Open Mikes are insightful and irreverent

BY BIRAJ SWAIN| IN Media Practice | 15/03/2014
The Open Mike format is a welcome relief from the surfeit of studio panellists. It brings ordinary Indians to the forefront and their rooted realities and frank opinions determine the discourse,
says BIRAJ SWAIN. PIX: Sagarika Ghose hosts an Open Mike session with Delhi University students.

Irreverence is the champion of liberty and its only sure defence.

-Mark Twain, American Author and Humorist, Notebook, 1888

With the election season in full swing, big media is into big action. From opinion polls and surveys to panel discussions and minute-to-minute ticket distribution updates, prime time is abuzz with everything political in the largest democracy of the world.  

But a new, yet, not so prevalent programming avatar has also emerged, the Open Mike. CNN-IBN kicked off its Open Mike series this week with Sagarika Ghose. The issues ranged from first-time voters, sedition charges on Kashmiri students for cheering the Pakistan cricket team, criminals contesting elections, to agrarian neglect. But it was Nishant Chaturvedi of News Express who walked the mean streets of Delhi before the assembly polls last year, kicking off a series of main street Open Mikes, though he called them live opinion poll. NDTV India’s Ravish Kumar has also done a series of studio-based Open Mikes after the election dates were declared last week. 

Unlike the comedy club Open Mike nights in the United Kingdom, the United States of America (and now rampant in metropolitan India) where the theme is not pre-decided, these Open Mikes pre-decide the topic and venue and crowd source opinions/comments and videos. But the real action, refreshing, insightful and irreverent, happens with the members of the public on site with the anchor. 

Three such episodes deserve particular mention, for their honesty, depth and sheer chutzpah. First, Ravish Kumar’s studio based discussion with students and first time voters from in and around Delhi (sans names or institutional affiliations) on choosing between the party and the candidate. 

It opened with a pithy, research-backed witty introduction by Ravish Kumar, which has become his trademark. Much has been written about it. But what an audience is capable of with an indulgent and sensitive anchor was on full display too. A few sparklers (and there are loads, if you understand Hindi):

  • Ravish questioned the delay in political parties declaring their manifestoes and even likened them to BA Pass Course cheat-sheets.
  • One audience member levelled the charge that the Indian political class was confusing and limiting the thoughts of the citizenry. To which Ravish promised that he would compound the confusion by the end of the show.
  • One audience member took pot-shots at all party slogans thus, “One party claiming its prime-ministerial hopeful as Bharat ka Sher (India’s lion) as if everyone else’s was a mouse, another blasting Rahul Gandhi’s Main nahin Hum (We instead of I) as if every other party was a one-man show and Aam Admi Party’s claims of Bharat Ki Sabsey Tez Sarkar listing achievements of 49 days and quitting too in 49 days. 

But it wasn’t just irreverence on display, there was deep insight too. One of the audience members compared the slants of various parties versus the need of the country, i.e. BJP being pro-Bharat and pro-rich, Congress being pro-rich and pro-foreign while AAP being pro-poor yet pro-foreign as against India needing the combination of a pro-poor and pro-Bharat agenda. Another pointed out that it was the first time the Lok Sabha election would have a sizeable number of youth voters born after liberalisation and that would have impact on the world view, voting patterns and outcomes. While another alluded the over-presence of development and governance rhetoric, yet the flurry of caste-based alliances and nominations and the irony of the same. 

After Ravish Kumar’s engaging tete-e-tete with first-time voters and their decision making dilemmas, it was CNN-IBN’s Sagarika Ghose’s Open Mike’s turn. With almost4.4.crore new voters as per the Election Commission data, Sagarika went to Venkateswara College of Delhi University’s south Campus to understand their voting priorities, dilemmas and concerns. Like Ravish’s show, this Open Mike had a fair share of diverse opinion, honest display of confusion and transparent reflection and a killer-quote to boot too. Sample this:

  • So close to electoral dates, yet our netas continue to say what they will do, their promises, we would like to know how they will do things.
  • AAP is the rising sun that also set first (this inspite of a sizable number of AAP supporters among them).
  • BJP and its marketing machine have been on an over-drive. But no one asks or investigates the development model that Modi espouses and how flawed that is. Who wants a Prime Minister who claims beauty fetish of young women as the reason of 45% malnutrition in his state?
  • It is projected as if the choices are between Rahul Gandhi, Narendra Modi and Kejriwal, a duffer, bluffer and muffler. But all governments till date have been coalitions, from NDA to both the UPAs, and the third front is a factor. Some regional leaders have been outstanding too like Nitish Kumar and Naveen Patnaik, who will have a role in determining the final government formulation. 

