Tracking India in the Modi era - The-Ken Interview

“When sensation has replaced sense or noise has replaced news, you know, you feel—I don’t want to say that, but I feel almost an anachronism. Ancient, wrestling with self-doubt.”
Heavy words, coming from one of the biggest names in television news.

It’s a fine August morning in Delhi—it had just rained—when we turn up at the home of news anchor Rajdeep Sardesai. Currently a consulting editor at the India Today Group, Sardesai comes on at 9PM, prime time on the group’s television channel, with his programme News Today.

We’re here to discuss his new book.

A short, bespectacled man ushers us into a hall, and a pudgy beagle welcomes us with many a wag of his tail. We’ve been there maybe a minute and a half when Sardesai himself sweeps down the stairs in jeans and a blue-and-white shirt. Hands are shaken, pleasantries exchanged and we settle down in a small, glass-walled sitting room. There’s tea, coffee, the usual stuff. He offers us some Maharashtrian chiwda, a sweet and salty mixture of flattened rice, peanuts and raisins. “I love it. I try to sell Maharashtrian chiwda to everyone who comes here,” he says with a smile, every bit the affable host.

We jaw on for a while about cricket, his dog, the media industry today and the world at large. And then it’s down to business.

In Newsman: Tracking India in the Modi Era, Sardesai presents a collection of his essays and columns from the past four years on politics, the Narendra Modi-led government and the Indian media. Much as he does on-screen, Sardesai bemoans the rise of an increasingly aggressive brand of politics and the heightened polarisation of both public discourse and the news media world that he inhabits.

One line in his introduction to the book stands out in particular: “It is while engaging in toxic Hindu-Muslim and ‘national’ versus ‘anti-national’ arguments, driven by a rising Islamophobia, that one feels almost caged in a television (TV) news studio.” Writing in solitude, Sardesai continues, gives him a chance to free himself from the “TV ‘mock fight’ debate format”.

Viewed as a whole, the book offers a window into Sardesai’s worldview. Politics takes centre stage, with Prime Minister Narendra Modi—“a charismatic neta who revels in the image of the muscular nationalist icon”—at the core of it. But equally important is a thread that runs through the entire text: the hardening of fault lines across politics, society and, in turn, the media.

One highlight is the growing trend of aggressive nationalism—a point repeated by a number of commentators in recent years—and the tendency of the government and its supporters to label opposing voices as “anti-national”. The battle lines in society, Sardesai writes, seem mirrored in the media: “Left versus Right, Hindutva versus secular, liberals versus sanghis”.

These divisions, he writes, are in sharp contrast to the “unity shown by journalists in the pre-TV era”—and caught in the middle now, is the Indian liberal (such as himself), who would rather not pick a side.
“[Writing] gives me some space to be out of this ugly, them-versus-us, noisy space. I am [in that space] because every time I say enough, I tell myself, well, if everyone walks away… it’s a sign of giving up,” he says with a shrug.
When a man who played an outsized role in shaping English television news in India over the past two and a half decades expresses such disillusionment with the medium, it gives one pause.
Things weren’t always this way.

Halcyon days
The year was 1988. Prannoy and Radhika Roy had launched New Delhi Television—more commonly known as NDTV. It started off by producing a weekly show called The World This Week for state-owned broadcaster Doordarshan. The same year, a young Rajdeep Sardesai started off his career as a reporter at The Times of India in Mumbai.

Fast-forward seven years to 1995, and NDTV became the first private sector TV company to produce a show on national news—an area of the business fiercely guarded by the government and Doordarshan till then—called The News Tonight. It was anchored by Prannoy Roy. A year earlier, in 1994, Sardesai had left his newspaper job and joined NDTV, jumping into the brave new world of television.

“I came into television almost by accident. It had happened in a time I had just moved from The Times of India to The Telegraph in Delhi, and the belief was The Telegraph was going to start a Delhi edition. As it turned out, a few months into it, we were told that this was not going to happen,” he recounts. “And it just so happened at that very time that this offer came from NDTV, which at the time was only known for one programme, The World This Week.”

The early 1990s were a time of rapid change in TV. The likes of Zee, Asianet and other domestic channels came into being, challenging the near-monopoly of Doordarshan. And NDTV was at the forefront of this change.

In 1998, the company reached an agreement with Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. to produce India’s first 24-hour news channel for the latter’s Star network. It was a hit, and five years on, NDTV broke away and started a separate 24×7 channel, becoming a broadcaster in its own right in 2003.

The company was a starting point for many of today’s top anchors and TV journalists, including Barkha Dutt, Arnab Goswami and, of course, Rajdeep Sardesai, who climbed the ranks to become managing editor of both NDTV 24×7 (English) and NDTV India (Hindi). Sardesai had, in large part, become the face of the channel.

In 2005, after 11 years at NDTV, he set out to start a network of his own, in collaboration with the media entrepreneur Raghav Bahl and the American news network CNN. Sardesai was editor-in-chief for the new network’s channels, including its flagship English offering, christened CNN-IBN. The channel shot up the rankings and Sardesai with it.
Good times. But what happened then?

