March 31, 2020
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Suspicious Departure

As a new chief is appointed in a clearly political move, Mandi House sends out mixed signals

Suspicious Departure

A bolt from the blue it might have been, but acting director-general (DG) Rathikant Basu's abrupt and total fade-out from the Doordarshan scene certainly had a faint ring of inevitability about it. The 1964 batch, Gujarat cadre IAS officer, who presided over the miraculous transformation of a creaking, slothful government organisation into a dynamic, competitive outfit responsive to market forces, was getting too powerful for the comfort of his political bosses. So, on the crucial electoral home stretch, he had to pass on the baton to a seemingly more pliable officer, K. Subramanya Sarma, who is known to be close to both Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao as well as Information and Broadcasting (I&B) Minister Purno A. Sangma.

But while the gameplan behind Basu's sudden transfer to the Department of Electronics (DOE) as secretary may be clear, would it be fair to dismiss Sarma as a mere rubber-stamp? No, feel television software producers. "Basu's contribution was tremendous, no doubt," says S.P. Singh, the former Navbharat Times editor who now heads TV Today's Hindi daily news show, Aaj Tak. "He withstood the onslaught of satellite TV with admirable skill. But Sarma might just carry on from where Basu left off. We still don't know the new DD chief, so we should give him a fair chance before jumping to conclusions."

The view from Bombay, too, seems similar. Says Amit Khanna, managing director of Plus Channel: "One can't say whether things will change drastically. Probably the new person who has come in will be even better. In any case, Basu was due for promotion and in government service you can't occupy a position forever." Film and TV serial-maker Basu Chatterjee, another admirer of the former acting DG, is also in favour of the wait-and-watch approach: "I have no idea what the new chief is like, but if he lives up to the standards set by Basu, DD will have much to gain."

But will Sarma do that? Uneasy speculation is rife in Mandi House even as the new acting DG goes about the task of acquainting himself with the organisation's dynamics. Why exactly is he here? Will he reverse the opening-up process that Basu set in motion? Will the reins of control now revert completely to the ministry once again? According to Mandi House insiders, even if the "so-called Narasimha Rao promos" on Doordarshan get more persistent, they cannot go on for very long for two simple reasons: one, because the Election Commission might object to DD being used as a vehicle for the ruling party's electoral propaganda and two, because the long-awaited Broadcasting Bill to grant autonomy to the electronic media is expected to be finalised within the next few months, as ordained by the Supreme Court. But till that happens, the ruling party is expected to make the most of the situation.

 Sarma, a 1968 batch, Andhra Pradesh cadre IAS officer who is also a joint secretary in the I&B Ministry, has already initiated moves to clear the air. He has held a formal let'sget-to-know-each-other meeting with his officials. These are the very officials—old DD hands like Urmila Gupta, K. Kunhi Krishnan, M.P. Lele and Jai Chandiram, among others—he will have to lean on for support until he learns the ropes himself.

Moreover, he is understood to have issued orders to his men not to project Rao blatantly, so as not to fall foul of the Election Commission's guidelines. At the same time, the private news telecasts every night are being subjected to closer scrutiny than ever before. On January 23, for instance, a reference to the Prime Minister in the voice-over in the Aaj Tak lead story about the hawala racket was erased, while a longish segment showing Atal Behari Vajpayee addressing a press conference went completely silent.

Of course, S.P. Singh is not willing to blame the new DD chief: "I don't think such things can ever be the handiwork of the director-general. He is too senior to deal with such day-to-day affairs. These are simply professional hazards that all journalists, even those in the print media, have to live with." But isn't he worried that private newscasts on Doordarshan might be increasingly targeted in the run-up to the elections? "Private newscasts, as a concept, are here to stay. The clock can't be put back now. It can only go forward," says Singh.

According to Mandi House sources, Basu had become "politically inconvenient of late". During his 32-month tenure, he lost no opportunity to assert his right to run Doordarshan on strictly professional lines. So, offhand instructions from people claiming to be speaking on behalf of the I&B minister would be tactfully deflected time and again. "He had set the Doordarshan agenda after much thought and was, therefore, in no mood to let anybody mess around with it," says a DD official.

Clearly, Basu wasn't the man who could be relied on to safeguard the political interests of Rao. Sarma, on the other hand, has more "reliable" credentials. At least on paper. Before coming to the I&B Ministry weeks after Sangma took over in Shastri Bhawan, he was joint secretary, labour, the minister's previous portfolio. Sarma also served directly under Rao when the latter was human resource development minister in Rajiv Gandhi's cabinet.

Yet, until Basu was suddenly shunted out of Mandi House, the firm belief among bureaucracy-watchers was that even after being promoted to the rank of secretary he would be asked to continue as Doordarshan DG until the retirement of I&B Secretary Bhaskar Ghose so that he could eventually take over as the ministry's top bureaucrat. In fact, even now, some officials feel that Basu's transfer to DOE is only a ploy, a short-term move. "It is an unwritten rule," says one official, "that an additional secretary is never promoted to the rank of secretary within the same ministry. So Basu has been moved out to facilitate his return as I&B secretary."

K. Bikram Singh, president of the North Indian Filmmakers' Association, whose serial Kahin Ek Gaon is currently being aired on DD's national network, is rather baffled by Basu's exit. "Bhaskar Ghose is going away soon. Basu should have been brought in because of his experience. He is, after all, a man with a broad vision," he says. He cites the precedent of Suresh Mathur, who was a joint secretary in the I&B Ministry and was brought back as secretary after a break.

Sangma, on his part, has reportedly told people close to him that he would like to continue making use of Basu's experience and expertise. But how he intends to do that is not clear. At the same time, a move is afoot to regularise Sarma as Doordarshan DG, which will make him the first full-fledged DD chief since Shiv Sharma retired in the early '90s. All incumbents since then, including Shashikant Kapoor, have served in an acting capacity.

Another line of thinking rules out the possibility of Basu returning to the I&B Ministry in the near future. Ghose, who is due to retire in less than a month, is likely to get a year's extension. The relevant file is already in the office of Margaret Alva, Minister of State for Personnel and Public Grievances, and a decision is expected within the next two weeks. And if Ghose gets an extension, it could well enable him to continue for at least two more years because the Fifth Pay Commission is expected to increase the retirement age to 60 years by mid-1996.

But will the new lease of life that Basu gave Doordarshan get the extension it deserves? It is now entirely up to Sarma to select the right buttons to press.

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