Vandita Mishra: What does it mean to have Rahul Gandhi now in charge of the election coordination committee? What does it change for the party or for the government?
It means what it says. Mr Rahul Gandhi will be coordinating the strategy in the run-up to the 2014 elections. That gives him a larger remit than the Youth Congress and the NSUI which he has been trying to re-energise. It obviously means he will have a much larger role to play, a far more public profile insofar as the elections are concerned. In 2009, he had participated as one of the main campaigners for the Congress. Now he will be leading the party into the next elections.
Vandita Mishra: Salman Khurshid had said that cameo appearances by Rahul Gandhi had taken a toll on the party. The party was waiting for him to take on a greater role and give it direction. Will the party now move on and stop waiting for Rahul Gandhi to make a move?
With all due respect to Mr Khurshid, I would like to disagree with that characterisation. When he made that remark, I was a spokesperson for the party and we had made this very clear: Mr Gandhi had carved out a certain remit for himself and that remit involved democratising and invigorating the mass organisations of the party. By no stretch of imagination was that a cameo appearance—it was a full-time engagement. That is a facet that possibly may not have come to Mr Khurshid’s attention. There was this demand from within the party and outside that his role needed to be enlarged. That has steadily happened. You saw him in a far more active role at the rally in Delhi endorsing the government’s decision on FDI. And now you have this coordination committee remit. The Congress is extremely dynamic, with many strains feeding into it in terms of ideas, strategies. Mrs Gandhi was working to see how all of them could come together. At some point, there had to be a convergence and this coordination committee is a convergence.
Ashish Sinha: With the massive growth in the media sector, do you believe there is a need to set up a regulatory authority?
After interacting with stakeholders across the board, I have come to certain tentative conclusions. The media, and the entertainment sector as an industry, has an exponential possibility of growth. It has grown at about 12 per cent from 2006-2012. My first remit is to see how can I facilitate the growth of this industry. In the broadcast space, the ministry has been extremely proactive in pushing for digitisation and we have gone through the first phase fairly successfully in the four metros.
On other issues like carriage fee and TAM, we have asked TRAI to look at them. For print media, there is the question of paid news. We have to get all the stakeholders on board to see how we can surmount the challenge. About regulating content, by instinct I am a liberal, by training I am a lawyer so my instincts would always lean towards self-regulation. And that has been the philosophy of the UPA government. We believe in persuasion rather than regulation. The question is, how do you find the golden mean? Article 19 and the caveat to Article 19 and the issue of reasonable restrictions—how should those reasonable restrictions be policed? As far as the first part is concerned, that is an evolving debate on a daily basis. As for the policing part, that should be left to peer review, to the sector itself. The government has inherent power, but I don’t think those inherent powers should be utilised until and unless there is extreme provocation. Peer review, self regulation are the best ways forward. Whether that self regulation should be clothed in some statutory architecture like the Advocates Act etc, is something for the industry to take a call on.
M K Venu: There are cross-media restrictions in liberal democracies. What about here?
That is another matter referred to TRAI. I do not think it is correct for the government to intervene. The fundamental issue is that a free media is important for a free democracy. Liberal societies do have cross media restrictions. Let TRAI go through the process. But if something impinges on the freedom of the media or expression, we would still be very careful, even if there is a consensus amongst the stakeholders.
Subhomoy Bhattacharjee: You’ve got a winter session of Parliament ahead. Which are the debates you think Rahul Gandhi would like to participate in?
That’s something best left to an individual’s judgment. But a far more important question emerges and I would like to appeal to various stakeholders of the parliamentary process to please allow Parliament to function. The government has a legislative agenda. You may agree with it, you may disagree—you are entitled to do that. There are other important issues that require discussion so let’s not totally subvert parliamentary processes by letting another session get wiped out.
Y P Rajesh: Is there a need for a ministry such as Information and Broadcasting?
Look at the alternatives. You have a ministry of I&B, however archaic its structure might be, but which 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? This whole bit of a regulator brings to mind a big brother spectre that I think is not a route we should be going down.
Archna Shukla: But that ‘spectre’ already exists. There is a perception that the ministry does control and influence media. Press Council chairman Markandey Katju recently said that he would want TV channels to come under the Press Council so that he could ask the government to withdraw government advertisements from channels that are seen as a ‘nuisance’.
I do not agree with that hypothesis. Does the government, in pursuance of its objectives to disseminate its point of view, have a right to reach out to journalists and make its case? Every government does that and we are entirely entitled to. I do not think that the I&B ministry or government has the ability or the desire to control the media. What we have at this point of time may not be a very happy marriage, but it is not an unhappy marriage. This is a situation where all of us can live. If at all there is any grave or extreme provocation on which there is a general sense that the government needs to step in, the government always retains its licensing powers but that should be exercised with extreme caution and in the rarest of rare cases.
Dilip Bobb: There was the recent issue of National Herald. Where does that stand right now?
The association of the Indian National Congress with the National Herald is historic, something which predates Independence. Unfortunately, the company which runs the paper had been in some financial distress so there was a view that we need to help rejuvenate it. Certain actions were taken and those actions were absolutely transparent and above board. There was nothing which was not declared to the statutory or regulatory authorities.