An engaged, aware and outspoken electorate was in full display, though nameless and non-celebrities. To borrow from another Mark Twain gem, they surely didn’t let their school interfere with their political education. It was also good to see Sagarika host shows where the participants had lots to say and diverse opinions got equal time and chance. A very welcome change from some of her earlier shows where debates were slanted and she did most of the talking, for which she has been panned (both fairly and unfairly). 

Perhaps it is to do with the format of Open Mike which brings ordinary Indians to the forefront and their rooted realities and frank opinions determine the discourse. Contrast that with the suave studio-based panellists and experts, mutilating data and conclusions, evading direct questions and dangling their participles to lengthen the talk-time. Another welcome change was the absence of shouting matches, which has become a regular feature in studio discussion, alas! Sans pre-scripting, the Open Mikes have been direct, sharp, focussed and even honest to display confusion and diverse opinions. 

As for how grounded and rooted they could be, Sagarika’s Open Mike on Indian farmers was a telling episode. It stepped out of Delhi to Poli village in Jind, Haryana, with farmers. While the show didn’t clarify if the farmers were large farmers, small, medium or marginal, their concerns about political apathy and the agrarian crisis were spot on. From dissecting the issues plaguing the Indian farm sector to debunking Foreign Direct Investment in retail, the show had it all. Some nuggets:

Who is the farmer - this needs to be defined. Pricing policy has to be cost plus and not frozen at Minimum Support Price. Crop insurance should be decoupled from administrative unit areas, individual farmers should be enabled to access crop insurance too. The Rs 275,000 crore agricultural subsidy budget that is constantly touted needs to be unpacked. Who is the real beneficiary of these subsidies, farmers, or seeds’, fertilizer’ manufacturers and agricultural banks. The retrospective impact of the new Land Acquisition law on small and marginal farmers who have been dispossessed of their land already, needs redressal too.

  • Profiteering and hoarding needs to be tackled.
  • State has mutated into a land acquirer for developers and industrialists rather than enabling farmers through land development, productivity enhancement and market access.
  • Where is the reward and recognition for farmers? What is the Param Vir Chakra equivalent for farmers?
  • So much talk on FDI in retail, why can’t the state channel the same money for farmers’ producers’ cooperatives and ensure they get good margins and market access?
  • There is so much agricultural abandonment, where is reverse abandonment from other sectors into agriculture? 

The show was also important because two days preceding it, the Prime Time slot of CNN-IBN had Rajdeep Sardesai hosting a panel discussion on the state of Indian farmer, where amongst other things, the lead studio expert, Ajay Vir Jhakar, had advocated FDI in retail as one of the silver bullets. That, two days later the real farmers comprehensively de-bunked this silver bullet, inspite of the anchor’s indulgent questioning, in the same channel is eye-opening to say the least. 

The true potential of Open Mikes to cut through bluff, bluster, anchors’ and channels’ slant is still untested. Some sceptics would even question the truly open nature of these Open Mike shows but what cannot be questioned is the refreshing respite from studio panellists (especially in the English news genre) and their elitist, stuck-in-a-bubble-of-their-own worldview. Ground truth and lived realities are the collateral benefits of these shows. 

After all Open Mikes unleashed some of the finest performing talents globally, from the iconic Rowan Atkinson (of Mr Bean fame) to our desi boy Sanjay Rajoura. We need more Open Mikes. The television studio panels will do well with fewer experts and more panellists sourced via Open Mikes. Perhaps their open and impromptu formats will ensure the irreverence and truth that liberty and democracy need so badly. 

Biraj Swain can be reached at She works on issues of poverty, public policy & citizen-state engagement in Horn East and Central Africa and South Asia. She is a self-confessed news addict.

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