April 04, 2020
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The Catechism Of Control

How an autonomous TV channel created to project vox populi from the ranked benches of Lok Sabha was brought under the govt’s thumb

The Catechism Of Control
LSTV was meant to reflect the spirit of Lok Sabha
The Catechism Of Control

On my posting news of my exit from Lok Sabha Television on Facebook, many friends expressed shades of cynicism that have now become synonymous with our times. “What did you expect?” some asked. “C’mon what were you hoping for....” said someone else. Most of these reactions, I believe, were based on the events of the past two years, during which many exceptional men and women have been unceremoniously dumped or hounded out of institutions using dirty tricks of the worst kind. And when along comes a person whose credentials seem difficult to question, the dirty tricks department gets creative on a scale that we have recently seen in the case of Reserve Bank of India (RBI) governor Raghuram Rajan. On the other hand, political appointees with questionable merit such as FTII chairman Gajendra Chauhan and CBFC head Pahlaj Nihalani have bec­ome textbook cases of how to push institutions off the edge.

I joined Lok Sabha TV (LSTV) in 2010 as programming consultant to help improve the content of what was then the only parliamentary channel of the country, Rajya Sabha TV (RSTV) not having been laun­ched yet. At that time, I was in fact pleasantly surprised to find that the debates and discussions on LSTV were wholesome and unbiased, so much so that they put the more glamorous private TV channels to shame. Several people who came to LSTV’s discussions at that time were all praise for its programming and content, which allowed them to actually get airtime and argue their case without being browbeaten and harangued by TV anchors. The channel was also lauded for its fair content by political parties across the spectrum. Since its inception in 2006, LSTV had grown into an institution of credible content that sought to mould public opinion based on facts and figures rather than cleverly swaying public perception to suit an editorial line. It had built its own dedicted following, and people tuned in even when Parliament wasn’t in session, which is to say that LSTV was distinct in its identity as a programming channel rather than as a TRP-chasing news channel.

Following the election of the 16th Lok Sabha in 2014, four vacancies were advertised for the channel. These were for CEO-cum-editor-in-chief, executive director (programmes), executive director (marketing and promotion) and senior technical manager. I applied for the post of ED (programmes) and was awarded the highest marks in the interview, based on which I was selected to the post. At that time, I felt assured that qualification and experience had been respected even after a change in dispensation. But I was to be proved wrong.

For the post of CEO-cum-editor-in-chief, Seema Gupta’s name appeared out of the blue, as the person topping the list. She managed to beat notables such as a former AIR director-general and a former executive director (of LSTV), both of whom had years of public broadcasting experience as well as administrative practice. Even before the interview results were out, there were strong rumours that Gupta would be taking over as CEO-cum-editor-in-chief. However, one question remained. Who exa­ctly was Seema Gupta? Because she was neither a bureaucrat nor a known journalist. All that could be gleaned out from the glorious confusion surrounding her appointment was that she was close to the Sangh.

In the first few months of Gupta’s joining in November 2014, it became amply clear what the real intent behind her recruitment was. She began to block programme ideas that had content critical of the government. A discussion in December 2014 on sterilisation deaths in Chhattisgarh, by Paranjoy Guha-Thakurta, was stopped mid-telecast. Anchors were pulled up for being hard on the government. Instead of following the business of Lok Sabha, disproportionate attention began to be given to airing the prime minister’s programmes live. The government or the prime minister had until then never been the focus of LSTV. As a channel, it was never mandated to be a government mouthpiece; rather, its role was similar to that of the House, that is, to make the executive accountable to the legislature, essentially the Lok Sabha.

During Dr Manmohan Singh’s prime ministership, there were often critical discussions around his key initiatives, foreign visits and the policy takeaways from them. Never was the channel wholly mobilised in his service. Today, LSTV has become more Catholic than the Pope, the Pope being the information and broadcast ministry. In private conversations, Gupta often invokes the PMO. She once told me that the PMO didn’t like me appearing on screen. Needless to say, after that, she promptly went ahead and stopped a popular show by me called Fairs of India. My other show, Know Your MP, was on her nixing list, but she didn’t know how to go about it. So she waited.

Next, when the government began its crackdown on Greenpeace, Gupta decreed  that there would be a blanket ban on coverage of NGOs. Here, it needs to be said that NGOs have always been an important part of LSTV discussions as they provided key perspectives for discussions on policy and law. Banning them proved to be a self-goal. Instead, greater airtime began to be gifted to Sangh affiliates like Bharatiya Yog Sansthan, that does Yog Nirog for LSTV. This when there is a fully functioning Morarji Desai National Institute of Yoga, run by the government under its Ayush ministry. LSTV has a policy of not giving programmes to private production houses. It is only allowed to outsource from government agencies such as NFDC, Public Service Broadcasting Trust, Films Division, Vigyan Prasar etc. This rule was also tweaked to allow Atul Jain of Narad Communications to make a 13-part series called Ekatam Manavad on the life of Pandit Deendayal Upadhyay. Narad Communications is associated with Deendayal Shodh Sansthan, an outfit of the Sangh parviar.

