Come election season in India, and all kinds of people throw their hat in the ring, many of whom have no hope in hell of even recovering their deposit. This year’s show has a more diverse mix than usual with the debut of the Aam Aadmi Party. AAP has attracted many candidates from the urban middle-class, a segment previously notorious for its political apathy — aspirants include doctors, professors and even a former chief financial officer of an infotech giant. But cutting across party lines this election, there are increasing numbers of an even more unusual breed in the fray — the seasoned journalist.
The latest to make the switch from ringside view to active participant is M.J. Akbar, the founder-editor of dailies like The Telegraph and Asian Age, and a highly-regarded journalist, who joined the Bharatiya Janata Party. For the BJP, the crossover presents quite a coup. Minority Muslims in India generally view the right-wing BJP with fear, hatred or a combination of the two. Particularly as the party’s prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi is known as much for having been Gujarat chief minister while hundreds of Muslims were being murdered by rioting Hindus in his state as he is for his mantra of development. In Akbar, the BJP gets not just a “moderate Muslim face”, but one who had once been a sharp critic of Modi to vouch for his credentials.
The veteran journalist is no novice when it comes to politics, either. He has contested the general elections twice before, first in 1989, when he won the Kishanganj seat in Bihar and the next in 1991, when he lost. It’s just that the last time around, he was a candidate of the Congress party, so remarks about opportunism may not be entirely off of the mark.
Akbar is by no means the BJP’s only scribe-turned-politician. The party’s candidate from Hooghly in the state of West Bengal is Chandan Mitra, editor-in-chief and managing director of The Pioneer, a daily published from New Delhi. Mitra’s candidature comes as less of a surprise, since he was already a nominated BJP member of the Rajya Sabha, the upper house of Parliament, and a familiar face on television debates. The BJP has also given a ticket to Pratap Simha, a Bangalore-based regional language journalist known for his fiery right-wing articles and editorials. Though there are reports of murmurs of dissent in the party ranks against the candidature of an absolute novice, Simha’s adulation of Modi seems to have carried the day. The Kannada journalist contesting from Mysore-Kodagu has even penned a book on the PM nominee.
The incumbent Congress, meanwhile, may be having having difficulty convincing even senior stalwarts to contest the polls. Finance Minister P Chidambaram and Information Minister Manish Tiwari are among those who have said “no thanks” already. But its candidate in the temple town of Puri in Orissa is Sucharita Mohanty, formerly a journalist with The Economic Times, India’s largest financial daily. Mohanty’s father was a veteran Congressman.
But the favored home for journalists is the Aam Aadmi Party, which is fielding three scribes from Delhi alone. Candidates include Ashish Khetan, known for his hard-hitting investigative stories and sting operations, particularly against the BJP. Former CNN reporter Anita Pratap, the first journalist to interview LTTE chief Prabhakaran, will be taking on a Union minister from the Congress and a former secretary to the president representing the Left in Kerala.
Journalists, of course, have been a mainstay for AAP from the start, with party spokesperson and Ghaziabad seat contestant Shazia Ilmi being a former TV journalist. Manish Sisodia, a close associate of leader Arvind Kejriwal and an MLA in the short-lived Delhi government, was a reporter with the Zee network and All India Radio.
All this, even as Kejriwal rails against the media for being corrupt, and threatens to jail journalists if he comes to power. One can only assume that those who have joined his party will be safe.
Indulekha Aravind is assistant features editor with Business Standard. Based in Bangalore, she covers south India for Business Standard Weekend and can be found @Indulekha_A