta, Shekhar Gupta and Sankarshan Thakur offer their rejoinders and explanations. All three admit that they were aware that the Congress party would be routed but Sankarshan points out that journalists are not “number-tellers.”

Madhu then pointedly asks Swapan, if it is okay for a journalist to be biased towards a political party. His reply is that though he is not a member of the BJP, he campaigned for the party in the 2014 elections. He says that he is a free person, entitled to his choices! He adds that this landmark election saw a break from the past, with a Presidential style of campaigning and a rout for the Congress and caste-based parties.

Sankarshan Thakur says that Mr. Narendra Modi fed off the discontentment over the failures of the Congress and that their defeat was a given. He also expresses his concern over caste being a casualty, in a country of plurality, like India. Yet, the results of the recent bye-elections reveal that at the ground level, caste does matter. To an observation on Narendra Modi’s Presidential style, Sankarshan’s take is that a Presidential style campaign could only produce a Presidential-style Prime Minister!

Shekhar Gupta, who has watched many elections, believes that the anti-incumbency factor plays a great part in elections, which is what happened in 2014 too. Besides, this campaign played out differently with the orchestration of the media and social media as well as huge funds for campaigning.

Both Shekhar and Sankarshan comment on the general inner party democracy prevalent in the BJP, which seems to have dented a little after the arrival of Mr. Modi. In the case of the Congress, the Gandhis seem to own the party! Shekhar also makes a reference to the Akali Dal, which started as a democratic party but is now filled with family members.

To Madhu’s query on whether Mr. Modi is trying to end dynastic politics, Shekhar replies that it is all a question of which dynasty is perceived as dangerous and this is all part and parcel of the business of politics. He asks about when the Congress Working Committee has last held an election, democratically!
Madhu now goes to the action of the Editors’ Guild, which has expressed its unhappiness over Mr. Modi’s ignoring of the media. Sankarshan says that the PMO is without a spokesperson now and the press is denied access to information. Yet, the Editors’ Guild cannot claim that it represents all journalists!
Swapan says that during the elections, Modi was forced to use social media to go over the head of journalists, leading to a troubled relationship with “media brokers.” He says that the media is peeved about not being able to go on junkets, in the Prime Minister’s aircraft, to which Madhu adds that denial of information to the media is a steady destruction of democracy. Shekhar feels that the “Editors’ Guild” cannot demand access to the PM, as a right.

Madhu asks the panellists to put on their “media hats” and Swapan as a journalist is chided for referring to the media as “brokers,” to the applause of the crowd, some of them perhaps being from the field of journalism!

Shekhar also speaks about how the advent of TV channels and their 24/7 coverage and quest for bytes has taken its toll on responsible journalism. He refers to a TV channel reporter, referring to Modi as Moses, on his present visit to the US. He also speaks about the English media channels running into losses now, with media becoming a business and also “fly by wire!”
Questions like Modi’s similarity to Margaret Thatcher and whether he will finish off the BJP in the same way that Mrs. Gandhi (strangely Sonia is considered less democratic than the original Mrs. G!) did are met with the answer that it is only 283 days and only time will tell. Swapan refers to the elephant in the room, the RSS!

The different journalistic voices on the panel and a packed audience that hangs on every word and cheers the good “bytes,” reveals that journalism is robust and that democratic values are alive and well in India!