On January 15, amid news of Trinamool Congress minister Manjul Krishna Thakur joining the BJP and loud rumours of a large exodus from her party, West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee tweeted, “A particular national political party along with a Bengali media house is engaged in maligning state political personalities of the ruling party.” The next day, Trinamool spokesperson Derek O’Brien followed up, “Media barons do not shape the destinies of nations. Voters do…” On January 25, O’Brien was naming names: “2 very senior journalists appalled at owner Aveek Sarkar’s blatant pro-BJP bias in ABPs papers/channels. Want to jump ship, exploring options.” Sarkar is the chief editor and promoter of the ABP group.
Pratap Banerjee is a quiet man with an impassive face and a low, droll tone who is not given to wearing his expressions. When a man of such frugal expression allows himself a little smile, you wonder if you should read a little more into it. “Do you reach out to them for stories?” I asked. “We communicate with everyone. You are a freelancer, have you ever felt unwelcome here?” Pratap Banerjee asked. (That is true.) “The number of reporters dropping in has gone up after the Lok Sabha election,” he added. “This is the Narendra Modi effect. Everyone is excited about the prospects of the BJP.”
This is a valid way of viewing things: interest in the BJP has soared after their cracking election victory, and the Bengal media has begun to take note of its activities. Even so, the ABP group seems to have a greater interest in the BJP’s doings than the others. Consider the stories in The Telegraph and The Times of India, the second-best-selling newspaper in Kolkata in recent weeks.
On January 25, The Telegraph published a Page 1 report about a member of the National Commission for Women, Shamina Shafiq, being assigned a car with insufficient fuel and a rude, rookie driver who did not know his way around the city. The NCW story did not find a mention even on the inside pages of The Times of India. Shafiq had travelled to Bengal to meet a woman in Birbhum district who has been savagely attacked, allegedly by the police and local Trinamool Congress leaders. The West Bengal BJP president, Rahul Sinha, had demanded that the NCW look into the assault. Indeed, the ongoing agitation at Parui in Birbhum district against a series of violent skirmishes between Trinamool and BJP workers at Makhra village on October 27, 2014, is being led by the BJP. Two Trinamool workers and one BJP worker were killed in the clashes.
Two days before, on January 23, both The Telegraph and The Times of India carried stories on the revival of a Metro project in their inside pages. The Times of India headlined the story in plain, descriptive terms, while The Telegraph credited BJP MP Babul Supriyo for the initiative. Supriyo is the junior minister for urban development at the Centre.
On January 23, The Telegraph carried a story about the establishment of the first BJP union among state government employees at Nabanna, the Mamata Banerjee government’s current address. The news was likely seen as a marker of the increasing support for the BJP. The Times of India carried no mention of the BJP union.
On January 31, The Telegraph carried two stories on the Parui agitation, one of them about the BJP’s complaint that the district police is acting on Trinamool orders. The Times of India carried nothing on Parui. It did, however, carry one story about the strikingly large number of central forces (100 companies) being deployed for the by-elections in two seats in February. The state BJP, the report notes, is demanding even more forces.
A request for an interview with the ABP group, sent through the contact form on its website and separately via email, remained unanswered four days after it was sent. Emails to the editors of The Telegraph and Anandabazar Patrika did not elicit replies.
Media houses in India rarely endorse a party or a candidate formally in the way The Economist in the UK and The New York Times and The Washington Post in the US do. But of course, preferences become clear in the tone and timbre of stories, and equally in the stories that do not find space. It would be unfair to say the ABP group is batting for the BJP just yet, only that it seems to be watching the party more keenly than other media outlets in the state.
“I know the ABP group for a long time, and I can tell you that they are committed to solid journalism,” said Subha Dutta, editor of Bartaman, the second-best-selling Bengali daily after Anandabazar Patrika. “I wouldn’t say they are endorsing the BJP, but perhaps they are overestimating the BJP’s presence in the state. It is true that some villages in Birbhum district have switched loyalty to the party after the clashes in Parui, but my reporters who are covering the agitation tell me that the Trinamool retains a strong presence in the district.”
Yet when there is diligent, almost daily coverage of the BJP, a party which barely occupied any space in the political discourse in the state before the 2014 Lok Sabha election campaign, it helps establish the party as a serious contender in the state. The general understanding in Calcutta today is that the BJP has emerged as the principal opposition in the state. A look at the figures would not immediately suggest this.
In the 2014 general election, the BJP won two out of the 42 constituencies in the state. The party has one MLA in the current Assembly comprising 291 members. And in the Kolkata Municipal Corporation, the party won three wards out of a total of 141 in 2010. However, the BJP’s vote share did increase conspicuously in the 2014 general election, jumping from 6% in 2009 to 16.8% in 2014, placing it at third spot after the Communist Party of India (Marxist).
