On Friday, news website Cobrapost released a second tranche of videos as a part of its Operation 136 showing managerial staff at news channels and entertainment organisations agreeing to accept large amounts of money from undercover reporter Pushp Sharma to broadcast increasingly communalised content in the run up to the 2019 elections.
While national players including Times Group, HT Media, India Today, Zee Group, Lokmat, Open Magazine, TV18 and others feature prominently in this series of videos, Cobrapost also approached minor news organisations, one of which might be known only to residents of Navi Mumbai.
MVTV is a Marathi news channel based in the Mumbai satellite town. The channel, which claims to have more than 25 lakh viewers, was started around seven or eight years ago by Manda Mhatre, a Bharatiya Janata Party member of the Maharashtra legislative assembly from Belapur who joined the party in 2014.
Cobrapost’s interview with Mhatre is only six minutes long. Most of it is a general conversation about Mhatre’s political opinions, where she agrees that there should be a polarised atmosphere before the election. The video does not show whether Sharma offered Mhatre money or how much to run Hindutva propaganda, though she says that she already runs her own Hindutva shows and shows on the BJP through the day and is willing to run the purported CDs offered by Sharma. It also does not show if she accepted the money.
Significantly, Mhatre appears to reject running programmes denigrating the Congress – only because, as she says, there is no Congress presence in her constituency and that she is capable of handling her major rival Ganesh Naik on her own. She also mentions that though she supports the Sangh, she has consistently denied requests from several Sangh supporters to act against Muslims and their mosques – because it does not make political sense for her to do so.
Even so, the Cobrapost video provides an interesting insight into minor vanity news channels run by politicians.
Mhatre was one of several politicians who joined the Bharatiya Janata Party soon after the party came to power in a simple majority in the 2014 general election. Formerly a member of the Nationalist Congress Party, Mhatre contested the Maharashtra state elections and won against Nationalist Congress Party stalwart Ganesh Naik from Belapur.
As of April 30, MVTV did not feature on the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting’s list of permitted private satellite television channels. MVTV News and Entertainment Network is also not listed with the Registrar of Companies.
For the most part, MVTV seems to function as a publicity vehicle for Mhatre. Many of its uploaded videos on Youtube are of Mhatre’s visits to places, her opinions about current issues, cooking and painting videos, and debates with other politicians. The video with the second highest views is a special report on Mhatre’s arch rival Ganesh Naik from March 2017. More recent videos show features on Hindu festivals and icons, lectures from “24 gurus” and local Navi Mumbai events.
“I started this channel seven or eight years ago when nobody would feature me on television,” Mhatre told Scroll.in. “Now I am a BJP MLA so obviously I will show my party’s programmes.”
In the video, Mhatre is shown affirming her “Hindutvawadi” credentials, boasting that it was a national-level Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh official who got her a ticket to contest in Maharashtra state elections in October 2014, and explaining why she refused requests from the Sangh to target mosques – because many Muslims had joined the BJP.
Cobrapost journalist Sharma, posing as a member of a minor Sangh organisation seeking to promote communal content before the 2019 election, approached Mhatre asking her to run Hindutva programmes on the Bhagwad Gita and Krishna in the style of his purported organisation. In response, Mhatre said that MVTV already ran such programmes and was willing to air even his content if he gave her CDs.
“I have my own temple,” the Cobrapost video shows her telling Sharma. “I am a Hindutvavadi, but I don’t show it.” She later added that “BJP programmes run on my channel all 24 hours”.
In a clip presented without context, Mhatre boasts about how she joined it through the influence of her “guru”, a national-level RSS pracharak from Maharashtra. She claims that in meetings where her name was suggested, she was dismissed as not being “jatiwadi” or casteist and would not be willing to join the BJP. Cobrapost cuts off that clip before we can hear exactly how she came to join the BJP, despite these seeming drawbacks.
At the end of the video, Sharma begins to describe the end game, where in response to increased communalisation, the Opposition would begin to use the “minority card”. “And when they do that, polarisation will obviously happen,” Sharma said.
“Yes, that will happen,” Mhatre agreed. “That we are doing already. What is this, it is theirs only…”
Mhatre told Scroll.in that while the setting of the video and description of her channel was correct, the video portrayed what she had said incorrectly. “Vo sab jod modke dikhaya hai,” she said. He has cut different parts together. “When people come to offer the channel money, obviously I will listen.” Mhatre said that she would approach the police on Monday to file a complaint.
“He should not target women like this,” she said.
Before she had viewed the video, Mhatre had told Scroll.in, “I don’t say anything against anyone because I am from a cosmopolitan constituency where there are people of all religions and castes.”
Politics and Hindutva
Sharma said that when approaching other channels with his “agenda”, he had asked about the credentials of the owners because he was not sure if they would eventually show Hindutva content. The voiceover adds that this was why he had approached Mhatre.
“You have to keep politics and this [presumably Hindutva] separate,” Mhatre tells the undercover Sharma, just after she said his people had brought in former president APJ Abdul Kalam. “People from the Sangh were telling me to break down the masjid of the Muslims. I said ‘Sorry, I can’t do that.’”
She added: “We can’t take on so many people. Why? Because half of those people have joined us, joined our government. Pasha bhai [probably BJP member Pasha Patel] puts lakhs of property with Modiji, Amit Shah. Tell us how can we do anything to them?”
Pasha Patel is a popular farmer leader from Marathwada who joined the BJP from the pro-market Shetkari Sanghatna led by Sharad Joshi in 2000.
Patel did not reply to phone calls or messages from Scroll.in.
In the video, Mhatre continued with a complaint commonly heard only off record from supporters of the Congress and Nationalist Congress Party in Maharashtra since the 2014 election: that the BJP government does not allow them to accumulate money on the side, presumably through bribes.
(The complaint ordinarily goes “Pehle vo khate the aur humein bhi khane dete. Ab vo khate hain lekin humein khane nahi dete.” Earlier, the top leaders were corrupt, but they let us also be corrupt. Now the top leaders are still corrupt, but they don’t allow us to be so.)
“Our workers don’t have even one rupee and our BJP government doesn’t let us earn money on the side,” she complained. “So how are we supposed to put up big posters? They give us so many schemes and keep telling us to implement it.”
Apart from her grouses with her new party, Mhatre also takes the time to complain about Ganesh Naik. Reports have abounded of Naik’s imminent entry to the BJP ever since he lost to Mhatre in 2014. Saying that there is no need to bring up “Pappu” [a pejorative commonly used for Congress president Rahul Gandhi] because there is no Congress presence in her area, Mhatre says that she is perfectly capable of fighting on her own without outside help.
She complains, however, that the state government is protecting Naik. The government, she said, was protecting Rs 400 crore worth of acquired land because Naik has built temples on them. [In November, the Bombay High Court ordered the demolition of a temple and artificial pond built by Naik’s nephew Santosh Tandel on land owned by the Maharashtra Industrial Development Corporation.] The temples, Mhatre claimed, do not even have idols in them.