There is no better outlet for the Indian penchant for conflict voyeurism than elections. The sight of the most powerful people in the land descending to catfights and petty squables is a widely-watched spectacle. In most parts of the country, the people slugging it out are politicians, but in West Bengal, the ruling Trinamool Congress has decided to bring in the Ananda Bazar Patrika group, the state’s most influential media house, into the fray as well.
On Wednesday, chief minister Mamata Banerjee tore into the ABP at a rally in Durgapur city calling it the “most destructive element in Bengal”. While the Trinamool has been attacking the ABP group in public for the past year, the intensity of the attack from a person no less than the chief minister is notable. During her speech, Mamata made a bewildering array of allegations: she accused ABP and its editor-in-chief Aveek Sarkar of leading to the CPI(M)’s downfall, supporting the Bharatiya Janata Party, propping up the current CPI(M)-Congress alliance and generally “spreading slander against Bengal”.
Go tell ABP that they are the most destructive element in Bengal. They are conspiring against us because they asked me to forcefully acquire land from farmers. They wanted me to remove urban land ceiling. I cannot do that. Aveek Sarkar tells me that “whatever I serve the people, they will be forced to eat that.” This is on record. They wanted to control the government. Jyoti Babu never cared about them, so he never failed; but Buddhadeb Babu, under their influence, gave them Singur which led to his fall.
After the BJP’s victory in the general election, they had bhajans playing for BJP. Today they have become the chairman of the alliance between CPI(M) and Congress.
I challenge him [Aveek Sarkar] to contest in the election. He goes to Delhi and meets Rajnath Singh and asks him to arrest Abhishek [Banerjee] and Mukul [Roy]. What interest could the owner of a newspaper have in such a situation? He meets Rahul Gandhi often in Delhi.
I do not speak anything without proof. I challenge him to prove to me otherwise. He even planned who will be the Congress candidate from which seat.
He dictates to news channels and some companies to create the stories he wants.
He has been spreading slander about Bengal to the diplomats of various countries for a long time. He calls them to his house, feeds them not just food, but with all the slander about Bengal.
He made it such that industrialists had to visit him before investing in Bengal. Today we have changed that completely with our transparent policy. So now he does not get anything.
Battle of the titans
No state in India is as dominated by a single media house as West Bengal is by the ABP group. ABP runs the state’s largest Bengali newspaper (Anandabazar Patrika), largest English newspaper (The Telegraph) and most-watched Bengali news channel (ABP Ananda). Not only does this domination extend to numbers but it also encompasses prestige. The Anandabazar Patrika is a “newspaper of record” in West Bengal, to borrow a term often used to describe the status of the New York Times in the United States of America.
The TMC and ABP have been sparring with each other since 2012. Banerjee has publicly spoken against ABP Ananda in particular, even advising her voters to not watch the channel. In 2015, party spokesperson Derek O’Brien took numerous digs at the ABP on Twitter.
Things got so bitter that O’Brien, one of India’s most well known quizmasters, pulled out his quizzing columns from the Telegraph – a veritable institution for the city’s school children. “Much as my readers are precious to me, the ABP Group’s prejudices are making it impossible for me to continue,” O’Brien wrote in an open letter he published in February, 2015. “I wake up each morning to appalling, tendentious, biased and polemical reportage and commentary that seeks to sensationalise and misrepresent even the most basic facts and occurrences.”
[For a detailed report on the 2015 scrap, please see Sohini Chattopadhyay: Fiery battle between ABP Group and Mamata leaves a smile on BJP’s face]
Even before this open war of words, in 2012 the Mamata Banerjee government had banned the Anandabazar Patrika from all pubic libraries in the state.
Ups and downs
Things weren’t always this bad. In the 2011, the ABP group was widely seen to have supported the Trinamool’s bid to end the Left’s 34-year rule. In 2011, Banerjee was even proclaimed to be the Serar Sera Bangali, the Greatest amongst the Great Bengalis, by the ABP’s Sera Bangali Awards (an award that could only exist in Bengal).
But there was more award politics to come: in 2014, Mira Pande was awarded a Sera Bangali, Great Bengali award for services in public life by the ABP Group. Pande was the state election commissioner for West Bengal when she had a bitter confrontation with the Trinamool Congress over the 2013 panchayat election dates, with the TMC at the time accusing her of favouring the Communists. There seemed to be a thaw as late as August, 2015, when Banerjee attended the ABP Sera Bangali awards for for the first time after 2011. But whatever warmth there was, between West Bengal’s government and its largest media house, has clearly evaporated as the 2016 Assembly elections approach.