Monday, May 22, 2017

For biggest slice of ad pie........ Power & Politics/ The Sunday Standard / May 21, 2017

For biggest slice of ad pie, media places histrionics and sycophancy over credible news

The medium is now more malarkey than message; a conduit of discord, disorder and dementia. For the past few months, media mashers have been flinging more vitriol at Indian news organisations than at politicians, criminals and sundry lawbreakers. The “dog doesn’t bite dog” principle no longer holds. The disparaging monikers flying thick and fast can stupefy the most ardent synonym seeker—paid media, biased media, sponsored media, sycophantic media and agenda-driven media. The press is not facing the ire of just its traditional adversaries, it’s under siege from within.

As news organisations place bottom lines and valuations above bylines and validity of news in dictating the nature of content, media personalities are at war with one another. Last week, prominent English news channels were battling over the TRP ratings of a newly launched channel, which shook the smug supremacy of the high and mighty with disruptive marketing techniques. Their confrontation was not over the quality or credibility of content. The veterans accused the new arrival of manipulating viewership figures by violating established legal procedures. The histrionics, normally reserved by the brotherhood of bytes for lawbreakers, was unleashed against their own brethren. The battle for dominance is no longer between the press and politics, but is a series of skirmishes aimed at creating artificial readership and viewership to attract more revenue than creating credible news. This internecine war could demolish the myth that a good content is king.
Croesus colours content with prejudice and malice. News is no longer the illuminating dissemination of information sans indoctrination; it’s now a commercial quantity hawked using the tricks of the trade for selling other consumer products—faking numbers, hyping quality and manipulating the tools and techniques to eviscerate competition.

Numbers are the nemesis of net worth. The Armageddon of Airwaves began last week when the News Broadcasters Association (NBA) accused the upstart Republic TV of using unfair methods to grab TRPs. The NBA asked the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) to intervene. It also approached the Broadcast Audience Research Council (BARC) to hold the release of the new channel’s viewership data for illegally listing itself under multiple genres across cable distribution networks. But BARC defied the NBA, declaring the new kid on the block a clear winner by miles ahead of established news channels such as Times Now, NDTV, India Today, CNN-News18. If Republic TV’s figures are correct, it has created history in TV journalism by beating all its rivals in its first week of launch. Unnerved by its spectacular success, its rivals have decided to quit BARC.

However, the gruesome glove game is not confined to the electronic media. Earlier in 2014, the dispute over the findings of the Indian Readership Survey, by the Readership Studies Council of India and Media Research Users’ Council (MRUC), became serious when several Indian Newspaper Society members met in New Delhi to demand its withdrawal within 24 hours. Interestingly, both BARC and MRUC are owned by media companies and advertising agencies. Both stand accused of favouring some of their own powerful members by manipulating field research. In this tragedy of transparency, nobody’s linen is clean; Republic TV mysteriously acquired more viewership in Tamil Nadu by exceeding its distribution target. Manipulation fathers media mirages; a certain survey showed a particular newspaper had zero readership in a state where it publishes three editions.

It is evident that it’s not just news organisations, which are plagued with eroding credibility; so is content. Both BARC and MRUC have failed to offer plausible, fair methods of numerating viewership. The buzz in the industry circles is that the biased choices of advertising and marketing agencies, that collect data for BARC and MRUC, are responsible for the skewed findings. With a rising number of newspapers and TV channels flooding the market disproportionately to shrinking or static advertising budgets, the fight for the largest ad pie has blown the thermostat. Hence, a substantial part of news coverage is dictated by revenue considerations over quality parameters.

Until a couple of decades ago, trustworthy content grabbed the largest mindshare. Even newspapers and magazines with small circulations attracted ads inspired by their credibility. Readers were willing to pay for quality content. But once a media baron decided to offer newspapers almost free, the entire economics and ethics of journalism went into a sinister spiral.

For the past three decades, newspapers are being sold at less than one-tenth of their production costs. With the advent of over 300 news channels, the viewer gets free access to views and news. The current malaise in the media stems from the reality that the consumer is getting content at highly subsided rates or almost free. In their race for profit and burdened by a highly paid top-heavy management, India’s news outfits are dependent on the government and many dubious income sources to survive. Such revenue come with strings attached.
There were always holy cows in the news industry. Once owners and editors accepted short-term pain for long-term gain. Today the major threat to credibility is from media companies opting for short-term gain without realising that this perilous path will lead to long-term lethal pain. The desire for better access to the establishment or a horror of straining relations with advertisers is the driving principle behind choosing news for print or broadcast. Media owners and agents trot out fake numbers to impress and convince spenders and distributors about their reach without realising that genuine political leaders and credible corporates do not need them to expand their market share.