When debates turn to brawls

“Over those years, as you grew with a medium that was growing, it was a fantastic and enjoyable experience, because it was also new. And the novelty made it extremely attractive and exciting to be part of. I think over the years the novelty’s clearly worn off.”

Today, the news debate has become the undisputed staple of prime-time news television, one that everyone loves to complain about. When and how did the focus shift from hourly bulletins and news reports to debates?

“I would say frankly, and this is my own view, between 2005 and 2008, the stories we did in those three years… no channel has matched what CNN-IBN had done. Just those three years at least, in particular,” says Sardesai with obvious pride, his eyes widening as he went on to recount examples of what he considered the channel’s best work.

After the 26 November 2008 terrorist attacks in Mumbai, though, the narrative changed, he says. “Debate was always there on TV, but it was a sideshow. I think post 26/11, what I think Arnab was able to achieve was to tell all of us was that actually what viewers want is debate seven days a week. High drama all the time. They don’t want this other style of stuff that you’ve been doing all this while and which you think is kickass.

“And since then it’s been a slippery slope. Because I think as costs become greater, we’re all looking to see how we can cut costs. And the best way to cut costs is to get 10 guys in a studio to fight, right?”

A question of politics

A central topic of public discourse today is the increasing polarisation in society and politics, in India in particular, and in nations across the world (the US, of course, is a prime example).
This, Sardesai writes, is clearly reflected in “newsrooms being divided along ideological lines, biases openly aired and communities are being ominously stereotyped”. And, he adds, those in power—from Prime Minister Narendra Modi to opposition leaders like West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee and her counterpart in Odisha, Naveen Patnaik—now view many in the media as a “near-permanent enemy”.

“I think there was a certain—particularly as a political journalist—there was a certain equation that you built with the politician which was based on mutual respect at some level… And therefore if you questioned someone who was in power, it was part of your job,” Sardesai tells us. “Increasingly, because of the rise of access journalism, and the rise of a relationship which is based on them-versus-us, asking those questions has become more and more difficult.”

“It leaves me with self-doubt because I’ve seen another system, I’ve seen another world, where politicians took your questions without seeing those questions necessarily as a sign of you being anti-national or you being seen as the enemy. I think that’s what has changed the equation, because a large section of the media has chosen to take the approach that, fine, this is the case… We’ll live with it or we’ll work around it or we’ll compromise with it completely.”

Not everyone, though, quite agrees with this narrative of conflict and fault lines in the Indian media. R. Jagannathan, editorial director of Swarajya, and an often vocal critic of the liberal media, says that, for one, the questioning of those in power “was always treated as an attack, and the only thing was that they knew how to manage the media better without making it appear that they were managing it, that was all there was to it”.

“The media,” he says, “is as polarised as the polity. That is what is being reflected… Earlier there was only one power structure, now there are two alternative power structures emerging. One is the old power structure of the Congress and the Left ecosystem. Today, a new power structure is emerging around the BJP and others.” Over time, he adds, the extreme positions will likely mellow. “Once people have spent their sense of alienation and other things die down, then it’ll become more normal. It’s not going to be as polarised, say, five years down the line.”

In any case, the divisions of the present often manifest in the form of troll armies on social media, in a rise in online abuse and in increasing partisanship within the press. Concerns over political influence on the media rose even further earlier this year, after the news website Cobrapost published videos purportedly showing that many of India’s biggest media houses were willing to accept cash for promoting a certain ideological agenda and polarising their audiences.

And an increasingly muscular nationalism under the Modi-led government, as Sardesai notes in Newsman, has been mirrored by a significant section of the national media. A striking example of this is the media’s—like the government’s—ever more belligerent take on India-Pakistan ties, including (but certainly not limited to) anchors on India Today’s television network.

How does Sardesai the liberal fit into this milieu? He’s been a vocal proponent, for instance, of dialogue with Pakistan, and an equally vocal opponent of the concept of aggressive nationalism. This comes across clearly in his book, too. From his disappointment with the breakdown in India-Pakistan talks in favour of “muscle-flexing” to his call to halt the “marketing” of cross-border strikes.

Alongside his criticism of the government on these lines, Sardesai also laments that journalists are being “asked to take sides” on issues such as the violence in Kashmir, put opinion ahead of facts and “show off their ‘macho nationalism’”. He then exhorts journalists to tell truth to power—a line he repeats in various forms—and gives the example of the BBC’s role in the Falklands war.

Given all he’s said and written, the obvious question is, how does he feel sharing a platform with journalists doing exactly what he says they shouldn’t be?

“A newsroom today is, and I say this in the book as well, increasingly a reflection of this them-versus-us morality. And that reflects in the question also that you put… they are free to call me anti-national, I’m not going to call them anti-national,” he says.

“You know we use a term at India Today—democratic newsroom. I’m not going to call it a democratic newsroom as much as I’m going to call it a newsroom that allows space for dissent. You know, I see myself now as the dissenter in a newsroom where maybe the dominant view might be something else on a particular issue.”

