NEW DELHI: It is a well known truism that the administrative arm of the government is not run by politicians but by bureaucrats. And while there have been many cases where a minister had to bow because the bureaucracy in his own ministry did not support him or her, it is only seldom that the politician allows himself to be cowed down.
One therefore wonders whether the statement by outgoing Minister Manish Tewari that there is no relevance of Information and Broadcasting Ministry (I&B) and that it belongs to ‘an era that is past’ is something that comes out of his own wisdom or his frustration in dealing with an ex-bureaucrat who now heads the public service broadcaster.
Coming as it does on the eve of the government going out of office, the statement is either way misplaced. It is now open to the new government to decide whether this ministry needs to remain or go.
And clearly, ‘Broadcasting’ does not mean just Prasar Bharati in a scenario where not only has the radio and television industry grown by leaps and bounds, but needs controls and regulations that only a Ministry can handle.
At the same time, ‘Information’ does not just mean giving information to the people through the media and goes much beyond to an administrative regulatory role over various media units of the government. If this Ministry has no relevance today, one winders who will monitor the working of these media units!
Experience of the past decades has shown that the role of the I&B Minister has probably been totally misunderstood by the heads of government. Because the designation says ‘Information’, the government thinks that it has to be led by a person who is well versed with the policies of not only the government but also the ruling party.
Tewari, therefore, often found himself answering questions about the ruling party rather than his Ministry whenever he was mobbed by the media, particularly electronic media looking for sensational bytes!
Factually speaking, questions about government policies should have been tackled by the Director General (Media and Communication) in the Press Information Bureau and those about the party by the official party spokespersons speaking in the respective party offices.
Clearly, the government took ‘Information’ to mean ‘Information and PR’, which is the kind of designation given to ministers holding this charge in the states.
Actually, the debate over whether one needs an Information and Broadcasting Ministry is not new.
The issue had also come up about a decade earlier when Sushma Swaraj was in charge of the Ministry.
At that time, a Group of Ministers had been set up under the chairmanship of the then Finance Minister Yashwant Sinha on the possibility of setting a Convergence Commission and also piloting a convergence bill. This was being considered as it was felt that Broadcasting and Information Technology were gradually merging.
The issue could not be resolved even after several meetings of the GoM, and the whole thing was put in cold storage because of the change of government in 2004.
While the then Communication and Information Technology Minister Pramod Mahajan and the then Law Minister Arun Jaitley appeared to be in favour of the Commission, it is understood that it was vehemently opposed by Swaraj.
The possible reason for this is not far to seek: if a Convergence Commission (which would have also made the Prasar Bharati Act redundant) had been indeed approved, then the chances were that broadcasting ministry would have gone to the IT Minister and Swaraj would have been left with only Information and thus a reduced portfolio in terms of power – something no senior politician can afford to let go.
As far as the broadcasting side goes, surely Tewari knows there is more to broadcasting than dealing with a former bureaucrat who insists that the government has backed out after creating an autonomous Prasar Bharati, by still keeping most powers to itself.
The view of Prasar Bharati CEO Jawhar Sircar, who has also chosen the current time to express them in writing in an article in a popular magazine, may have its own merit. And while one could always argue on whether a public service broadcaster almost totally dependent for its existence and funds on the government can expect full autonomy!
But he has deliberately chosen to air his views about ‘covert control raj’ to coincide with the entry of a new government and as well as the interview of Narendra Modi on Doordarshan. Interestingly, even DD News Director General S M Khan has gone on record to say that the decision to make cuts in the interview had nothing to do with the Ministry and were done internally by DD News staff as they wanted the interview to be more balanced.
As a matter of fact, one wonders whether Prasar Bharati which was conceived at a time when only Doordarshan and All India Radio existed has a place in a scenario dominated by private radio and TV channels!
And one can hardly deny that there are very few countries in the world which do not have radio or television channels of their own, and many even own news agencies and newspapers.
In a country as large in population as India and with a low literacy rate, surely no one can deny that the government needs to have a channel to disseminate information about its programmes, and help people learn about their powers. And there is little gain saying the fact that both Doordarshan and All India Radio are today airing programmes which private channels running after TRPs and advertisers cannot do.
Tewari’s view therefore about the “inherent redundancy” of the Ministry itself appears redundant.
Perhaps his views about the Films Division can be judged on the same footing. While the Division has undergone various changes from the weekly news reviews to magazines and now short films, it is also an institution that is doing things no private agency would do and this is also becoming clear from the increasing number of National awards its films have been winning, apart from the fact that it was chosen by the Ministry itself to manage the country’s only Museum on Indian Cinema.
The fate of private television and film training schools is also well-known as they end up as shops that want to give quick training but charge high fees. In that scenario, both the Film and Television Institute of India and the Satyajit Ray FTII have to remain under the I&B Ministry, though there one can hardly deny that greater participation of the private sector – particularly the film industry and TV channels – would help.
In fact, Tewari himself had said in November 2012 that ‘however archaic its structure might be, I&B over a period of time seems to have got the nuances fairly right. It is to a very large extent, hands-off. If you were to abolish the ministry, what would you replace it with?’
Interestingly, Tewari had initiated steps to grant more autonomy to it by constituting the Sam Pitroda Committee.
Irrespective of which party comes to power, I&B is a subjects that will remain with the central government if there has to be a continuity of policy as far as the media and even freedom of speech and expression is concerned, especially in a country where business houses are waiting to gobble up whatever freedom the media enjoys today.