Command performance: Can a party mouthpiece question its leaders?
At his Lutyens bungalow in Delhi, BJP MP Prabhat Jha is waiting to comment for a TV programme — on whether Delhi University should host a seminar on the Ram mandir — just before he’s scheduled to give another interview. When his turn arrives, he says: “The matter is sub judice, but should you stop the debate?”
One of the reasons Jha is facing the camera is that he is the editor of Kamal Sandesh (KS). But he remains unsure about whether the publication he heads is indeed the party mouthpiece.
KS, a fortnightly, is part of the BJP’s publications department, even though it is run by the Shyama Prasad Mookerjee Trust, a tactic, insiders say, imposed by political exigencies.
Political parties evolve from different experiences and their communications machinery, both on the Left and Right, have not forgotten their history. The RSS, the BJP’s ideological parent, was an anathema after Mahatma Gandhi’s assassination. “Our ideological wing has gone through various stages of reframing itself. If you are seen as the product of a Trust rather than a party, your ideological movement is safe. You can ban a party but you can’t ban a Trust,” says a BJP member.
There are at least 20 BJP mouthpieces in different states. KS is the only national publication.
“If people say it is the mouthpiece, it is,” Jha says. But his diffidence in declaring KS’s relationship to the BJP points to a shift in political parties that now wish to ‘appear’ to their public at various levels via multimedia, and not just through one medium.
(In Kerala, for instance, all major political parties own either news channels and/or dailies. The latest addition is the Thiruvananthapuram-based Janam TV, controlled by the RSS. And then, of course, there’s now social media that is being used by all political parties for publicity and propaganda.)
The support base of a political party is made up of diverse sections with various pulls and pressures, and a single ‘party paper’ in which various ideas would contend has now been replaced by an echoing device that repeats, without any deviation, the leadership’s views.
In this new scenario, the party paper/journal is, it appears, mostly seen but not always heard. But you can’t say that of course.
Girija Vyas, editor of Congress Sandesh, begun by the party leadership in 1998 with Vasant Sathe as its first editor, says: “In the party paper there can be no individual, parallel or oppositional view to the party leadership. The recent controversy regarding Congress Darshan has nothing to do with us.” (See box)
The line that separates crucial debate and mischief-making is, however, a thin one. Former BJP MP Prafull Goradia remembers a situation that highlighted just how thin. Goradia is no longer with the party but was once editor of BJP Today, the party magazine of the 1990s. “In 1980, while celebrating the party’s 21st anniversary, I had interviewed Mr Advani and sent a request to Mr Vajpayee to send a message that could be printed in the party paper,” Goradia says. “There was no response. He may have been busy with Bill Clinton’s visit. This was picked up by a mainstream magazine that elevated my status as ‘the man who is trying to create a fight between Advani and Vajpayee’. The vernacular press ran with it. I resigned and moved on.”
The written word has been central to parties with clear-cut ideologies. The party and its paper are thus shaped by the same parries and thrusts of its political struggle. In 1989, the political attacks on the Shiv Sena philosophy prompted Bal Thackeray to launch Saamana, the Marathi mouthpiece of his saffron party. There is no ambiguity about its message.
A saffron lantern marks the entry to the Saamana office in central Mumbai. On the ground floor is a nearly life-size photograph of the late Balasaheb. His political heir, his son Uddhav, has also succeeded his father as executive editor of the daily newspaper. The chief editor is party MP Sanjay Raut. The paper continues its tradition of lobbing verbal missiles at its rivals — who may range from traditional political opponents like the Congress to current allies like the BJP — especially close to election time. Saamana remains a key way for the party to reinforce its sense of supremacy, remind its cadre that it remains the roaring tiger represented in its logo.
“The hardline tack is the most thrilling aspect of editing the paper, especially when elections are near. Election time is when you can be at your aggressive best,” says assistant editor Atul Joshi, who has worked with Saamana since 1994. ‘Shiv Sainiks are no mice! They have tiger claws, they can disembowel you!’ (October 10); ‘People will never forgive those who have broken the ties of Hindutva’ (September 28); ‘It is better to engage in bloody battle with the enemies who are out to break Maharashtra into pieces!’ (October 7).
These are sample Saamana headlines from the run-up to the state election last year. They are by no means the paper’s most incendiary.
Before they go to print, all pages are shared with Raut. The editorial is seen to represent the voice of the party leader. And the power flows both ways. Chief sub-editor Prasad Potdar, who heads the entertainment supplement Phulora, says he is proud to be part of the paper. “This is the best training ground,” he adds. “From here, people only reach the top.”
This has also been the Left’s story worldwide. The Russian Social Democratic Labour Party was first imagined by the editorial collective of Iskra, the paper edited by Lenin. In other words: the paper predated the party, it gave the party direction and form.
The party paper, for the Indian Left, used to be the site of debate where various factions of the working class contended to interpret the ‘party line’, to claim the party, as it were. It is in a nod to that culture that Prakash Karat, CPI(M) Politburo member and editor of People’s Democracy, say that this weekly paper’s role is that of an “organiser and agitator” for the party even as its subscription falls (from 30,000 to 15,000 according to the editorial team).
In response to its dwindling readership, an old column titled Thinking Together was reintroduced last year. People have been writing back, critiquing, but at least responding to Left policies. “In 2005, when in power, the column was dropped. At that time it was a case of no one having any time for it,” says an editorial and party member. The point of a party paper belonging to the people it addresses, and the idea that contending views would only enrich the political discourse, has often been missed.
The net result is top-down editorial control. The Samajwadi Party has national general secretary and Mulayam clan-member Ramgopal Yadav as editor of the Samajwadi Bulletin. He clears the content for each issue. “Nothing objectionable or anything that may deviate from the mandate of the magazine slips in,” says one of the two content generators for the magazine.
Party papers do not raise debates, they control them. “In my time, I didn’t ask whether Hindutva is good or Rashtravad is better. It’s always better to stick to a straight line,” as Goradia puts it.
Someone clearly forgot to tell that to Sudhir Joshi, the content editor of the Congress Darshan.
(With inputs from Kanika Sharma in Mumbai, Pankaj Jaiswal in Lucknow and Ramesh Babu in Thiruvananthapuram)