Ten years earlier, those in the majority now would have seen themselves as the dissenters, Sardesai adds. “Because there was a certain liberal, broad-minded, pluralistic attitude towards the newsroom. That’s been replaced by another worldview. So be it, as long as I don’t become completely irrelevant, which maybe eventually one will. As long as I’m not, as long as I’m allowed to express my views independently, I feel that there is still a space for people like me.”

Changing dynamics

While much has been said about the stagnation of conventional media (both news and otherwise), television and print are still dominant at least in terms of ad revenue. Digital media’s share of the pie, though, is growing fast, and increased internet penetration in India is changing consumption trends big time.

So, where then does TV go?

“We’re now in the tenth year, in a way, of this model [of news debates]—I think it’s exhausted itself. I think, even if people are watching, they are not really excited by it anymore,” says Sardesai. “And I think people now are saying, ‘yaar, bahut ho gaya’ (it is enough). I think 10 years after this format of cockfights on a daily basis as the prime-time staple were introduced, it has no impact.”

Does TV have the capacity to retain its original exuberance? Unlikely, he says. “But there is an opportunity. Because I think people are exhausted, and for the first time they are asking, what new can you do? My worry, of course, is they say that, and then when they go home, like a drug they switch on the debate.”

But what then of the anchor’s own future?

In the middle of 2014, the Mukesh Ambani-led Reliance Industries announced it was acquiring Network18, the media company run by Raghav Bahl, which owned a slew of websites, magazines and TV channels, including CNN-IBN. Bahl, Sardesai and a number of other top executives and journalists at the company left. In the years since, Sardesai shifted to India Today TV, anchoring a prime-time news show, a weekend feature, and, oddly enough, a quiz show for school children. Though he’s never too far from the news, it’s a far cry from his early days as a reporter-cum-editor on the ground—his coverage of the Godhra riots in 2002 in Gujarat is still remembered widely—and his peak as the head of his own channel.
Is he worried at all about fading into irrelevance?

“No, and that’s why I write. I write in those columns in about half a dozen languages, so I engage with people. I do other things. You know, if I made my self-image simply my 9 o’clock show, I’d be gone. But I think it’s important therefore to find other ways of expressing yourself. And that’s what I’ve tried to do, otherwise I’d already be irrelevant.”

In the current atmosphere, Sardesai says, he feels that he’s pigeonholed as an anti-Modi, anti-national “presstitute”. “These are all new terms that have come into the discourse of journalism. I didn’t set out to do this, this is just what has happened and this is how the profession has evolved, and I’ve accepted it,” he says.

“I haven’t changed, I don’t believe I have changed… maybe the ecosystem, the newsroom has changed around me. I don’t think I’ve changed—I guess I get less angry now than I used to, but I still get angry often enough.”

Where to now?

“People like Rajdeep have a chance of becoming digital platform owners. If they were smart, they would try to unlearn what they’ve learnt and relearn the business side of it,” says Abhinandan Sekhri, co-founder and CEO of the media critique website Newslaundry. “Rajdeep has built a brand through tremendous work. What will he do with that brand? Will he make that brand into something bigger, or stick to his 8-to-10 slot and host shouting matches?”

A fair question. Has Sardesai, with his nearly three decades in journalism, ever thought of starting something new like he once did with CNN-IBN?

“I was approaching my fortieth birthday when I did that. You know, when you’re 39-40 you must do something. I’m 53, so I think it’s more difficult now, but I’d love to… I’d love to believe that in the next couple of years, maybe [I’ll take] one last shot at doing something really new. I don’t know what it is. And if I knew, I would do it. But I don’t know. Maybe a good-news channel,” he says with a grin.

“We can look at the best of us or the worst of us. I think that TV, for too long, has focused on the worst of us. I think journalism in particular must bring out, at least at times, the best in us. I mean, obviously we have to expose those who bring out the worst in us, but… I’m very clear that maybe that good-news story I do as one story in a one-hour reel can one day become the brick for building an entire edifice.”

For just how long, then, will Rajdeep Sardesai stick to doing 9PM news?

“Till the 2019 elections. That’s it. After that, we’ll see. I mean, after that it depends on this balance that I have to achieve between the other things that I’m looking to do. I meant to write a book. This [Newsman] is a collection so it’s much easier, but I remember the 2014 book [2014: The Election That Changed India] was written in the backdrop of me having left CNN-IBN, and I was jobless.”

“I want to go back to playing cricket for my old club in Bombay. I haven’t played for them in 15 years, and they keep telling me, come this year and come and play the season… You know, the Sunday matches. These are all guys who have things to do in life other than the game, but on Sunday we all [used to] get together. I miss that,” he says wistfully.

“I’ll have spent 25 years in Delhi next year. It’ll be 25 years in TV; 30 years in journalism. Maybe it’s time to look at a second innings in life. It need not be journalism. I mean, you could be a writer. You could do other things.”

The interview first appeared in the-ken

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