Nobody demands consistency from journalists, but it is something they are free to demand of others. If Aam Aadmi Party chief Arvind Kejriwal got many a TV anchor’s goat last year when as chief minister he staged a sit-in protest at Rajpath, this year he seems to bug them rather less than the Bharatiya Janata Party’s chief ministerial candidate for Delhi, Kiran Bedi. If they thought the Muffler Man was an anarchist, the former cop should have had media support. Instead, there is something about this chirpy lady that makes journalists want to take her on. Arnab Goswami on Times Now does it with a high decibel sledge hammer while NDTV India’s Ravish Kumar does it with a sly question: “Aap free me kya kya dijiyega?" (What are the freebies you will give?) Or a “hmmn", when she reels off her super cop record.
Media support is not something you can take for granted in politics. Ask the hoarse campaigner on the lotus-draped jeep who suddenly finds herself doing more explaining than her opponent who ran away from the chief ministership a year ago. The more eager she is to tell TV anchors what she will do as chief minister, the more they want to know about who actually towed away a car in Indira Gandhi’s entourage, or about her daughter getting medical school admission from a North East quota, or about her disappearing from a posting on more than one occasion without notice.
Information and broadcasting minister Arun Jaitley said in a lecture last month that the media sets the agenda. One of the ways in which it does so is by focusing on the negative. Last year Kejriwal was at the receiving end, this year Kiran Bedi is. (Nobody is wasting much time on the Congress).
Bedi is discovering that you cannot rely on your record even when your principal opponent has 49 days of work to cite, to your 40 years. When she makes her pitch, neighbourhood audiences may listen, but journalists turn quizzical, if not worse.
This year Goswami, for instance, has decided that she will be his favourite target for skewering. After he has read out a series of statements made by her about not joining politics, she retorts: “Does not thinking evolve?" “Ëvolve?" chokes Goswami. “Did your thinking evolve only after the BJP came to power at the centre?" There is much more berating of her on other Newshour shows on which she does not even appear.
When Bedi tells Barkha Dutt on NDTV about Kejriwal “he is only comfortable with the street, he is not comfortable with the chair", there is probably more than a grain of truth in it. But having flogged that point last year, the channels are now looking for something else to rail about.
Saffronization is an issue for the media, Bedi represents the saffron party, and NDTV is seeking to needle her on that. What’s all this business about asking Hindu women to have more children, Ravish Kumar asks her, and she proceeds to tie herself up in knots. “I am sorry, it is a family’s choice. Every woman has a right—how often she wants to become a mother." He doesn’t seem convinced.
Elsewhere his colleague Srinivasan Jain is asking, “Why do they talk of a Hindu rashtra?" “I don’t think they say that," says Bedi stoutly. He assures her that Mohan Bhagawat has indeed said something of the sort. “I have researched them" she says. “I am not an expert on the BJP or RSS (Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh)."
It is the season of roasts, and arch-rival Kejriwal could teach her a thing or two about being able to laugh at yourself. Ask him if he is a politician or an activist and he will say airily, “All of it. Politician, activist, social worker". She alternates, poor woman, between earnestness and righteousness, unveiling her plan to use school buildings to teach skills after school hours, and getting into public-private partnerships for this. “So nobody will need to sell tea or be a rehriwala (cart vendor) ?" asks Kumar, slyly. She deflects that with more earnestness.
What she does have going for her are channels IBN7 and CNN-IBN from the Network18 stable, and India TV. Rajat Sharma’s “Aap Ki Adalat" with her was similar to the one he did with Narendra Modi in the run-up to the 2014 election. Gentle needling from an indulgent parent, and a helpful tweet thereafter: “#Kejriwal is now more of a businessman than a leader, KiranBedi told me in Aap Ki Adalat." An edition conducted earlier with Kejriwal, however, is far from benign. Sharma’s aggression is palpable.
On Network18’s channels, you can search for a Kejriwal video and not get very far. January saw an AAP leader being stopped from entering the CNN-IBN studio, as well as the resignations of some senior news staff at CNN-IBN and IBN 7, reacting to both channels’ coverage of the AAP. Kejriwal, meanwhile, isn’t depending on TV at all. In Delhi, you are unlikely to stand at a street corner for long without hearing a van go by belting out “paanch saal kejriwal!" (Kejriwal, five years).
And in all the controversy this week about the AAP’s funding, many of the small contributions still coming in for this assembly election from all across the country—Goa, Telangana, Maharashtra, Jharkhand, Kerala, Punjab—are missing from the media’s focus. With the Congress in eclipse, is the rest of the country too wanting to bet on the AAP again?
Sevanti Ninan is a media critic, author and editor of the media watch website thehoot.org. She examines the larger issues related to the media in a fortnightly column.