Fourth Estate under four politicians of Bihar : How similar, how different

Patna : What upsets the Nitish government most is the Press Council of India chief, Markandey Katju’s remarks that there was no Press censorship during the Lalu regime. As an arch-rival it was natural that the NDA government was not going to give any credit whatsoever to the Lalu-Rabri regime.

But Markandey Katju may not be alone in holding such view. There are even many ardent fans of Nitish Kumar and not just his opponents––his own party ministers, legislators, office-bearers––who do not approve the way the Press is being treated by him in Bihar.

However, this does not mean that everything was hunky-dory in Bihar in the past so far Press is concern. No doubt Emergency was a dark chapter in country’s history, yet it is also true that efforts were made to control, manage, gag and allure the Press even after that.

When the then chief minister Dr Jagannath Mishra tried to bring in the Press Bill in early 1980s he was stoutly opposed by the journalists. The state government had to drop the idea. But the Press was then only confined to a handful of Hindi, English and Urdu newspapers. There was no electronic channel, not even Doordarshan, no internet and no other means to get information. BBC radio service was a possible alternative.

So the government’s criticism was limited to the print media, whose circulation was small. Yet Dr Mishra almost went on to  legislate a Draconian law, which suggest how intolerant he was towards criticism. The Lalu era was too long to be clubbed into one. Initially, Lalu Yadav was least bothered about the post-Mandal “upper caste media”.  He used to think that more the media writes against him the more strong politically he would be. Once Lalu told an English journalist that write as much as you can against him, but do not forget to carry his photo, as his supporters would love to see it.

However gradually, as most rulers, the then chief minister too started managing the Hindi media. However, he was least concerned about the English newspapers as he was aware that his supporters do not read them. So while the English Press carried a relentless campaign against him, especially during the fodder scam days, the Hindi Press was somewhat guarded in criticism for obvious reasons. Bihar had not so many Hindi dailies then as now.

Yet there is a difference. During the Lalu years the opposition parties and civil society groups used to get due coverage in the media, which is hardly possible now. The private electronic channels came much later. Though they were mostly critical of Lalu Yadav, who was by then neck deep in trouble over the fodder scam, yet he knew its importance. He would especially invite cameramen and correspondents of the private channels to give bytes and interviews. Since there was a large number of takers of his rustic one-liners all over the country and some people still crazy to see him on the screens he fully exploited this opportunity for his own end.

But then Lalu as the railway minister was quite a different man. True he initiated several big and small projects for Bihar, yet like his predecessors Ram Vilas Paswan and Nitish Kumar, he fully used the print media. The phenomenon of big newspaper advertisements for the dailies of Bihar for the inauguration of projects––big or small––which started during the tenure of Ram Vilas (as the railway minister) continued during Lalu’s year in the Rail Bhawan too.

Like Lalu, the LJP leader Ram Vilas Paswan, too tried to project himself as the leader of poor masses. But, while Lalu initially paid least attention to the Press, Ram Vilas took full help of media to cultivate his image.

Not just as the railway minister in the Deve Gowda and Inder Kumar Gujral governments in mid-1990s, but even as the telecommunication minister in the Vajpayee government he would give huge advertisements to newspapers of Bihar. Ram Vilas tried to make friends in the media by making a large number of journalists of the state member of telephone users consultative committee and thus offered them free phone connections.

The move paid. Media in Bihar started calling him Ram ‘Vikas’ (Development) Paswan. However, the Press showed their ‘ingratitude’ when he quit the Vajpayee government in 2002 and joined hands with Lalu Yadav during the 2004 parliamentary election. The same media now started calling him Ram ‘Vinash’ (Destruction) Paswan, even though he became the minister of Steel and Fertilizers in the UPA-I.

The problem with the Nitish regime is that it has adopted a new strategy to deal with the Press. Besides, by the time Nitish Kumar came to power in Bihar in November 2005 the country had been undergoing information explosion. The print media got expanded with many newspapers having their edition from cities other than Patna. Quite a few regional television channels came up. News-portals are not only confined to English, but the state has a couple of Hindi news-portals too.

So gagging the Press today is not so easy a task as it is made out to be. While the Nitish Kumar government is busy alluring and silencing the print media with the help of advertisements it is unable to do the same with electronic media and news-portals. The present chief minister is image conscious and, unlike Lalu Yadav, has a very good following among the educated middle class and upper castes.

Journalists consider individual cases of assault as occupational hazards and this had happened even in the past, that is, during the regimes of Lalu Yadav, Dr Mishra or anyone else. Even during the nine months of President’s Rule in 2005 there were cases of individual attack on them. 

What is disturbing now is the organized way in which the state machinery is getting journalists sacked or transferred at the drop of a hat if they dare to write anything against the state government. Unlike in the past, today when a journalist is targeted it does not make any news. So when a murderous assault was made on Amarnath Tewary, the Assistant Editor of English daily, The Pioneer, on Jan 27 last by a BJP leader, her son and henchmen in Patna newspapers did not dare to report it.

Even when journalists met in Patna and passed a resolution demanding action against the accused the print media gave no coverage. Those who attended that meeting to show solidarity to Tewary failed to get this very news published in their own respective dailies. A delegation of journalists, who wanted to call on the chief minister, did not get time though they made repeated attempt to meet him. It was after that the Press Council of India chairman, Markandey Katju, was approached. Courtesy : Bihar Times

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