For example, Prime Minister Narendra Modi doesn’t need sycophantic debates, tilted news and craven columns to maintain his credibility. He is not a leader moved by the choice of panelists and columnists since he is the one dictating the news agenda with innovative governance. Yet, the media unabashedly engages in competitive sycophancy to attract his attention. The four ingredients of a healthy communication network are Content, Credibility, Conviction and Clarity. Unfortunately, in the indiscriminate pursuit of numbers, the media is composing its own elegy instead of scripting the obituary of those who threaten its independence and objectivity.  

prabhuchawla@; Follow me on Twitter @PrabhuChawla

Monday, May 15, 2017

As scandals undermine opposition ..... Power & Politics /The Sunday Standard/ May 14, 2017

As scandals undermine opposition power, unity mirage can’t block saffron surge in 2019

                                                                        Opposition leaders
Something is rotten in the state of the Opposition. The stench of failure pervades its decaying leadership, which is powerless to resist the Surge of Saffron at a time when India needs credible and saleable alternatives. Desperation leads to deliberation; conflicts of ideologies or alternatives among anti-Modi forces have been packed away with the hope that a joint presidential candidate will emerge from the parleys precluding partisanship. As their satraps crisscross the country searching for the elusive grail of unity, skeletons of graft and nepotism are tumbling out of their cupboards with unending regularity. There is hardly a non-BJP leader not plagued by scams and revolts.

Opposition parties are unable to keep their flock together, their rank and file falling prey to the allurements of the ruling establishment. They are unsuccessful in halting the Modi juggernaut in their states. Moreover, India is yet to become a nursery of newbies, where emergent leaders like Emmanuel Macron, Marine Le Pen and Theresa May are incubated to replace the existing leadership and shake up the system. Like the lotus eaters, the Opposition’s deluded dream of becoming roadblocks in Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s pursuit of a second term in 2019 is in limbo.

● Arvind Kejriwal was considered Mr Clean and Able until former ministers accused him of financial irregularities and nepotism in government contracts. Over half a dozen AAP legislators are facing corruption charges and criminal cases; others are being investigated by agencies. A colleague accused the chief minister himself of accepting cash for favours (denied later). The party itself is being probed for fudging accounts.
Kejriwal is facing large-scale desertions—even leaders once considered his close allies are bidding adieu in a hurry, holding him responsible for the drift. Kejriwal is no more seen as a leader with an alternative agenda for governance based on transparency and democratic functioning. The leader, who created history in Delhi by winning 67 of 70 seats, acquired opposition party status in Parliament by trouncing the SAD-BJP power alliance in Punjab and came second in municipal elections, has been reduced to a political pariah. Until recently Kejriwal was being romanced by most non-BJP CMs; West Bengal’s Mamata Banerjee and Bihar’s Nitish Kumar wouldn’t miss an opportunity to visit him when they were in Delhi. The demagogue, who once drew massive crowds wherever he went, is losing the ‘g’ in his gloss.

● Mamata Banerjee, the ‘Tigress’ of West Bengal, is being eroded within. Over a dozen TMC ministers and MPs are either in jail or under investigation. Hardly a day passes without the CBI, Enforcement Directorate or Income Tax come knocking on the door of party leaders or office-bearers. BJP boss Amit Shah’s next target is West Bengal; he has vowed the saffron flag will flutter atop Writers’ Building. Though dissent is not visible in the TMC yet, Mamata’s cadres doubt her ability for a hat-trick. The Bengali middle class, which catalyses her victory and acceptability, is disenchanted over her administrative skills or leadership quality. Mamata’s grip over the minorities and weaker sections in the state is intact but she has been forced into assuming a strident pro-minority stance, which works in the BJP’s favour. Her major concern appears to be her failure to attract disenchanted leaders from other parties or add new cadres to her stagnant stock. 