Over the past one and a half years, LSTV, under the eagle eye of Gupta, has been slowly changing its DNA and becoming a single-party news provider instead of being the balanced Parliament channel that it was originally intended to be. This would obviously serve the government well in highlighting every aspect of its policies while simultaneously brushing aside any criticism of them. For example, on the day the votes were being counted for the 2015 Delhi assembly elections, it was decided that the declaration of the results would be shown till the very end. But when it was clear that AAP was getting an absolute majority, the live election show was abruptly wound up on the CEO-cum-editor-in-chief’s orders and regular programming resumed.

After Seema Gupta took charge as LSTV chief, new rules were set: programmes critical of the govt were blocked, the PM got huge airtime.

I am yet to fully fathom why Gupta took such a pathological dislike of me. But yes, it was pathological, and it sometimes made me feel I was up against someone who was either delusional or was really, really powerful. Right from the beginning, she began to paint me as a person who was not willing to work under the new regime. Programme ideas proposed by me were dismissed for not being up to the mark. When asked what it was that she wanted in the channel, there were no answers given. Barely two months since Gupta joined, I was called by a senior journalist and family friend of LS Speaker Sumitra Mahajan’s for a talk. He said Gupta had complained to Mahajan that I was not cooperating with her. I was stunned to hear this. It seemed a deliberate ploy: on the one hand she would rej­ect all my suggestions and stop sending files to me, and on the other, she would complain that I had launched a non-cooperation movement. She also began to target people who were close to me, threatening them with dismissal if they continued to have anything to do with me. Those who didn’t pay heed to her threats were shown the door. She also used staffers to snoop around in my room, record conversations with me and make false complaints against me. Other colleagues also confided in me of similar tactics. One woman anchor who asked for better security on her late night drops was punished with more late night duties. Another production assistant was denied leave to tend to her ailing child. The most tragic case was a female audio executive who had to hide her illness because she was too scared to ask for sick leave: Nabamita Pradhan died due to multiple organ failure a few days after she collapsed while on duty. In the past two years, 20-odd people have been removed or forced to resign from the channel since Gupta’s taking over.

As the head of programming, I was number two in the channel. Understandably, aware of her own lack of experience, she made it her mission to stop at absolutely nothing to get me to quit. When she had decided to stop my show Know Your MP, the unedited tape of one of its episodes was made to disappear on her orders. It was only when I wrote to Harsimrat Kaur, whose interview was on that tape, asking for a re-interview did the tape mysteriously resurface. Subsequently, Know Your MP was taken away from me without giving any reasons.


Harsimrat Kaur being interviewed

Last year, there were serious complaints of extortion and corruption against LSTV anchor Anurag Dixit from people in his hometown, Bulandshahar. But Gupta hushed up the case as Dixit had earned his keep by secretly taping conversations with colleagues and playing them out to her. And thus, from a professionally run channel, LSTV became an infestation of rats and moles who were ready to outdo each other in order to be in the boss-lady’s good books. In all of this, Gupta never lost an opportunity to keep me firmly placed in her crosshairs. Her desperation came to the fore when she arm-twisted three women colleagues to make false complaints against me. While all the trumped-up charges mentioned mental harassment, Gupta wrote a covering letter calling these cases of sexual harassment and they were sent to an internal committee based on the Vishakha guidelines. Much to my relief, her recommendation was rejected outright by the committee. Those women colleagues were horrified to learn how their own complaints were twisted by Gupta to suit her motive. But one of them, with Gupta’s support, went a step further. Nutan Mishrah took her fake charges against me to the PMO. She was given a major dressing down by Sumitra Mahajan herself for escalating a false complaint which was at that given time still sub judice with the Lok Sabha Secretariat internal committee.

Having worked at various places in the private media (including Outlook magazine), I have had the opportunity of working with many women colleagues and bosses, but none of that experience had prepared me to deal with Gupta’s brand of office politics. It was straight out of the pages of a bad movie script.

A month back, I was summoned by Dr D. Bhalla, secretary, Lok Sabha, known to be close to Mahajan. Bhalla told me I must quit because Gupta wanted to ‘cleanse’ the channel. It was surprising, for my three-year contract was till November 2017. But I was told that if I didn’t quit, a file prepared by Gupta in October 2015, kept in the backburner because of the nature of its motivated contents against me, would be used as a basis for my termination. I said I had replied to all allegations in that file and if it really did contain such conclusive proof against me, why was action not taken in October itself. Bhalla told me he knew how unfair it all was, but that he was helpless. Orders had come from the highest possible level.

After my experience, I feel Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s slogans, like ‘Swachh Bharat’ and ‘Congress-mukt Bharat’ have a more insidious intent than on the surface level. They seem to be acting like a dog-whistle for people installed in various institutions to get down to their real mission of cleaning out all opposition.

(Former Outlook staffer Dhiraj Singh was till recently executive director (programming), Lok Sabha TV.)

Slide Show

Lord Patten of Barnes, chairman of the BBC Trust, in a Sept 22, 2013 speech: “By civic humanism, a concept which has its roots in the early Italian Renaissance, I mean our sense of shared citizenship, regardless of our different backgrounds. A citizenship underpinned by a common set of values, a common conversation..... Public service media play a critical part in that by providing a public space for argument and creativity.”

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