During the 2009 assembly elections, Sharad Pawar was rather annoyed by a pesky reporter who would not let go of a question on Maratha reservations. No matter how satisfactorily Pawar answered one question he came up with another pointing to the NCP’s duplicity on the issue. Finally, Pawar was compelled to ask him which paper he worked for. “Sakal,” said the reporter and there was a hush in the room. For Sakal was a paper owned by Pawar’s family and now everyone was sure the reporter would lose his job.
The last I checked, though, he was still working for Sakal. In that sense, while Sakal does keep the NCP flag flying, it is more professional than the other mouthpieces we know of — I cannot, for example, fathom Bal Thackeray letting a Saamna reporter go without action for asking hard questions on the role of the Shiv Sena in the Bombay riots of 1992-93 (indeed he even threatened editors of other newspapers who did) or even Tarun Bharat allowing one of its reporters to query the RSS about the growing intolerance in this country.
But it is from Sharad Pawar’s acquisition of Sakal (there was nothing clandestine about it), that Pramod Mahajan was first urged to buy his own newspaper — and I recall he did buy shares in the Nagpur edition of Tarun Bharat. Nitin Gadkari was not to be far behind either Pawar (who is his role model) or Mahajan and he got himself some shares in the Bombay edition of the newspaper. Neither edition has too many readers outside the fold of the saffron ideology either in Nagpur or Bombay, but one cannot say the same of Sakal — in the Marathi milieu it is among the most professionally run and at least its flagship edition in Pune works on campaigns for the city’s betterment as it did recently to acquire a smart city status for its headquarters. It has also front-paged, without comment, Ajit Pawar’s crass remark on urinating into dams a couple of years ago, conscious of the fact that if it didn’t, it would drop circulation.
The Saamna makes no bones about being anything but a one-sided mouthpiece and its readers are mostly Shiv Sainiks and journalists. But while Shiv Sainiks might buy the paper out of loyalty, they prefer to get their news from other professional newspapers like the Loksatta and, yes, even Sakal. Journalists working for Sakal are not seen as NCP groupies, unlike those working with Saamna or Tarun Bharat who profess the same ideology as the papers they work for.
I do not know how National Herald conducted itself in the days of Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru — it was a dying newspaper by the time I started out as a journalist though I do recall it carried some stories on current and burning topics like dowry and caste discriminations. Will it ever ask Rahul Gandhi hard questions if it is now revived as a full fledged newspaper and get away with it as the Sakal reporter did with Pawar? I am not so sure.
But it is at the hypocrisy of the BJP with regard to National Herald that I now marvel. I heard Gadkari on a television show calling the Nehru-Gandhis names and predicting that they could be in serious trouble for conflict of interest for attempting to salvage National Herald with party funds. All that time he was sitting on shares in Tarun Bharat which is on the record a ‘for profit’ company unlike what the Gandhis are attempting to do with National Herald. At least the paper had its own real estate, unlike Tarun Bharat which has been working out of a BJP party office.
Admittedly, no one in the Congress had any problems with the party funds being used to revive the National Herald and surely no one in the BJP is worried about their leaders’ ownership of the Tarun Bharat — except for a conflict of interest in the appointment of one shareholder by a minister (Vinod Tawde) to a government body. Did that happen with the UPA, too? One awaits the scam.
But what bothers me most about this entire dispensation is that it believes that what is sauce for the goose cannot be sauce for the gander. And that Caesar’s wife need not be above suspicion.