Tool of the Emergency: Will India ever dump its I&B ministry?

The I&B minister is ready to work for a future without the I&B ministry. But will politicians be as open to giving up a powerful weapon at their disposal?

Sandip Roy June 25, 2014 09:50:08 IST
Tool of the Emergency: Will India ever dump its I&B ministry?

Every morning at the crack of dawn the babus of the information and broadcasting ministry get to work. Their job is to collate all the media feedback of the day for the Prime Minister so he can scan it before he starts his day.

“Under UPA rule, we used to collate the news items under different heads: political, security, finance and others. Now we group them under ‘positive’ and ‘negative’” an Indian Information Service official tells The Telegraph. Even worse for the beleaguered babus Modi wants his cuttings an hour earlier than Manmohan Singh.

Positive and negative. Now that is called streamlining and cutting to the chase. It also effectively sums up what the ministry of information and broadcasting has turned into over the decades. It does not just produce endless little preachy documentaries about AIDS, running water and happy Hindu-Muslim-Christian children, all apparently made by one Devendra Khandelwal. It keeps tabs on the media.

There’s nothing nefarious about it. All governments do it. But in a country like the United States that’s the clearly understood objective of the White House Press Office. Here the PMO currently has no media advisor reports DNA and the BJP’s newly appointed spokesperson M J Akbar has not briefed the press at all. What sounds like a function of the PMO is being done by I&B ministry whose stated objectives are quite different.

Tool of the Emergency Will India ever dump its IB ministry

I&B minister Prakash Javadekar. Agencies.

As a ministry, the I&B claims to be a well-meaning nanny. One of its latest press releases, for example, is an advisory to television channels to be extremely careful about portraying scenes of “negligent or rash driving” and demanding any such scene be accompanied by finger-wagging messages like “driving two-wheeler without wearing helmet is dangerous and illegal”.

In practice the ministry has been more of a Big Brother. Prakash Javadekar, the new minister for Information and Broadcasting, acknowledges that and he places the blame firmly on the Congress. That is justified. During the Emergency, the Congress used the I&B ministry as a police truncheon to try and cow the media into line.

When Vidya Charan Shukla, the I&B minister during the Emergency, died in 2013, Sohail Hashmi wrote on Kafila his many achievements included “snapping power supply to newspapers critical of the Emergency, introducing draconian censorship, banning magazines and newspapers, and sealing printing presses that dared publish anything critical of the infamous Mrs G or her Emergency regime”. And Shukla famously banned Kishore Kumar songs from All India Radio because Kishore had refused to sing at an Indira Gandhi rally.

Javadekar rightly bemoaned the freedom of expression sins of the Congress during Emergency. The Justice Shah Commission said the likes of Shukla exercised power “like a medieval despot.” But clamping down on the press was not entirely politically suicidal for Shukla. That same Shukla later found a home with VP Singh, Chandrasekhar and the BJP proving his resume bothered few political parties.

Javadekar wins hurrahs for making the right noises at venues like the Leadership Summit at Goafest 2014:

There has to be an absolute freedom. Assurance of complete freedom to the media is important in new India. The right to criticism is your right. Only when that freedom is nurtured, can we say what we have achieved as a democratic nation.

Since then he has gone a step further. When asked by Karan Thapar whether India could move towards a future where the I&B ministry “ceases to exist”, Javadekar said “Philosophically or ideologically I’d be willing to do that.”

Brave words. But will he find many takers among the powers that be?

Government’s instinct is to consolidate power not to give it up. While Javadekar might talk about the “right to criticism” it does not mean anyone in the government will rush to demand that cases against those students lampooning the prime minister in their college magazine be dropped. Freedom of expression gets plenty of lip service but few politicians have any incentive to walk the talk. It’s not that the PMO is ordering crackdowns on students drawing up offensive crossword puzzles. It might well be that policemen and local activists trying to curry favour with the new masters in Delhi are over zealous in their crackdown.

But for the PMO it is a missed opportunity writes Thapar in the Hindustan Times:

I would have expected Mr Modi to immediately distance himself from the Kerala police action, criticise the highhanded arrests and demand the cases be dropped. Once again, that would also have been the politically astute response. But all we got was silence.

One word from the PMO could have sent a clear message and prevented another unnecessary hullabaloo from erupting again. But few politicians want to go out of their way to do that in practice even if the I&B minister says the right things in the abstract.

Swaminathan S. Anklesaria Aiyar takes Javadekar at his word and asks that he “go down in history as the man who prepared India for a future without the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting”.

Aiyar points out that the I&B ministry makes especially little sense because it has barely moved from a print world to a television world and has no grasp of the change in media landscape with social media, the internet and mobile phones. It illogically does not even allow private FM stations to produce news though no such stricture exists for private television channels. Ordinary people on Twitter can often drive the news cycle rather than the editor-in-chief of some venerable newspaper sitting in his corner office. For example, Hosni Mubarak controlled print and electronic media with an iron hand but Twitter and Facebook and cellphones unseated him.

In that context an I&B minister can look like a King Canute trying to stop the tide. Of course, other politicians take a completely different lesson from Egypt. They want more control not less. That’s why an Egyptian court sentenced three Al Jazeera journalists to prison for aiding a “terrorist organization” viz the Muslim Brotherhood, until recently Egypt’s governing party. That’s why China scrubs the Internet and bans Facebook.

We roll our eyes at the preachy pablum that comes out of the I&B ministry in terms of its press releases and little public service films. But its real value for government has always been its utility as Big Brother rather than Mary Poppins. And that was why Vidya Charan Shukla became the I&B minister in the first place. His predecessor Inder Kumar Gujral was just not doing a good enough job. He had failed to “use” Doordarshan effectively to cover Indira Gandhi’s 1975 Boat Club rally live end to end. Gujral, writes the Hindustan Times was just not “being able to tame his friends in the Press enough.”

Javadekar might have the best intentions but will his political colleagues be as eager to give up the Ministry for Taming Information and Broadcasting?

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