"People don't ask about issues that journalists are obsessed with"

BY ANJALI PURI| IN Media Practice | 10/04/2014
As Delhi voted, the fortunes of three journalists who made their political debut in this general election as the candidates of the Aam Aadmi Party were also being decided.
ANJALI PURI caught them at the tail-end of their campaigns. PIX: Ashish Khetan campaigning in Delhi

It was a most improbably scenic venue for an election meeting. Dusk falling in a verdant park in Golf Links, one of Delhi's most exclusive neighbourhoods, the murmur of voices drowned out by birdsong, a row of jharuus (brooms) prettily hung from a rope stretched between two trees, chairs procured from the better class of tent house. Into this scene walked Ashish Khetan, AAP's candidate for the New Delhi seat, a short, bearded man in his late 30s in his signature checked shirt, his voice fraying at the end of campaigning in one of country's most high profile constituencies. 

En route to Golf Links, Khetan, a tenacious journalist best known for his exposes on the Gujarat riots and, lately, “Snoopgate”, which unmasked the surveillance of a young woman known to Narendra Modi  by his aide, Amit Shah, had been telling me that one of his big discoveries of his election campaign is that voters don't care about the things journalists think they care about. 

"Journalists live in a disconnected world, we live with abstract theories, Amit Shah making a statement about revenge (in Muzaffarnagar), while condemnable, becomes a big issue for TV and the print media," he declared with the terse intensity that seemed to be his default mode. "But what I have noticed, while campaigning, is that not a single person has asked about such statements. What people want to talk about is water, infrastructure and security, not what Amit Shah said, or what Modi said about Sir Creek or 'Mian Musharraf'." 

As Khetan ascended the stage and was introduced, I was still puzzling over why he wanted to underplay Shah's explosive statements in Muzaffarnagar. Was the investigative journalist who exposed the murkiest doings of Hindutva’s foot soldiers now an obedient politician following his party’s strategy of challenging the BJP on development rather than its communal agenda, so as to not help it consolidate Hindu votes? Or had he become the kind of obsessive activist-politician who found political debates other than those in his arena meaningless? 

Khetan, meanwhile, was being initiated in what this slice of Golf Links that had turned up to meet -- and vet -- him at the initiative of a few AAP admirers in the neighbourhood, felt was its  burning  issue. Barely had the candidate begun taking questions than a stentorian voice from the audience says, "Do you know what LBZ is?" Thinking on his feet, Khetan resorted to extreme candour and replied, "Sir, I don't pretend to know everything, I am here to learn from you, please tell me what it is." Voices competed to educate him -- LBZ is Lutyens Bungalow Zone, to which Golf Links belongs, thereby falling under laws that do not permit existing homes to build new floors. It was Khetan's unenviable task to soothe these angry citizens by empathizing with them, yet avoid recklessly endorsing their demand to have conservation laws changed in their favour, one that he managed, but with rough-hewn sincerity rather than the emollient ease of the practiced political operative. 

Shortly, after than another senior citizen pitched in, this time on the controversial Khirkee Extension incident involving alleged acts of vigilantism against Africans by AAP's Delhi government on behalf of local complainants. "The aam aadmi is not perfect, in this case the local people were also at fault, and you should have said so," said the lady who had raised the issue. "You made a very valid point," conceded Khetan, after listening intently, "there shouldn't be a populist tendency. As an individual, I will raise my voice in the party to say we must be honest with people." And then a third voice piped up. "It is not proved that BJP or anyone else has thrown stones on your people," said a middle-aged man objecting to Khetan's reference, in his address earlier, to attacks on AAP."All kinds of things are done in politics. Indira Gandhi got stones thrown on herself." 

Khetan, who had clearly had enough, asked, with steely politeness, "So is that proved, sir, that she got stones thrown on herself? Is it proved in court?" Then, cutting through his questioner's tangled reply, he added, "I respect your point of view, you must respect mine." Finally came an unexpected gesture of endorsement. "I feel terrible," a woman said emotionally, "when I hear your party being accused of being a deserter (by giving up the Delhi government after 49 days). Those comments are being made by the very people who are clinging to power." "Ma'am," declared the candidate, "you have made my day". And having finally found the right note to exit on, he left for his next meeting. 

This encounter does not, by any means, sum up New Delhi, which despite its elite tag, is also owned by large swathes of the urban underclass among which AAP has a far stronger support base today than it does in places like Golf Links. However, it does provide a telling example of how the party's journalist-politicians had to extend themselves in their pursuit of the vote in the just-concluded campaign. 

Along with Khetan, AAP had the combative former TV anchor and managing editor of IBN7,  Ashutosh,  face off against Union Minister and two-time Congress sitting MP Kapil Sibal and the BJP’s chief minister designate in Delhi, Harsh Vardhan, in Chandni Chowk, and the former Dainik Jagran correspondent Jarnail Singh, who hit the headlines in 2009 when he threw a shoe at the then Home Minister P Chidambaram (in protest against the Congress’s party’s tolerance for politicians tarnished by their association with the 1984 massacre of Sikhs in Delhi) take on a diminished Congress and a resurgent BJP in West Delhi.

AAP, in keeping with its orientation, chose edgier journalists than the sinuous networkers on the power circuit who have usually been rewarded with tickets by other parties. They were not celebrities, with the possible exception of Ashutosh, but could be presented as figures who had challenged the establishment, whether represented by Modi, the Congress party, or in Ashutosh’s case, a westernised elite that had pooh-poohed the Anna movement. They were meant to bring pitch and intensity to an ambitious electoral thrust mounted in a hurry and on a shoe-string budget against opponents -- especially the BJP – with mammoth resources. 

