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Opinion » Comment

Posted at: Aug 12, 2017, 12:28 AM; last updated: Aug 12, 2017, 12:28 AM (IST)

Foreboding in Rajya Sabha TV

S Nihal Singh
End of its liberal era?
Foreboding in Rajya Sabha TV
NEW ERA: Under Hamid Ansari Rajya Sabha TV tolerated Opposition views, under Venkaiah Naidu it may become a sarkari channel
With the election of Mr Venkaiah Naidu as Vice-President, an era of uncertainty has descended upon Rajya Sabha TV. It has been the only officially-funded institutional television channel that attempted to give fair play to the Opposition point of view. The reason was simple. It was under the supervision of the Chairman of the Upper House.

During his 10-year tenure Vice-President Hamid Ansari had steered the RSTV. Although he was the Congress party’s choice, the channel tolerated Opposition views, although the edict was to use moderate language. The channel also regularly carried vigorous debates on sensitive topics such as press freedom, most notably in such features as “The Big Picture” compered by a robust anchor.

The fear is that despite his disavowal of party loyalty, Mr Naidu, nurtured as he has been in the Sangh Parivar, will follow the Modi Government's directives and become a paler version of Lok Sabha TV and Doordarshan and its affiliates converting news bulletins into little more than official hand-outs.

The first test for Mr Naidu will be the appointment of the channel's new CEO and chief editor to replace the energetic Gurdeep Singh Sappal. Indeed, the channel had been experimenting with several innovative programmes off the beaten track. RSS functionary Ram Madhav criticised the RSTV coverage of the international yoga day. A number of guest TV anchors have been taken off the channel’s roster.

It must be said for the Bharatiya Janata Party and the Sangh Parivar that as against the histrionic abilities of the Prime Minister, propaganda is presented in such a bald fashion that it stands out like a sore thumb. This is as true of the BJP’s official organ, The Organiser, as it is in the manner news is presented by officially-sponsored television channels.

Indeed, the Sangh Parivar’s ability to master vote-winning techniques is in sharp contrast to its inability to present a convincing case in print. The bane of TV discussions on Indian channels is that they often descend into shouting matches although many skilful anchors try to diffuse the heat and lower the decibel level.

In Mr Ansari's era during the decade of Congress-led rule at the Centre, participants were asked to moderate their criticism of the ruling party, but criticism was permitted. We shall soon find out about the landscape in the Naidu era, but the scenario adopted by the Lok Sabha TV under a Speaker chosen by the BJP is hardly encouraging.

An elementary lesson the BJP has to learn is that in television the remote is in the hands of the viewer and can be switched off if he or she feels bored or taken for a ride. The BJP Government has had the wisdom to sell its Swachh Bharat and other civic programmes by roping in actors of the calibre of Amitabh Bachchan, but is unwilling to apply the same logic to how it presents propaganda in news bulletins, as was the case with the previous Congress regimes.

There are contradictions in every administration but the BJP has taken them to absurd levels. Mr Modi is a great advocate of cashless payments and computer technology. Yet the propensity of the Sangh Parivar to mix myths with its quest for a technological future is mind-boggling.

If Mr Naidu proves true to form and follows the lead of the Lok Sabha Speaker, he would see the popularity ratings of the Rajya Sabha TV sink. Building a brand name takes time and labour, but it can be destroyed in no time. Those who tuned in to Rajya Sabha TV in preference to private channels would switch back to the latter if they found RSTV in its new avatar were indistinguishable from Doordarshan.

The itch to control news and news flow is an old affliction with governments, but over the decades, if not centuries, older democracies have learned that people are wise enough to distinguish between truth and propaganda, and the latter, often presented without frills, repels, rather than attracts. And yet we have reams of reports dutifully read by news readers giving the government's version of events without adequate coverage accorded to the Opposition.

It remains to be seen whether we shall look back to the Ansari era with nostalgia in the hutments that house RSTV in New Delhi. Although we shall not have to wait long to find out, many in the channel feel that their fate is sealed. Mercifully, there are enough private channels that can absorb them, but the promise of what could have been will haunt them.

Private channels, for their part, must brush up their act. Any attempt to speak correct English would be welcome. Some anchors have the irritating habit of repeating what their correspondents have just reported. And isn't it time for private channels to appoint teachers schooling staff to pronounce ordinary words such as “development” and “industry” correctly? If anchors cannot speak correct English, how can you expect correspondents to speak English as she is spoke. In the end, it is not a question of spending money but one of attitude. The objective is to be satisfied with the second best, as Ratan Tata was never tired of telling fellow Indians.

Meanwhile, the fate of Rajya Sabha TV hangs in the balance. There is little reason for optimism because, as we have seen during the last three years, the BJP government does not believe in magnanimity or gestures. It refused to give the Congress party the official status of the Opposition in the Lok Sabha on technical grounds. Indeed, it is so obsessed with capturing power in all parts of the country that all other priorities are cast aside.

It is true that the Congress is witnessing its sunset days. But perhaps because of Jawaharlal Nehru’s leadership it was seldom mean-minded. Mr Atal Bihari Vajpayee is one Opposition leader who could have continued Nehru’s legacy. But that was not to be.

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