Saturday, March 5, 2011

Unbreaking news: Party channels coming

What does not happen in any other democracy in the world is about to happen in India: the Indian National Congress is ready to launch a national television channel in Hindi. Two regional channels in Maharashtra and Rajasthan are also in the works under the general umbrella of Jai Hind TV.

This is equivalent to the Labour Party or the Conservative Party in Britain starting a channel of its own. Or imagine the Republican Party of the US having a channel in feisty opposition to the Democratic Party channel. Brits will puke at the idea; Americans will revolt.

Italy is the only democracy in the world where the Prime Minister is also an active television owner. But Silvio Berlusconi was an owner of channels first and then political leader; it isn't that his or any other party in Italy has a news channel.

India will be unique. The Congress Party will own the channels and directly run them. They will of course be in addition to Doordarshan which is patriotically inclined to carry the messages of the ruling party to the masses. But a party channel can afford to be more strident than a government channel.

Stridency is going to be an important part of the Congress channel. Oscar Fernandes who is spearheading talks over the new channel said bluntly: “Party-owned channels will help to spread information in a proper manner”.

Not that party-owned channels are anything new in India. The southern states have been under their thumb for a long time. Channels owned by the Karunanidhi family and by Jayalalitha have a virtual monopoly in Tamil Nadu. Jagan Reddy's Sakshi came out of the blue and established itself with investments no one else could match. In Karnataka H. D. Kumaraswamy started his own channel. Very recently the widely disliked mining king, Janardhan Reddy, followed suit.

Perhaps the most successful party-owned channel is the CPM's Kairali. Actually Kerala is a case by itself with 20 channels already filling the air and 14 others about to enter the fray. Kairali, one of many entrepreneurial initiatives launched by the capitalist leaders of the communist party, is now a high-asset entity with its own very valuable real estate in the centre of the state capital.

No doubt to counter Kairali, the Congress leadership in Kerala started the Jai Hind channel in 2007. It has put Rs 60 crore into it already and has lined up another Rs 50 crore to add to it. Oscar Fernandes said “the Kerala experiment was a huge success”. By what yardstick, he didn't say. While Kairali disguises its partisanship with a touch of professionalism, Jai Hind lays it on thick. Probably it is a success because it gives an uninterrupted platform to Congress leaders to hold forth.

When Congress rushes in, will others fear to tread? The BJP may now launch three channels at once, to suit the three ideologies it is simultaneously pursuing – one for the country, another for Gujarat and the third for Karnataka. The Thackerays must follow. The channel worth waiting for will be Maya TV from Uttar Pradesh. And Mamta TV? What a free country is India!

But the ultimate question remains: What is the effectiveness – even relevance – of propaganda that looks like propaganda? Are voters swayed by what party mouthpieces dish out? Not all the propaganda of the emergency years could save Indira Gandhi in 1977. Not all the grand claims of the Janata Government could stop Indira Gandhi's return in 1980. And not all the propaganda of the Rajiv Gandhi years could prevent his rout in the post-Bofors election. Jai Hind TV will do no better.

The Indian voter has a surprisingly well-developed political instinct. Propagandists have failed to subvert this instinct. The voter will watch TV humbug, even collect his free TV set and 2-rupee rice – and vote as a responsible citizen should. Jai Hind!