With more than a year to go for the Bengal assembly election, it is hard to tell, especially without an official comment from the ABP, whether the current interest in the BJP amounts to an endorsement of the party. But one thing could not be clearer: the ABP group cannot bear the Mamata Banerjee government, and the sentiment is reciprocated. In its newspapers and TV channels, criticism of the Trinamool government, and in particular the chief minister, is constant and caustic.
There is a sense among some that the group, along with the rest of the media in the state, had once been very enthusiastic about the Trinamool. But this is incorrect. The ABP was ready to give Mamata Banerjee a chance, and it noted her sweeping election victory in good grace. The Telegraph’s front-page copy on 14 May, 2011, a day after her historic win over the Left Front, compared Mamata Banerjee to the Polish activist and former President Lech Walesa who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1983.
Even so, The Telegraph remained wary of the charms of the new chief minister: on 26 May, 2011, when the media was still enamoured of the enormously popular new chief minister, the reporters of the paper followed her on one of her surprise checks of public hospitals. In her first days as chief minister, she pulled off quite a few of those surprise visits. The Telegraph report the next day, however, was critical of her high-handedness and quick temper.
A good deal of the initial press enthusiasm for Mamata Banerjee actually came from media outlets run by the tainted Saradha group, notes Outlook journalist Dola Mitra in a recent story. Mitra is also the author of a book on Mamata Banerjee titled Decoding Didi: Making Sense of Mamata Banerjee.
Whatever good faith there might have been has now worn off completely. The first breakpoint presumably came in 2012 when the chief minister issued a circular to public libraries asking them not to subscribe to English newspapers, and the Bengali dailies Anandabazar Patrika and Bartaman. 2012 was a bad year for the Mamata government in any case: she grossly mishandled the case known as the Park Street rape case, and arrested Professor Ambikesh Mahapatra of Jadavpur University and his neighbour for circulating a cartoon. In August that year, she called out a farmer as a Maoist because he asked her a difficult question at a public rally in Belpahari.
In April 2013, news broke of the Saradha ponzi scheme, and the ABP group has been relentless and scathing ever since, particularly as the Mamata Banerjee government has mostly reacted defensively. Dutta says the chief minister has made an effort to patch up with Bartaman: she recently recommended a doctor for the editor but maintains that this has had no effect on the paper’s coverage. “We are still critical of her when it is warranted.”
Picky and choosy
There has, clearly, been no such reconciliation with the ABP group. The recent tweets by the chief minister and party spokesperson Derek O’Brien is testimony to this. The ABP, in turn, is equally hostile: the front page of The Telegraph often attacks the chief minister directly and frequently mocks her. Much of this is necessary. “It [ABP] is certainly highlighting the faults of the current government,” said Mitra. “It is clearly doing its job of holding up a critical mirror.” Indeed, the cartoon arrests and the list of “approved” newspapers sound like something out of a silly film on North Korea.
But of late, The Telegraph does appear a little partisan and somewhat blinded by its strident criticism. On 4 December, 2014, The Telegraph reacted to Mamata Banerjee’s "bamboos in backside" comment at a rally by drawing a bamboo curtain across a part of its front page, meant to shield the reader from her crass insinuation. But the paper did not have anything to say about Sadhvi Niranjan Jyoti’s “haramzadon” comment, an omission spotted by Firstpost.com.
There is also little coverage of the upcoming Kolkata Municipal Corporation polls in the paper, and no mention of the Trinamool’s achievements at the helm of KMC. In the past week, The Times of India has carried two stories on the civic body, nods in the direction of the election.
In an excellent report in the magazine Civil Society, issue dated 3 January, 2105, Subir Roy notes that the city looks much cleaner and better swept, and that the KMC has done away with several garbage dumps across the city and replaced them with vats that are regularly disinfected. More happily, he notes the improvement in public health: there were a million cases of malaria reported in 2010 when the Trinamool won the KMC election, in 2014 only 140 cases were reported till November. There is also now at least public toilet in every municipal ward of the city.
If a story on a BJP union among state government employees can find a place in The Telegraph, can there not be a note of the KMC’s success in checking malaria?
Of course, it is partly the chief minister’s responsibility that she cannot capitalise effectively on her party’s work, a skill mastered by our prime minister. What she does manage very effectively, though, is promoting the BJP and the ABP. In her frequent outbursts against the both of them, she ends up generating plenty interest in them. “I don’t know about other states,” chuckled the BJP vice-president. “But in Bengal, we don’t need help with promoting the party. Didi does so much for us.”