The journalist as neta: Rajdeep Sardesai on Kumar Ketkar accepting a Rajya Sabha nomination

Once a journalist enters the political domain, he or she sheds any pretence at independent journalism.

Should journalists enter Rajya Sabha on a political party ticket? That’s a question that gnaws at me after Kumar Ketkar, a friend and early mentor, became the Congress candidate from Maharashtra and the latest journalist to bite into the tempting political apple. While anyone is free to join politics or be an MP, I just wonder whether a Rajya Sabha seat in particular is increasingly seen as a reward for services rendered. Upper House membership is afflicted by cronyism and deal making: quid pro quos for favours, past and present, are the order of the day.

Media owners-turned-netas are even more culpable in this regard, allowing their news channels and newspapers to be shamelessly used by those in political office. Networking/influence peddling, the scent of power and money are often the name of the game rather than a genuine desire to contribute to raising the bar in public life.

Which is why to see Ketkar, who is one of our finest journalist intellects, joining the Rajya Sabha, evokes mixed feelings. At one level, he will add to the diminishing intellectual capital of Parliament but at another level it leaves him in danger of being further compromised since questions will be raised over whether he was using his role as a television talking head and writer to fuel any political ambition.

To be fair, for some time now, Ketkar has been firmly convinced that the Bharatiya Janata Party under Narendra Modi is a fascist party that must be defeated and the Congress is the only viable option. The Kumar Ketkar I know is no sycophant: he is also not the kind who would have lobbied for a Rajya Sabha seat at any stage, unlike many others from my profession who have conveniently shifted their ideology only to stay on the right side of those in power (a prominent editor who once condemned Hindutva politics routinely is now a minister in Narendra Modi’s government).

Moreover, there is probably nothing like a neutral journalist, so wearing his political beliefs on his sleeve is his right as a private citizen. But when any individual joins a party he ceases to be an independent voice and a journalist without independence who cannot tell truth to power is a non sequitur. Net net: journalists do not enjoy the luxury of lawyers who can afford to wear two hats without compromising their professional integrity at some level. Once a journalist enters the political domain, he or she sheds any pretence at independent journalism.

However, one must also make a distinction between journalist/editors and those who hold constitutional posts dependent on public funding. In my view, army chiefs or Supreme Court judges or election commissioners or anyone who holds a constitutional post must take a minimum two-year hiatus before accepting any political role. The number of government functionaries who have swiftly moved to take up political positions is troubling: a journalist, especially someone like Ketkar who was a freelancer over the last few years is, to that extent, free to be guided by individual beliefs and persuasions.

A tricky game

Having said all this, am not sure how a back bencher Rajya Sabha MP can actually contribute meaningfully to public life (many of them scarcely get to speak). Knowing Kumar Ketkar, though, I am sure he will continue to speak out on issues close to his heart. We have lost a combative journalist of stature. Hopefully, we will gain an active MP who will represent Parliament with honour and dignity. Let’s wish him well and wait to see who is the next journalist/media owner to make the shift.

By the way, someone on Twitter asked me whether I was queuing up to be a RS MP. My direct playful answer: no thanks, I already have an RS as my initials! A few years ago, when a regional party chieftain asked me to enter the Rajya Sabha from their party, my answer was a polite: thank you but no thank you.

It is my unshaken belief that a professional independent journalist must ideally remain just that: an observer and chronicler with strong views but not a player or participant in the tricky game of politics. If you want to join politics, please do so, but quit journalism first.

This article first appeared on Rajdeep Sardesai’s website.

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