Archna Shukla: There was an EGOM on paid news. Does it still exist?
There has to be a certain consensus among stakeholders that we will not go down this road. Content policing is not the proper way of doing it. I think people in newspapers, the print media and the broadcasting space will have to be cognisant of how it is affecting their credibility. Even if the EGOM came to certain conclusion, the whole battle against paid news has to be fought by the stakeholders. The government can be a facilitator or catalyst but the government should not and cannot possibly be an arbitrator which finds a fix-it-all solution to this issue.
M K Venu: Are you suggesting that the stakeholders should decide among themselves and the government should have no role to play in this?
The government is not scared to look at it. The EGOM has not been disbanded, it can be used as a forum to address the issue. At another level, this debate will come to a whole new issue of a ceiling on election expenditure. Electoral campaign or finance reform, we as a political system seriously need to deal with if you are going to dispel systematic aberrations. The fundamental root cause of corruption has been our inability to fix the campaign financing system.
Maneesh Chhibber: But that matter is with the government. Successive ECs have written to the government with concrete proposals on how to handle this.
The matter has been on the front and back burner since the early 90s. The former law minister, Veerappa Moily, held the last round of consultations, regional consultations and a national consultation is pending. Campaign finance reform is something which the political parties have to come to a common minimum understanding on. I do hope our colleagues in the government who are interested in this will push it forward.
Archna Shukla: Your predecessor Ambika Soni said she was most disappointed when she was made a minister—it was a demotion. Do you feel it is a promotion or demotion?
Once you serve in a political organisation, at some point, you need to have administrative responsibility. I am lucky I got the chance. When you handle a ministry independently, it gives you the possibility of being able to implement certain things which you may think are good for the sector. I do not consider it a demotion or a promotion. It is a learning experience and that too a welcome one.
Vandita Mishra: Through most of last year, you were at the forefront of the government’s charge against Team Anna. How do you look at what has happened in the restructuring of Team Anna and do you think it is better that we now have a political party and a civil society separation?
This entire perception that there is humongous aberration/corruption in the governmental process really came out of CAG’s report on 2G. The extremely sensational figure of Rs 1.76 lakh crore, which was very brazenly thrown in the public space, fuelled this perception. As of today, that seems to be completely demolished. As I asked last week, ‘Mr CAG, where is the 1.76 lakh crore?’ We had an auction. An auction is an auction. You cannot say that something is a good auction or a bad auction or a failed auction. It discovers a market price. And the market price that it has discovered is Rs 9,000-odd crore. Therefore, the foundation of the entire civil society movement, this political party that emerged, has been demolished. I believe that you cannot be a one-issue party. But if you want to be a one-issue party, you are most welcome. If they want to try themselves out in the public space, that is their right and nobody can deny them that.
Arun S: Is there a sense of celebration within the government that the 2G auction has failed? Are you saying that CAG should apologise for the figure they came up with?
You have to you rewind to the November of 2010, when the CAG report came in the public space. We have maintained that these numbers are presumptive, hypothetical, that they do not represent anything at all. When the Supreme Court decided to cancel licences, they assailed the policy, they deprecated procedure, they quashed TRAI guidelines. But on the issue of presumptive loss, they did not make an observation at all. But when you had such sensational numbers, it vitiated the public discourse. It had an impact on the India growth story also. I am not saying that that is the only factor for the current economic situation but such sensational and unverified numbers need to be introspected. You cannot have such open-ended figures being tossed about by a constitutional body in a very cavalier manner into the public space. People do take these bodies seriously, and we hope that they start taking themselves seriously.
Dilip Bobb: It is said Arvind Kejriwal is using the media to promote his brand. What is your view on that?
I think if the media wants to give a particular person space, it is their call. I think that some of the things that are being said need to be verified and authenticated. And if unverified, unsubstantiated allegations are allowed to be freely articulated in the public space, which has the impact of impinging on hard won reputations built sometimes on decades and decades of hard work, I don’t think that that is a fair way of going about it. That will bring us back to the question of why does the government not regulate? But the fact is that regulation impinges on a host of other issues which are a part of our democratic ethos. The only difficulty I have is that if your freedom of right to speech and expression extends to the right to offend, where is my remedy, especially with anonymous users of social media?
Vandita Mishra: You have been in charge of party affairs in Gujarat. The general perception is that the Congress has not even put up a fight there. Is there anything that the Congress is doing differently this time?
If there has been an opposition, a consistent opposition to the pernicious ways of the Gujarat Chief Minister, it has been the Congress in Gujarat. In terms of assembly numbers, we have not done as well as we would have hoped. But between 2002 and 2012, what has also changed are perceptions on the ground. You have a substantive number of people who have broken away from the BJP. Former CM Keshubhai Patel is challenging Modi on his own turf. You have RSS functionaries in Gujarat who are very proactive on undermining his entire edifice. And then you have this entire myth about vibrant Gujarat which is getting deconstructed. What the Congress party has been consistently trying to do is to see how can we reclaim our legitimate space. We are better placed than we were in 2002 and 2007. It’s inappropriate to second guess an election, but don’t be surprised if you end up getting surprised.
Transcribed by Pragya Kaushika and Dipankar Ghose