We all knew Mamata Banerjee was for the little guy, the very aam aadmi.
Now it turns out she is also for the aam newspaper.
Didi told the media that her government’s policy was to stand by the little papers. Apparently, now, that also includes The Times of India.
The West Bengal government, under severe attack for having no English papers in its list of newspapers government libraries could subscribe to, hastily added TOI to its list along with four others including, a Nepali one, a Santhali and an Urdu one. The TOI which has been aggressively competing with The Telegraph for market share must be wondering whether to be pleased or offended by this honour. The Statesman has gleefully published a Poor Paper List that now includes TOI alongside Azad Hind, Himalaya Darpan and Sakalbela.
Not everyone is assuaged by this stand up for the poor little guy argument.
An advocate has filed a PIL in the Calcutta High Court challenging the government's order. It claims it violates Article 14 of the Constitution, and the Public Library Act of 1979. Even during the Emergency, when newspapers were being censored, there were no directives about what newspapers libraries could subscribe to.
The CPM, having conveniently forgotten its own sorry role in booting English out of government schools during its tenure, is trying to make the most of the controversy, crying themselves hoarse about a move to gag the voice of the press. The Gorkha Janmukti Morcha head Bimal Gurung has also called the whole directive "undemocratic". Some library patrons in various districts have said they will raise their own money to subscribe to some of the popular newspapers.
“Now we are trying to create paid news in the state,” lawyer Subrata Mukhopadhyay told the Ananda Bazar Patrika. Some editor-owners of the newspapers included in the government's favourites list have received Trinamool tickets to go to the Rajya Sabha.
Ironically, the largest selling English daily, The Telegraph and its sister pub, the Ananda Bazar Patrika, were the greatest cheerleaders for change in the days leading up to the election that brought Trinamool to power. Now that they have criticised her government about a whole slew of issues, they have fallen out of favour.
Didi, as is her style, is sticking to her guns, invoking her favourite C-word – Conspiracy or chakranto. “We have not yet said what papers people should buy and read. We will say that later. Because this issue is reaching the level of a conspiracy against us,” she announced.
Her minister Abdul Karim Chowdhury was handed the unenviable task of defending the government's directive.
Punishing papers that criticise the government? Rubbish. “We have not asked the libraries to subscribe to Jaago Bangla – which is our party mouthpiece,” the minister said.
Playing favourites with newspapers? No, no. This is just economic. The government’s library budget is just 19 crores and you cannot subscribe to everything, can you? Umm, just a day ago it was apparently about spreading free thinking. Now it’s suddenly about belt-tightening.
Why was there no English paper in the first cut? Oh, just some “confusion and problems with the choice of languages.”
Why does the government decide what paper makes the cut? “I am not going to subscribe to newspapers according to your taste. The government will keep what it likes.” No, no, a private citizen can subscribe to whatever he likes. The government which is spending our money is actually answerable to us. At least that's the way it is supposed to be.
Chowdhury took pains to make clear that he was still letting as much “free thinking” flow into his house as possible. There’s no ban on anything at the Chowdhury home. His son, Mehtab Chowdhury told Ananda Bazar Patrika that they still subscribed to 15 newspapers including the out-of-favour ones. “We used to keep 15 before. We will keep them in the future. One should read them all. My father also thinks that,” he said.
But what do you if you are just an aam aadmi and cannot subscribe to all 15? Mehtab had this ingenious solution. “No one is forbidding anyone from reading anything. One will have to decide what they will read and how they will do it. For example you might want to go to a newspaper stall and stand there and read the paper of your choice.”
Mamata has gotten one thing right. “This is a small issue. A small department’s small circular,” she said. The freedom of press in Bengal is not exactly hanging in the balance here. The Ananda Bazar group's future viability is not hanging by a thread either because of this. But the media love a media story and this is the perfect media storm in a teacup which is being milked for all its worth.
With all of West Bengal’s many woes, Mamata has picked another fight that’s ultimately of little consequence to the larger well-being of the state. And now faced with the backlash, she calls it “dirty games".