New Delhi: The next general election isn’t due till 2009, but the Congress, thedominant constituent of the ruling United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government, has been preparing for it for the past year.
Farm loan waivers and reservation for backward classes may help it win votes, but the party knows the power of the media and is now taking the battle for ballots to airwaves and newsprint.
Congress party functionaries—and in some casestheir close relatives such as wives, sons or nephews—have in the past year launchedor are in the process of launching around a dozen television channels and severalnewspapers.
The agenda: to build public sentiment in favour of the party through its own media platforms. “Media plays a key role in creating a perception in people’s minds. And this perception is very important in politics,” says M. Veerappa Moily, a former chief minister of Karnataka, who heads the party’s media cell.
Media savvy: A file photo of Congress president Sonia Gandhi. Partymen say the ‘media project’ is aimed at countering Opposition propaganda. (Photo: Gurinder Osan/AP)
“AICC (All India Congress Committee, the central wing of the party) does not have a channel of its own and now, not even a newspaper (National Herald, a newspaper supported by the party, recently discontinued operations). But we are encouraging linkages of the friends of Congress or Congressmen themselves, with those who own newspapers and television channels,” Moily adds.
The “media project”, according to a senior Congress leader, is the brainchild of Sonia Gandhi, the party’s president and chairperson of the UPA. “All leading state members were advised by madam (Gandhi) to launch media (platforms) of their own,” he says, asking that he not be identified. And in compliance with her orders, partymen across the country have either launched or are in the process of launching their own media vehicles.
Mint presents a roster ofthe Congress’ media play across states.
On 17 August, Gandhi presided over the launch a Malayalam channel, Jaihind TV. The majority stakeholder of the channel is the Kerala Pradesh Congress Committee (KPCC), the top party body in the state, with some non-resident Indian businessmen together holding about 26%, according to Vinod Gopinath, chief executive of the channel. KPCC president Ramesh Chennithala serves as the president of Bharat Broadcasting Network Ltd, the firm that runs the channel.
“When we mooted this idea to Ms Gandhi, she immediately agreed, because it is a good vehicle to counter the Marxist propaganda through Kairali TV. Our aim is to uphold the secular, democratic tradition of the Congress party. Our corporate philosophy is Congress philosophy,” Gopinath says.
The party’s main electoral rival in Kerala, the Communist Party of India (Marxist), launched Kairali TV in 2000. Gopinath added that the company has plans to launch channels in Tamil, Telugu and Kannada and eventually a pan-India Hindi channel.
In neighbouring Tamil Nadu, where airwaves have long been dominated by political parties, a former president of the Congress party’s state unit, K.V. Thengabaalu, launched Mega TV in November. The launch of this channel, too, was presided over by Gandhi. H. Vasanthakumar, another leading figure in the party’s state unit and a member of the state assembly, who also owns a large consumer durables retail chain, is set to launch a news-and-general entertainment channel.
“Our madam (Gandhi) will launch the channel in New Delhi on 5 May,” says Vasanthakumar. “The highlight will be Congress and Soniaji, that’s what we will support politically. But there will be other news as well,” he adds.
These two channels will give the Congress party its say in the highly politicized broadcast sector, dominated by Sun TV Network Ltd’s flagship channel Sun TV, which recently had a very public falling--out with the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK), the K. Karunanidhi-led ruling party the channel had supported since its beginning. DMK has now launched a new channel, Kalaignar TV, while the party’s main opposition, J. Jayalalithaa-led All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) has Jaya TV, which recently launched a 24-hour news channel, Jaya News. The Pattali Makkal Katchi, led by S. Ramadoss, launched Makkal TV in September 2006.
The DMK-led state government has also launched a cable distribution firm, Arasu Cable TV Corp. Ltd, which will compete with Sun TV’s Sumangali Cable Vision.
In Karnataka, Kasturi Media Pvt. Ltd (no connection to Kasturi and Sons that publishes The Hindu) launched Kasturi TV on 26 September. Anitha Kumaraswamy, the firm’s chairperson and managing director, is married to H.D. Kumaraswamy, the Janata Dal (Secular) politician who served as the state’s chief minister in 2006-07.
In Andhra Pradesh, where the media is mostly divided along political lines, there has been a flurry of activity in the past year. In August, NTV, a round-the-clock news channel, was launched. The channel is promoted by Narendra Chaudhary, a businessman with interests in real estate, who is perceived to be close to Mohd. Shabbir Ali, the power and minority welfare minister in the Y.S. Rajasekhara Reddy-led Congress government. Chaudhary denied political affiliations, saying his channel was an independent one.
The chief minister’s son Jagan Mohan Reddy, who recently launched a Telugu daily, Sakshi, is also set to launch Sakshi TV by the second half of this year, according to a consultant involved with the project, who did not want to be identified.