And so they did.  While conducting padyatras in Chandni Chowk, Ashutosh also segued seamlessly from bellicose anchor into a spokesman for his party in acrimonious TV debates, and relived his days as a student politician at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) by starring in an angry protest at the BJP office. Khetan took on  New Delhi’s sitting MP, minister Ajay Maken, with facts and figures, notably on the whiff of corruption emanating from the planned redevelopment of Kathputli Colony, an old settlement of folk artists on valuable land. And Singh, who had been dismissed by his paper three months after the shoe-throwing incident, came in from the professional wilderness to gain credibility in West Delh­i with an aggressive and well-coordinated campaign powered by a sea of turbans. 

However, to encounter them at the tail-endof  a campaign more challenging for AAP, both with respect to scale and political climate, than the euphoric assembly election campaign of 2013, was to meet candidates who were alsocoming to terms with the many hues of electoral politics. 

While Khetan negotiated, among other things, the likes of Golf Links, Ashutosh, swathed in a gauzy red and gold dupatta after a temple visit on the day of ashtami, the penultimate day of Navratra, was stopping at other templesfor more priestly blessings -- and more gauzy dupattas --as he drove in an open jeep through the Sadar area of his constituency. 

Ashutosh was reckoned, in some estimations, to be in a better position, at the end of his campaign, than the two-term sitting MP Sibal, largely because of the support of the constituency's Muslims who seemed to see him as a stronger candidate against Modi’s man, Harshvardhan, than Sibal. However, healso needed to consolidate whatever support he hadin Hindu-trader dominated bazaars too, and that's why he was here. Watching the world go by from his jeep was to see a kaleidoscope of reactions ranging from indifference and polite acknowledgement to hugs, garlands and showers of rose petals. 

The candidate, who managed with the dexterity of a multi-tasking TV journalist, to smile, wave, text and talk at the same time, admitted the election had been an eye-opener. “We talk about Delhi as a cosmopolitan urbanized metropolis but you only have to scratch the surface to discover another place,” he says. Not a temple-goer himself, he was surprised, he says, to discover the intensity with which his would-be constituents, across classes, observed religious festivals. 

“I also discovered my caste in this election,” he said candidly. He recounted that he had dropped his surname 24 years ago, as a JNU student, during the agitations over the Mandal commission’s report in the late 1980s. “I didn’t drop it in the official records then, but when I contested this election, I got my surname officially deleted.” But now, at the end of a campaign in which party workers and supporters – but not he himself, he maintains – pitched him as a bania to bania voters, this candidate of a party with a distinctively caste-free pitch accepts that caste is an element in an election “that you can’t get away from”. Would anyone be voting for him because he is a bania? “Yes,” he admitted. “Those who have discovered my caste may be thinking of that.” 

For Jarnail Singh, there was clearly no such process of discovery; his Sikh identity is integral, not incidental, to both his personal story and his electoral persona as a fighter against injustice. It was evident, as you followed in his trail in West Delhi, that his campaign got its ballast both from his reputation as a man who had thrown away his career to speak truth to power, and by the energetic young Sikhs – and others -- powering his  last roadshow as it wound its way through  resettlement colonies with their narrow streets and four and five storey high tenements. Loudspeakers atop autorickshaws alternated between relaying reminders of Rajiv Gandhi’s comments in the wake of the anti-Sikh riots (“when a big tree falls…”) and AAP’s broader anti-corruption and anti-Modi pitch. 

For good measure, Singh’s enthusiastic storm troopers, aware of the significance of not just Sikh but Poorvanchali votes in this constituency, threw leaflets, into open doorways with hookah-smoking women,  stating that the BJP’s ally the Shiv Sena had bashed up Poorvanchalis in  Mumbai. The indefatigable  Singh jumped out onto to the road frequently, not just to accept, but also to buy cold drinks for a bunch of Bollywood minor actors who had come to campaign for him from Mumbai. As the clock turned five, Jarnail Singh took down his flags, took off his garlands, and spoke of the twists and turns of his extraordinary life. 

“I worked very hard to become a journalist, to reach a level of seniority where I covered important beats,” he reminisced. “You know how hard it is, roz kua khodte ho, roz bharte ho (every day you dig a well, everyday you have to fill it up).” He maintained there was no contradiction between accepting, as he had done, that throwing a shoe was not the right thing for a journalist to do, and being proud, as a human being, that he had done it. He pointed out that he had turned down offers from Sikh parties to contest elections, and had only joined AAP, about a year ago, because he had liked its broader politics. He spoke emotionally of unbelievable support from volunteers, some who had donated office space, others who had taken leave to support his campaign. And now it was his turn. “Punjab mein demand hai, I will be going.”  

When I asked him if his former colleagues from the media had reached out to him too, he smiled and said, “Politically it is hard for any journalist to support a candidate, but my journalist friends have all supported me, given me tips, told me what is happening on the ground.” 

However, while speaking of the media as an organised entity, and its coverage of AAP’s candidates, Singh’s optimism dissipated. “There is an agenda in the way we are covered,” he said, with conviction and quiet anger. “You can see it in the way reporters approach you on behalf of channels, the leading questions they ask to a pre-arranged script like: “Why is the public angry with you?” Ashutosh and Khetan said much the same thing. “The channels have sold out,” said Ashutosh, ticking off the names. “India TV, India News, Zee News, Times Now and Headlines Today.”  “It is the influence of money, manipulation and arm-twisting by Modi with the help of Ambani.” While that is also, of course, AAP’s campaign pitch, it is still a chilling repudiation by former journalists of the world that that they have left behind and to which, they say, they will never return. Whether they win or lose.

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