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Finding a voice for a New India


There is a need to energise Doordarshan (DD) to become the voice of a new India, writes India Inc. founder and CEO Manoj Ladwa.

India’s Information & Broadcasting Ministry is, arguably, the most anachronistic symbol of a bygone age in Indian politics, administration and society. A country that justifiably prides itself on being the world’s largest democracy has no business having a government department and a bloated bureaucracy that regulates and supervises the dissemination of information to its citizens and the world at large.

Following the nomination of Venkaiah Naidu as the BJP’s vice-presidential candidate, his baton at the I&B ministry has been passed onto Smriti Irani, a feisty politician and former actress who many of India’s younger generation consider their icon. Irani takes on the role as an “additional charge” to the Textiles Ministry, which for India is a hugely important and strategic industry, especially in the Modi government’s quest for more job creation.

In an ideal world, Irani’s brief should have been simple: shut down this archaic department that reeks of a Soviet-era mindset. But unfortunately, we don’t live in an ideal world. So, her remit should be to reform the department and pull it, screaming and protesting, into the brave new India of the 21st century.

Want to know what’s wrong with Indian media? Switch on any news channel between 6 pm and 10 pm. All you’ll get are gladiatorial contests masquerading as “debates” on topics that are, more often than not, of little relevance to the viewer. To maintain their ratings and to make the programmes entertaining, channels carefully invite speakers known for their controversial views or some who openly spew venom on their rivals. The resulting shouting matches provide a great spectacle and generate a lot of heat but end up leaving the viewer none the wiser about the topic under discussion.

What can the I&B minister do, you may ask, since these are privately owned channels that are free to telecast whatever they want.

The answer lies in reforming the state-owned Doordarshan (DD), which has a bouquet of channels that still enjoys a greater reach across India than all the private broadcasters combined. But urban audiences, whom broadcasters chase because they bring in the advertising big bucks, have mostly given up watching DD.

Why? Because DD’s current affairs channels have over years been considered nothing more than the propaganda arm of the government in power in New Delhi. And it has been decades since a general entertainment programme on DD has topped the popularity charts. The reasons aren’t hard to find. Nepotism and corruption in awarding programming contracts have ensured that the best producers and directors of television programmes prefer to deal with private channels.

Irani can make a big impact if she can bring a big broom to this stinky stable and clean up the mess created by decades of political interference.

If she can bring balance and edginess to DD’s current affairs programmes and professionalise the general entertainment channels, the state-run broadcaster will once again begin to attract viewers. And given DD’s reach, this will almost certainly exert pressure on the private channels to improve the quality of their fare.

Since India’s TV channels are largely self-regulated, pressure from a proactive and genuinely public service DD will almost certainly force its private counterparts to fall in line.

It’s a shame that India still doesn’t have any global platform to project its soft power around the world – on the lines of a BBC, or even Al Jazeera (despite its recent controversies).

A reformed, edgy and professional DD can fill this void by becoming the voice of the Global Indian, which is now heard with respect in capitals and boardrooms around the world. It will unleash India’s creative talent and, over time, can emerge as a global platform for the dissemination of an alternative world view. Irani would do well to also harness the hugely successful talent pool of media professionals from the diaspora in this mission.

Irani’s end game must remain the closure of her new charge. But her roadmap for getting there, we hope, will pass by some of the milestones on our wish list.