● Lalu Yadav sprang a surprise in 2015 by not only winning the largest number of seats in the Bihar Assembly polls but also by inflicting the first electoral bruise on the invincible Modi-Shah duo. Since he was legally banned from joining the government, he got two of his sons important positions in the Nitish Kumar government. Now, the media expose about his family’s questionable land dealings in Bihar and Delhi have dented his manoeuvrability in influencing the political agenda both at the state and central level. So far, he has contained any revolt in his  Rashtriya Janata Dal but the BJP is exploiting the negative fallout of the scandal, hell bent on breaking the JD(U)-RJD alliance and repeating its 2019 Lok Sabha sweep.  

● Mayawati and Akhilesh Yadav, who ruled Uttar Pradesh for over a decade, face massive revolts both from party leaders and family members. Theoretically, by combining with the Congress, they can prevent the BJP from winning half the 73 Lok Sabha seats it bagged in 2014. In the May Assembly elections, their combined vote share was much higher than the BJP, which won a record 326 seats. Mayawati, reeling under corruption charges, is helpless to prevent many leaders who helped her win in 2007 from leaving. Meanwhile, Akhilesh is under constant threat from father Mulayam Singh and uncle Shiv Pal.

● Naveen Patnaik, the unstoppable Odisha Chief Minister, is under tremendous pressure from within after the BJD’s unsatisfactory performance in local body elections. Many former followers have been speaking against him. Some of his MPs and MLAs are under investigation for economic offences. Naveen had created a state record in 2014 by capturing 20 of 21 Lok Sabha seats despite Modi’s nationwide popularity.  

● Jayalalithaa’s death has weakened AIADMK so much that its survival depends more on the magnanimity of Modi Sarkar and less on its current leadership. Many of its leaders are involved in criminal cases.
The Communists who rule Kerala and Tripura are not positioned to lead the Opposition either; ideological contradictions make them unacceptable to regional rulers.

The BJP cannot take the entire credit for the combined anti-Modi conglomeration being leaderless and directionless. Modi baiters have to own up to the responsibility for their failure to serve as constructive checks on the Centre.

The ruling party will use every trick in the trade to dismantle and discredit its opponents. But it is the responsibility of the Opposition to anticipate and tackle turbulent air pockets well in advance. The BJP has broken their opponents with both carrots and sticks. In response, its foes have failed to keep their flag flying with credible criticism of the government. While Modi coins and creates seductive slogans and scenarios on a daily basis, his opponents cannot generate equally compelling narratives. Rushing around like headless chickens, Opposition leaders expect Modi to slip, toppled by the excessive weight of promises. In democracy, power flows from ballot boxes. But Modi baiters are hardly prepared for the battle of ballots.

prabhuchawla@; Follow me on Twitter @PrabhuChawla

Monday, May 8, 2017

Dravidian Patriarch woos history with dreams .....Power & Politics / The Sunday Standard/ May 07, 2017

Dravidian patriarch woos history with dreams of opposition unity in birthday spirit

Divided they have fallen too often. United they expect to rise again. Battered by three years of the relentless fury of Modicane, demoralised and disconsolate opposition parties are anxious to regain the power—mental and physical—to contain the prime minister’s power drive. Subsequently, marginalised leaders of minimised political parties have settled on the upcoming presidential election as a common ground to pitch their tent, ready for jousts against the saffron knighthood and its captain.


What better day for sunny dreams than at a birthday party, which promises to be a new D-Day for Opposition unity, however weary the dreamers may be? Last week, Kanimozhi, daughter of DMK founder M Karunanidhi, flew to Patna—perhaps for the first time on an important political mission—to invite Chief Minister Nitish Kumar and master puppeteer Lalu Prasad to her father’s 94th birth anniversary celebrations in Chennai on June 3.

With less than 24 months left for the Lok Sabha elections, non-saffron parties are desperately seeking a credible leader and a slogan to take their anaemic ambitions off the ventilator. In the past, it took a combined Opposition to dethrone leaders with power and charisma such as Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi. In 1977, Indira was trounced when a united political voice warned voters of her dictatorial style threatening democracy. But Modi is not she.

He is a leader above reproach so far, resolute yet reverential about democracy, having committed no political sin unlike Indira & Sons. The Opposition is left to digging deep and deeper in the political dung heap for filth to be flung at Swachh Modi, but have only succeeded in dirtying its own hands so far. 

