Rajya Sabha polls: Keeping politics and journalism apart is the rule, but exceptions are increasing

The Congress has nominated former editor Kumar Ketkar while the BJP has picked media owner and MP Rajeev Chandrasekhar.

Every time a journalist or a media owner is nominated to the Rajya Sabha, it evokes a passing bout of hand-wringing over journalistic independence. But look closer and you find that it is more a case of confirming an ideological or political affiliation that was already there, or of a professional journalist who for her/his own reasons is ready to move into politics for the solutions she/he thinks it offers.

The elections to 58 Rajya Sabha seats due on March 23 have thrown up two prominent names – former Loksatta editor Kumar Ketkar, and businessman, media owner and member of Parliament Rajeev Chandrasekhar. The former has been offered a nomination from Maharashtra by the Congress. The latter was thus far an independent MP from Karnataka supported by the Bharatiya Janata Party but has now been nominated by the BJP for another term.

How terrible precisely is the switch to active politics at a time when some television channels are unabashedly partisan and are rewarded for their pains with exclusive interviews with the prime minister? You could argue that formal affiliation is worse than a bias. Does it compromise journalism? If you are an editor, yes. If you are a media owner, perhaps. But if you are a talking head on television known for a certain ideological affinity, surely not that much?

And Kumar Ketkar would argue that that is where he fits in. He received similar offers from the Congress twice before but says he declined them then because he was chief editor of Loksatta and thought he should not go to the Upper House while he was still a working journalist. But that was five years ago. Twenty years ago, he had a more colourful offer, from Shiv Sena leader Balasaheb Thackeray who told him he could have a Rajya Sabha seat the next day if he was willing to shed his ideological affiliation.

Now, Ketkar is 72, says he is no longer a working journalist and is a little surprised that Congress president Rahul Gandhi is trying to induct someone who is not from Generation Next. And he does not think staying away from politics can contribute to keeping fascism – which he accuses the BJP government of – at bay. Better make the jump, then.

Swapan Dasgupta, now a BJP member of the Rajya Sabha, similarly was part of the commentariat and still is. Journalists like him have long had identifiable political leanings, so a party nomination does not change that much.

Editor and MP

Nominating a practising editor would be a different proposition, except that the editors in the Rajya Sabha are usually owner-editors. Shahid Siddiqui – who has had a long political career, moving through the Congress, the Samajwadi Party and the Bahujan Samaj Party – is one such. He owns the Urdu weekly he edits, and it also reflects his politics. Chandan Mitra, the chief editor of Pioneer, is in essence running a publication with a recognisable political bias. So, when he was a BJP MP in the Rajya Sabha, there was no great disservice to journalism there either.

Harivansh, formerly of Prabhat Khabar, is an exception. He was the editor-in-chief of Prabhat Khabar when the Janata Dal (United) in Bihar surprised him with an offer in 2014. He was working in Jharkhand at the time but was nominated for a seat in Bihar. He decided he was ready to make the switch to politics. It took the paper’s owners close to two years to hire a replacement, so there was a period when Harivansh was both editor and MP. But his name was removed as chief editor from the printline of the paper two months after he took oath as MP. That is now over and he can focus on why he moved to politics in the first place.

Because as he puts it, “whatever great journalism you do, the system does not change”. His paper exposed several scams, including the fodder scam. It did great investigative journalism, but there was no systemic change. Now he is discovering that you cannot change things through Parliament either. “I thought I was moving to a platform where you can raise issues,” Harivansh said. “I raise an issue in Parliament, but eventually nothing happens… I thought it was a forum where serious issues could be raised but there has been no business transacted over the past week.”

Journalists and politics

The dalliance between journalists and politics has a long and colourful history. Pritish Nandy was given a Rajya Sabha nomination by Thackarey’s Shiv Sena, Rajiv Gandhi persuaded MJ Akbar to fight a Lok Sabha election on a Congress ticket, Cho Ramaswamy was a Rajya Sabha MP nominated by the BJP, as was Ranchi Express owner-editor Ajay Maroo.

The relationship between some media owners and the Rajya Sabha has stretched over longer time spans. Hindustan Times proprietor KK Birla was a Rajya Sabha MP for 18 years while his daughter Shobhana Bhartia was a nominated MP more recently. Narendra Mohan Gupta and Mahendra Mohan Gupta of Jagran Prakashan, which publishes Dainik Jagran, managed nominations from the BJP and the Samajwadi Party, though the family has not had a seat in the Upper House in recent years. Vijay Darda was chairman and editor-in-chief of Lokmat while serving three terms in the Rajya Sabha. Subhash Chandra of Zee has just begun his innings and given how entrenched his media house is with the ruling BJP, it could be a long one.

Media houses think their empires can benefit from proximity to those in power. Political parties think a friendly media empire is a useful thing.

Keeping politics and journalism apart is fortunately still the rule, but it looks like the exceptions are set to increase.

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