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Should Journalists Switch To The ‘Other Side’?

Kumar Ketkar’s election to the Rajya Sabha on a Congress ticket raises an old question

Kumar Ketkar’s election to the Rajya Sabha on a Congress ticket raises an old question:  Should journalists switch to the ‘other side’ (see these articles by Rajdeep Sardesai and Sevanti Ninan). But even nearly 30 years ago when Kumar was my editor, he made no secret about his political views.

Kumar came to journalism from the student union movement. “The Nehruvian position as an activist in the union movement appealed to me even before I became a journalist,” says Kumar. “I have not changed my colour or political perception since then.”

At the editorial meetings he held, it was clear to me that while Kumar was no apologist for the Congress, it represented a liberal, pro-poor politics that he could identify with. Was he, way back in the early 1990s angling for a nomination? In the improbable scenario that he was, I’d say that’s pretty long-term planning.

Journalist Pritish Nandy and former Shiv Sena representative in the Rajya Sabha tweeted: “Many are commenting on my old tweet saying @kumarketkar is a respected independent journalist, not a spokesman for the Congress. I was only partly right. Kumar has been named Rajya Sabha candidate of the Congress today. Life often proves you wrong.”

Nandy himself deftly manages several hats from columnist and poet to animal rights activist. One presumes, that as the Shiv Sena MP in the Rajya Sabha, Nandy did not compromise his position as a respected independent journalist.

For Swapan Dasgupta too the transition from columnist to politician seems to have been seamless. He was open about his political inclinations as far back as the early 90s when as a columnist for Sunday – I worked for the magazine back then – he insisted on calling the Babri Masjid the ‘disputed structure’.

When the mosque was demolished in December 1992, Dasgupta took it on the nose when he became somewhat of a pariah within his own media community.  I remember being sent off by my editor Vir Sanghvi to track him down to his dusty little office somewhere in the vast bowels of The Times of India building on Bahadur Shah Zafar Marg to write a brief feature on his isolation for Sunday magazine.

When my friend and former colleague, Bharat Kumar Raut accepted a Shiv Sena ticket to the Rajya Sabha in 2008 I was surprised because I knew Bharat as a die-hard socialist, a man whose personal hero was George Fernandes. But, he says, “The party thought that my views fitted in with their views and, so, they offered me a ticket. I took it as an opportunity.”

For many like Arun Shourie and several of the Aam Aadmi party’s founding lights — Ashutosh, Ashish Khetan, Kanwar Sandhu, Manish Sisodia and Shazia Ilmi (now with the BJP) — the switch from journalism to politics has meant shutting the door on one career, as it should be done, in my opinion.

The erudite M.J. Akbar, the first editor at Sunday, joined the Congress at Rajiv Gandhi’s invitation in 1989, choosing not the easier Rajya Sabha route but the grittier Lok Sabha one. He won his Kishanganj seat, but unfortunately for him his party, bogged down by the weight of Bofors, was defeated. In 1991, when he stood for elections again, he lost.

In his second coming in 2014, Akbar joined Narendra Modi’s BJP, waiting two years before being inducted as a junior minister.

Rajeev Shukla is another former colleague (bizarrely again at Sunday; did Aveek Sarkar feed his editors some kind of political ambition potion?) who has long given up active journalism and is now immersed in Congress politics where he is known for his links with both the Gandhi family and such A-list Bollywood stars as Shah Rukh Khan.

There is no shortage of media barons currently in Parliament either. Subhash Chandra describes himself as an independent MP who is, in the words of his website, “Visionary, Father of Indian Television and Philanthropist”.

Another businessman Rajeev Chandrashekhar – one of the principal investors in TV channel Republic – has so far remained an independent MP backed by the BJP, but is now openly a BJP candidate.

Ketkar’s election to the Rajya Sabha, once again, raises questions on the conflict of interest when journalists become politicians. If we are to believe that media is the fourth estate, then there has to necessarily be a separation between journalists and those who wield political power.

“When you’re a political journalist, politics is all around you,” says Ketkar. “What Arnab Goswami is doing is politics. What Girilal Jain did was politics.”

Yet, the truth we almost never talk about in Delhi’s Durbar is the cozy proximity of journalists with politicians.

Partly this is caused by the nature of the job – it is your job to cultivate sources who give you juicy scoops. It is your job as a beat reporter to meet politicians every day at briefings.

When it is your job to meet these fellows every day, is it humanly possible to remain remote or are you going to form a few personal friendships? Consider this Stockholm Syndrome 101. In a best-case scenario, how do you prevent your view of the world from coloring your journalism?

There’s another category of the journalist in this political universe.

The cheerleaders on both sides make no bones about who they’re rooting for, though allegiances are liable to change with shifting political fortunes or when ‘rewards’ – appointments to company boards, promotions as press advisors and that ultimate cherry, a Rajya Sabha nomination — are not as forthcoming.

I would split the cheerleaders into two categories: those genuinely guided by the conscience of the ideology they believe, and the opportunists who tend to change sides with shifting political fortunes.

I guess there could be a third category, those too far along in their commitment to go back and are chaffing because they haven’t been duly ‘rewarded’. To them the small satisfactions of sly tweets and tiny barbs.

Yet, to my mind there is only one acceptable, ethical route for journalists to make the transition to politics, and that is to make a complete switch.

Once you cross over to the ‘other side’ – and the relationship between media and those in power must, by definition, be adversarial – there can be no going back. To continue to pursue an active journalistic career after a political affiliation has been formalized is dishonest.

Kumar says he had turned down previous offers to the Rajya Sabha because he had at that time been an active editor. At 72, it is extremely unlikely that he will return to active journalism though it remains to be seen whether he will continue as a columnist and a visible face as a journalist on television shows.

The decision to take the plunge into politics has to be an individual one, guided by one’s own conscience. But the debate on individual journalists is in many ways a disingenuous one that ignores the far greater threat to a free press by a host of other pressures ranging from the threat of defamation suits to slants dictated by media barons and their editors.

Historically, the relationship between journalism and politics has always been fluid. Mahatma Gandhi was assassinated at the house of Ghanshyam Das Birla whose grand-daughter, Shobhana Bhartia now heads Hindustan Times (disclosure: I am a columnist for the paper) and was a nominated member of the Rajya Sabha.

Amongst the paper’s many editors was a man named Devdas Gandhi. He was Gandhiji’s youngest son.

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