Opposition draftsmen are betting on a war machine ‘Made in North, South and East’ to take on Modi’s mojo. Kanimozhi is in the turret right now. Satraps of JD(U), CPI(M), NCP and Congress have been holding consultations to forge an anti-Modi front, prompted by former JD(U) chief Sharad Yadav and Nitish Kumar after meeting Congress president Sonia Gandhi over choosing a common candidate for the Rashtrapati Bhawan. Yadav felt that such successful interactions could go a long way in stalling the BJP’s nationwide surge.

He admitted disunity in non-BJP ranks as the key reason behind the saffron party’s wins in the Uttar Pradesh polls and the Delhi civic elections. Following which, the CPI(M) moved into the Operation-Oppose-Modi-Mode swiftly; its amiable, high-profile general secretary Sitaram Yechury met Sonia in Delhi and Naveen Patnaik in Bhubaneswar to mull a strategy to avoid a breakup of the non-BJP vote in the prez poll. But geography makes history. The Opposition’s choice of Chennai as the ground zero for rebirth rings a bell.
Almost two decades ago, Karunanidhi had created political history by bringing ideologically opposed parties together at a rally he organised on March 17, 1988, at Marina Beach. The political velocity it generated led to the formation of a national front led by V P Singh, supported by veterans like N T Rama Rao, Devi Lal, Biju Patnaik, Prafulla Mahanta et al which eventually toppled Rajiv Gandhi a year later. 

Following the Chennai Summit, other conclaves organised by non-Congress chief ministers had added to the momentum. On January 9, 1989, the NT Rama Rao-led TDP government held a public rally in Hyderabad to celebrate its seventh anniversary—attended by S S Barnala from SAD, V C Shukla from Jan Morcha, Vijaya Raje Scindia from BJP and Devi Lal from Lok Dal (B). The constellation of non-Congress planets were coming into alignment.

Next, to celebrate five successful years of the Janata government in Karnataka, then chief minister Ramakrishna Hegde organised a public meeting in Bangalore attended by V P Singh, Bahuguna, Jyoti Basu, Mahanta and E K Nayanar. The Comrade’s inclusion was significant, since it was the first time the Left was corralled into participating in an anti-Congress front. Interestingly, all three initiatives were taken by three chief ministers of three states. History took an ideological U-turn again in 1996 when various regional leaders, the Left and the Congress conjoined to topple India’s first BJP government of Atal Bihari Vajpayee.
Now in 2017, little-known woman politician Kanimozhi, who is better known for her social than political networking, has been chosen to woo the North where Modi magic reigns unchallenged.

Her Patna trip was the tip of a national Opposition iceberg formed to sink the BJP’s Titanic by building a consensus for the next president. She connected brother M K Stalin with Lalu and Nitish. The conversation was more about politics than pineapple pastries; and the massive rally after the Kalaignar’s birthday bash. 

Though DMK insiders claim Karunanidhi’s state of mind is too feeble to think up such a strategy, Kanimozhi’s sojourn carries his typical stamp of forging impossible alliances, forcing a movement to rise when the moment arose. When Indira was isolated by top Congress leaders in 1969 during the Syndicate split, Karunanidhi asked his 25 MPs to stand by her. In 1971, he followed her cue by dissolving the Assembly when she dissolved the Lok Sabha for simultaneous elections. His strategy paid rich dividends and his party won an unprecedented 184 seats; a state record.

Now, with the ruling AIADMK in disarray, Karunanidhi wants to capitalise on the waning clout of his opponents. With uncanny foresight, the constant centrist in this family party has decided to introduce his political heirs—Stalin and Kanimozhi—to national leaders before he is rendered physically inactive.
He has played a major role in choosing prime ministers in the past. He has always aligned with one national party or the other in New Delhi. The DMK has been part of many ruling coalitions at the Centre.
The fact that for the first time it is out of power in both the state and Delhi after many years has vastly eroded its clout. 

Birthdays, weddings and anniversaries have acquired new meaning in Modi era politics. Karunanidhi has the rare ability of converting challenges into opportunities.
Now he has found one. Modi bashers and baiters seem confident that the waves of Marina beach will break out in applause lauding their efforts once again. They are looking forward to landing in Chennai to celebrate Karunanidhi’s birthday, expecting to have the cake and eat it too. But do they have the reach to swat the flies on the walls, wandered in from Modi’s kitchen where ideas are cooking faster than you can say 2019? 

prabhuchawla@; Follow me on Twitter @PrabhuChawla