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

The exit poll findings must have thrown my former boss, owner of the Kolkata-based media group ABP, into quite a tizzy. Bound to. With the poll conducted by his own channel showing Mamata Banerjee marching back to power, he should be afraid, very very afraid. Didi is not someone you can cross without fear of reprisal and Aveek Sarkar, with his largest circulating Bengali daily, the largest circulating English newspaper of the East, his stand-alone Bengali tabloid, his most popular Bengali news TV channel and more, has gone out on a limb criticising her government’s and her party’s innumerable sins of omission and commission.

Mamata Banerjee’s fire-breathing election speeches, especially towards the later phases when there was a strong buzz about rising opposition chances, had been all about taking stock, measure for measure, once the results were known, of anyone who had dared to displease her. Her ire was aimed not just at opposing political parties but included the Election Commission, the central forces, some “cowardly” officers in her own police force but, above all, at Aveek Sarkar and his media empire.

“Go tell ABP that they are the most destructive element in Bengal,” she thundered. “They wanted to control the government. They wanted me to forcefully acquire land from farmers, they wanted me to remove urban land ceiling. I can’t do that.” Aveek Sarkar, who not only owns ABP but is also its chief editor, a very hands-on chief editor who closely monitors all editorial functions on a day-to-basis, holding daily meetings with his journalists, giving them suggestions and guidance, laying down the editorial line, has long taken pride in claiming he’s “a card-carrying capitalist” and is a vociferous free marketer. Land ceilings are socialist hangovers he has no patience with; bending backwards to encourage industry is his mantra for the revival of Bengal.

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

Mamata Banerjee. Reuters

A great believer in conspiracy theories like old-style communists, the chief minister singled out Aveek Sarkar for conspiring against her government. “He has been spreading slander about Bengal to the diplomats of various countries for a long time,” she carped in her speeches. “He calls them to his house, feeds them not just food, but with all the slander about Bengal. He made it such that industrialists had to visit him before investing in Bengal. Today we have changed that completely with our transparent policy. So now he does not get anything.” Whether all this meant anything to her mostly rural audience is not known, but it did show her venting her spleen at public enemy number one.

Aveek Sarkar is also a firm believer in electoral arithmetic, in index of opposition unity as a game-changer. Something the chief minister interpreted as enemy action. “After the BJP’s victory in the general election, they [ABP] had been playing bhajans for BJP. Today Aveek Sarkar has become the chairman of the alliance between the CPM and the Congress. He even planned who will be the Congress candidate from which seat.” And then the ultimate put-down: “I challenge him to contest in the election.”

Aveek Sarkar and ABP have stared down such challenges before. Jyoti Basu had even turned his diatribes against “the bourgeois press,” an euphemism for ABP, into a handy electoral tool. A strike by the CPM-led trade union in 1984 had shut down ABP for over a month and was finally broken by the employees of the organisation, led by the owners, storming the picket lines and reclaiming the offices as their own. After that the two continued to go their merry ways, ABP opposing the government at every turn, the CPM going on winning election after election nevertheless.

But Didi is of different mettle. She gives far more importance to the mass media than the Left ever did, she also takes any opposition, every criticism very personally. And she is not lily-livered when it comes to wreaking vengeance.

There are already several (some say nine, some say seven) arrest warrants out in Aveek Sarkar’s name for which he has taken anticipatory bail but which are still in the books, lying dormant, to be raked up when needed. (One warrant had even noted Aveek Sarkar as an “absconder”.) The ostensible reason for the warrants: “instigating communal disharmony” because of an image published in The Telegraph. They followed public protests led by a first-ranking Trinamool leader. According to an Indian Express report by Coomi Kapoor, the then governor of Bengal, MK Narayanan, had “summoned the state chief secretary and chided him for allowing the government to indulge in acts of vendetta”.

This was in 2013. Two years since Mamata Banerjee had wrested the chief minister’s chair, with more than a little bit of help from ABP. (The Telegraph had even likened her 2011 triumph to the 1990 victory of Solidarity leader Lech Walesa against the Commies in Poland.) Two years that saw the government banning ABP publications in state libraries, favouring instead fledgling publications owned by the now malodorous Sarada group. Two years that saw a Sarada tainted chief minister demanding the arrest of Aveek Sarkar “for accepting sponsorship or advertisements from chit-funds.” Two years that saw intense admiration, with ABP feeling overwhelmed that Didi had deigned to accept their Greatest Bengali Award in 2011, turn into intense revulsion.

The following year saw Aveek Sarkar get rid of the security cover Kolkata police had been providing him for years, well before Didi came to power, for a threat perception from terrorist outfits against whom his newspapers had campaigned – on suspicions that his bodyguards were doubling as moles for the CM. Instead, he turned to the Centre and got Y-category security cover with a CRPF detail on guard round the clock. Mamata Banerjee was not amused.

The Indian Express reported that the home secretary (now the state’s chief secretary) wrote to the Union home ministry protesting the grant of such assistance without consulting the state since public order is a state subject. Whilst the chief minister posted on her Facebook page that “One particular national political party along with one media house of Bengal is constantly engaged in maligning the state political personalities of the ruling party. It is a sad time for democracy. The ruling party in the Centre should not bulldoze the regional parties and destabilise the federal structure.”

Since then, it’s been a bitter, no-holds-barred divorce. Nothing is too small for Didi to use against her erstwhile mentor with. TMC leaders are banned from appearing on ABP’s TV channels, construction on ABP buildings is halted because Kolkata Corporation is tardy with authorizations, a legal battle is raging over a land given to ABP by the earlier regime but which this government has raised objections to, spanners have been put in the non-ABP activities of Aveek Sarkar and his wife, the government has stopped advertising in anything to do with the ABP group while massive dues from before remain unpaid. Nor did ABP get a paisa of the massive ad campaign the TMC mounted for these elections – no mean loss in an economy that is feeble to begin with.

Of course, ABP is one of Bengal’s few successful enterprises and Mamata Banerjee will surely think twice before doing it permanent harm. Still, in ABP house hearts must be beating faster. There is a saying in Bengali – there is hope as long as there is breath. How much breath will there be after tomorrow?

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Updated Date: May 18, 2016 19:37:22 IST