Will Aveek Sarkar's exit from ABP assuage Mamata Banerjee?

The announcement was terse, curt even. “Notice 22.6.2016” from the MD’s Office, sent to all employees of ABP Pvt Ltd at around 5 pm yesterday, baldly stated the names of the two new editors of Anandabazar Patrika and The Telegraph newspapers, adding that Aveek Sarkar would henceforth be the Vice-Chairman of the company and “Editor Emeritus” — whatever that means.

Tongues haven’t stopped wagging since. This is huge. It’s not just a change of guards in a media house that makes journalists feel that they too get to make news once in a while. Aveek Sarkar, who has been the guiding force of ABP, one of the country’s largest media groups, the undisputed monarch of all the surveys, media-wise, in the east, the cultural czar of all things Bengali, was not just the editor of these two newspapers, he owns them as well. Well, he and his family do. And owners don’t usually get replaced by employees do they?

In fact, this is the first time the group’s flagship, Anandabazar Patrika, will have an editor who is not from the family. There is this story, which many old-timers swear is not apocryphal, that when Aveek Sarkar’s father, Ashok Sarkar, collapsed in the middle of a speech at the Kolkata Book Fair in 1982 and was declared dead by the time he was rushed to the hospital, someone had the temerity to ask whose name would replace Ashok Sarkar’s in the print-line. Printing the editor’s name is a legal requirement and could not be left blank. Santosh Ghosh, the second most powerful person in the paper, credited with propelling it to its number one position among Bengali dailies, changing the very nature of Bengali journalism by recruiting novelists and poets to write news copies, treating political news the way sports or entertainment was covered, looked up expectantly. But Arup Sarkar’s response was instantaneous: “Aveek Sarkar of course" — he was then 37 years old.

 Will Aveek Sarkars exit from ABP assuage Mamata Banerjee?

Aveek Sarkar. News18

Today, at 71, his sudden, totally unexpected departure from the paper he inherited and the paper he set up, both of which he has shaped and moulded in his own image over the decades, adding pizzazz as well as gravitas, introducing cutting edge design and over the top headlines, is said to be “part of a succession plan,” giving “a chance to others.” Among the “others” is his brother Arup, two years his junior, who will now be the Editor-in-Chief of the group in place of Aveek Sarkar. And precisely why few are ready to buy the official line of it being all about putting “a succession programme” in place. Surely, that could just as easily have been done with Aveek Sarkar continuing as Editor-in-Chief and gradually removing himself from the scene?

But then, that would have smacked of a routine transfer of power and would have had no demonstrative value. The ruling party in Bengal, the Trinamool Congress (TMC), which has just returned to power with a thumping majority, would have nothing to crow about. Instead, barely had the news about the internal shake-up in ABP been announced than it was put up on the Trinamool Congress website as if it was a big feather in its cap. The cherry on Mamata Banerjee’s rich, luscious cake. The sacrificial lamb to calm and appease the goddess.

Party spokesman Derek O’Brien was quick to follow suit with a tweet of his February 2015 Dear John letter to Aveek Sarkar in which he accused the media moghul of “appalling, tendentious, biased and polemical reportage and commentary that seeks to sensationalise and misrepresent even the most basic facts and occurrences.” Accusations that reached a shrill pitch in the campaign trail, with the chief minister herself painting Aveek Sarkar as the villain of the piece. Accusations that were not forgotten even amidst the jubilations of an overwhelming victory.

So now, to echo one former editor, was “the boss – who’s no longer quite the boss – saying mea culpa? Or was it a palace coup? Or did Didi send an ultimatum?” Officially, no one from ABP house is ready to tick any of these boxes. But more than one person is convinced that his younger brother has persuaded Aveek Sarkar to bite the bullet for the greater good of the family business. After all, even with expansions in television and digital media, print is still the mainstay of the ABP group, these two newspapers bring them most of their revenue and their social and political clout.

Apparently, the consensus among Arup Sarkar and his lieutenants was that the future is bleak unless the state government can be won over. ABP is already hurting, financially (with the government neither giving new ads or clearing earlier outstandings), legally (with many property cases festering like open sores), socially (the brothers were pointedly excluded from the gala swearing-in ceremony last month while Aveek Sarkar had had to give up his Royal Calcutta Golf Club captaincy to save the club from Mamata Banerjee’s wrath). Already, the police have started making moves to open up older cases. Who knows what untold miseries Mamata Banerjee has up her sleeve?

The brothers Sarkar joined ABP when they were still in short pants under the benign tutelage of their father and have been running the show jointly since he passed away in 1982. The loose division of labour was that older brother Aveek, who had done a stint at the London Sunday Times in the late Sixties under the heydays of Harold Evans, had charge of the editorial side while his brother Arup, a certified chartered accountant, looked after finance and management. In recent years the latter has also doubled up as the Editor-in-Chief of the group’s Bengali magazines like Desh and Sananda but the dailies have remained firmly in the grip of the older brother. And the bottom line has remained uppermost in Arup Sarkar’s mind.

Whether this ultimate sacrifice by Aveek Sarkar will be enough to assuage the chief minister remains to be seen. After all, he will still be going to 6 Prafulla Sarkar Street, their headquarters in Kolkata. She has made her point of course. You can’t mess with Didi and escape unscathed. And Aveek Sarkar, for whom newspapering is in the blood in more ways than one, who loves the nitty-gritty of newspaper making – planning stories, designing pages, selecting photographs, giving headlines – is bound to miss the daily adrenaline rush of putting a paper to bed.

Also read — Mamata and media in Bengal: Dear ABP news, crossing Didi is not a one-way street

Your guide to the latest cricket World Cup stories, analysis, reports, opinions, live updates and scores on https://www.firstpost.com/firstcricket/series/icc-cricket-world-cup-2019.html. Follow us on Twitter and Instagram or like our Facebook page for updates throughout the ongoing event in England and Wales.

Updated Date: Jun 23, 2016 11:43:00 IST