Stalwarts of the Commentariat

BY Md Ali| IN Books | 10/08/2010
Is political representation on so-called national television diverse? Of course not. National politics is represented on television debates by just six politicians from the Congress and BJP.
A Hoot monitoring of nine TV discussion shows over one month by MD ALI.

Though nobody is likely to be surprised, Mani Shankar Aiyar is emerging as the most tireless member of India’s commentariat. He is always available to speak on a gamut of subjects and shows. He clocked a total of 11 appearances on nine shows that we monitored over a month. ( We can hear you saying only 11? Seems like he’s there every night.) It could have been more had he also been present on shows on  English channels in the  NDTV bouquet. He was on their two Hindi shows,  Muquabla and Hum Log.  He is one of the few members of the TV guest brigade to cross the English Hindi divide.


 What did he hold forth on? Everything. On Newshour, predictably, it was on Pakistan, no fewer than four shows, given that programme’s obsession with Pakistan. Also on Kashmir.  On Do Tak and Muquabla it was on the Commonwealth Games. Elsewhere it was on the saffron brigade, wasted foodgrains, and on P V Narasimha Rao being the most underrated prime minister. Whatever the topic, Mr Aiyar is never at a loss for words.   


Nine shows were monitored for 4 weeks, from June 19, 2010 to July 18, 2010. They are Face the nation (CNN-IBN), News Hour (Times Now), Big Fight (NDTV 24x7), We the People (NDTV 24x7), Centre Stage (Headlines Today), Muqabla (NDTV India), Mudda (IBN-7), Do Tuk (News 24) and Hum Log (NDTV India).


Is political representation  on so-called national television diverse? The answer is of course not. National politics is represented on television debates by a clutch of just six politicians representing the Congress and BJP, four of whom are party spokespersons.  There are, in order of  most frequent  appearance, Mani Shankar Aiyar, Abhishek Manu Singhvi, Chandan Mitra, Ravi  Shankar Prasad, Manish Tiwari and Tom Vadakkan.  Jayanti Natarajan and Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi bring up the rear. Abhishek Manu Singhvi  averaged eight shows during this month, Mitra seven.


But what about bringing non-Congress, non BJP politicians into the political discourse on issues of national concern?  On issues not specific to a state, the  realm of politics is usually represented by just two parties.  The exception was a News 24 debate which was more inclusive, simply because its topic was ‘ Politics of the regional parties in India’.  It featured Abu Asim Azmi, a Samajwadi Party leader from Maharashtra and Ramkripal Yadav, a leader  of the Rashtriya Janata Dal, Bihar. And Nitin Sardesai, spokesperson, MNS, Maharashtra.


Mudda, the weekly show on IBN 7 broadened its representation a little bit more than the others. It had a debate on the price rise with Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi of the  BJP, Shahid Siddique of the  Rashtriya Lok Dal, Sanjay Nirupam, the Congress leader from Maharashtra and Brinda Karat of the  CPI(M). It also featured Md Saleem of the CPI(M) on another panel discussion on whether the government  was unsuccessful in tackling naxal menace.


Mostly other parties enter the picture only when the debate is on a subject relating to a state.


Centre Stage featured Rahul Narvekar, spokesperson Shiv Sena, when the topic was the nexus between Maharashtra cops and state arms dealers. He was similarly featured by The Big Fight when the topic was a Maharashtra-related free speech issue, and by Face the Nation, on the Shivaji issue. (More evidence of the fondness for party spokespersons.) NCP vice president Suhail Lokhandwala was  also featured on the cops and state arms dealers’ debate. Similarly a debate on Centre Stage on the mining scam featured TDP MLA Revant Reddy.


During June and July as turmoil raged in Kashmir the state’s politicians featured a lot.  Sajjad Lone on four panels, across Newshour, Face the Nation, We the People and Big Fight. Mehbooba Mufti, Muzaffar Hussain Baig, Senior Leader, PDP, Dr Mehboob Baig, MP, National Conference, GN Ratnapuri, Rajya Sabha MP, National Conference, Md. Shafi, MP, National Conference, and Ali Mohammed Sagar, Law Minister, J&K.


For the rest, it was Aiyar, Mitra, and Singhvi all the way.  All equally versatile. Singhvi was there for ‘Does Bandh block nation?’  on Newshour. He is a Times Now favourite, six of his eight appearances were on Newshour. He was also there for Kashmir, Indo Pak relations, the protest over the Shivaji book,  cabinet action on honor killings, and so on.


A spokesperson will of course talk on many subjects. But why don’t TV channels go beyond getting spokespersons for guests?  Don’t they want genuine views, rather than the party line?


When Pakistan-based commentators are drawn upon, there too the base is small. The channel which featured the most debates on Indo-Pak relations was Times Now. Tariq Azim, Pakistan's former Deputy Information Minister made three appearances in the period under survey on Newshour. The channel likes to repeat its guests.  During this period Gauhar Ayub Khan, Former Foreign Minister, Pakistan  was drafted for comments  three times  on different shows,  and Tasneem Noorani, Former Interior Secretary, Pakistan twice. Asad Durrani, former ISI  chief also popped up on two different shows.


Secondly, the commentariat is overwhelmingly composed of political party spokespersons and journalists, though the topic may call for other professionals.  They are present in equal numbers: Abhishek Manu Singhvi (8) and Chandan Mitra (7), Ravishankar Prasad (5) and Praveen Swami (5),  Manish Tiwari (4)  and Vinod Mehta (4),  Sajjad Lone (4), and Vinod Sharma (4),  Mahbooba Mufti (3) and Shefali Vasudev   (3), Tom Vadakkan (2)  and Swapan Dasgupta (2), Jayanti Natarajan (1) and Siddharth Varadarajan (1).  


Civil society stalwarts on these talk shows include  G Parthasarathy,  Kiran Bedi ,  Madhu Kishwar, Nafeesa Ali, Ranjana Kumar, and Poornima Advani, three appearances each.


The panelists in the studio are naturally Delhi-based, but the linked-up panelists are also  Delhi-based, unless they are in Pakistan.





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