In Maharashtra, Sakal Papers Ltd, publisher of dailies such as Sakal and Maharashtra Herald, plans to launch an English daily and a Marathi news channel by the end of this year. Abhijith Pawar, joint managing director, said the daily will be first launched in Pune and the firm will eventually also launch a Hindi news channel. Pawar is nephew of Union agriculture minister and Nationalist Congress Party, or NCP, leader Sharad Pawar. “Our readers and our past and present employees will vouch for our independence and impartiality,” Sakal’s Pawar says.
In Mumbai, E-Sense Entertainment Pvt. Ltd launched Yuva, a tabloid aimed at the youth that has now become a daily publication, on 13 August. The firm’s chairman, Nitesh Rane, is son of Narayan Rane, revenue minister in the Vilasrao Deshmukh-headed Congress government.
Eastern Media Ltd, publisher of Oriya daily Sambad, has announced plans to launch a 24-hour Oriya news channel. Soumya Ranjan Patnaik, chairman of Eastern Media and editor of the daily, is a former Congress member of the Lok Sabha representing Bhubaneswar and the son-in-law of state Congress leader and former state chief minister J.B. Patnaik.
“I do not believe in the so- called impartiality of a newspaper,” says Patnaik. “But that doesn’t mean I run a partisan daily. If I did not reflect the aspirations of the people, I would not have been able to sell 3.5 lakh copies daily.”
Are his plans for a news channel part of the larger Congress media strategy? “Nothing of that sort. With TV, we’ll be the only media house in the state with three vehicles for advertisers—print, FM and TV,” says Patnaik, who is a member of the executive committee of the Congress’ state unit and “an active Congress man” by his own admission.
Pride East Entertainment Ltd launched a 24-hour “bilingual” news channel called News Live in Assam. Riniki Sharma, chairman and managing director of the firm, is married to Hemanta Biswa Sarma, minister for health and IT in the ruling Congress government headed by Tarun Kumar Gogoi.
In Delhi, Goodmorning India Pvt. Ltd launched Hindi daily Aaj Samaj in January; this is also published from Gurgaon and Faridabad. The firm’s sister concern, Information TV Pvt. Ltd, launched India News, a 24-hour Hindi news channel, on 12 February.
Both firms are owned by Kartikeya Sharma, a postgraduate in business administration from King’s College, London, whose family has interests in sugar and hotels.In December 2006, Sharma’s brother Manu Sharma was held guilty in the murder of model Jessica Lal by theDelhi high court, at the end of a long trial that saw unprecedented media and public interest. His father VinodSharma is a former Congress Union minister hailing from Haryana.
The Regulatory Aspect
The issue of the affiliation of political parties with media or the reverse relationship has long been debated in the country.
Recently, the ministry of information and broadcasting (I&B) initiated a process of consultation on the issue. In a letter dated 27 December, Asha Swarup, I&B secretary, requested telecom and broadcast regulator Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (Trai) to submit its recommendations on “whether state governments, urban and local bodies, three-tier panchayati raj bodies, publicly funded bodies and political bodies should be permitted to enter into broadcasting activities…”
New game : NCP leader Sharad Pawar. His nephew Abhijith Pawar is launching an English daily and a Marathi news channel. (Photo: Jayanta Shaw/Reuters)
Trai has since initiated a consultation process and most stakeholders who have submitted their comments, such as ETV Network, Zee Network Ltd, the Multi System Operators’ Alliance, Ortel Communications Ltd and Media Content and Communications Ltd (Star Network) have opposed the idea. In its response, Zee Network pointed out that countries such as the UK, Austria, Belgium, Germany, Greece and Portugal have laws prohibiting political parties and the state from entering into the broadcasting business.
Trai chairman Nripendra Mishra declined to comment saying the regulator was in the process of finalizing its views on the subject.
Some media analysts, however, say that while the media might play a role in creating public opinion, converting that opinion into ballots may not be easy. “Media penetration in India, be it newspapers or television, is not much. Most media platforms still don’t reach the masses, specially those whose verdict actually matters in polls in India. So, media alone can’t help in winning the battle,” says Ajay Upadhyay, director, Mediaguru, a media consultancy based in Noida.
The Congress’ rivals also think that its media offensive may not bear the desired results.
“It’s an obvious temptation for a politician to start a news channel. He thinks he can market himself and his party especially during the elections. But the fact is that channels with either political ownership or a political agenda don’t sell. There’s the credibility factor,” says Arun Jaitley, a spokesperson for the Bharatiya Janata Party, the United Progressive Alliance’s (UPA) main Opposition in Parliament.
Still, Upadhyay maintains that having its own media platforms “can help a political party to launch an offensive against its rivals, play defensive on issues raised by them, and communicate its messages in the fashion it wants”.
Interestingly, Congress’focus is not limited to newspapers and television channels only. Moily indicated that the party will wage a multi-media war in the elections. The party, according to him, was building Internet portals in a big way ahead of the elections and had also beefed up its SMS (short messaging services) communication capabilities.