Peeping Shankar | Curtains for Doordarshan, AIR & Prasar Bharati?

The I&B Ministry seems to be toying with launching a bold new media-platform to replace the existing public broadcasters. Peeping Shankar gets us the inside dope         

To start with, one must admit that though I pride myself on being an ace in Delhi, it doesn’t count for much internationally. However, being commissioned by no less than the CIA on an intelligence gathering mission for the US President does put me on top of the game. It’s what one would categorise as a dream assignment come true. Normally the Yanks are a patronising and exploitative lot who think they can buy us desi spooks for a bottle of cheap bourbon and dinner to extract info from us which they can pass off as their own. In this respect they are no better than senior journalists who wantonly steal stories from juniors and corner all the credit.

Given this, you wouldn’t hold it against me for not being unduly excited when someone from Washington – who identified himself as Sore Throat – called me last week. In fact, when the call came through, yours truly was busy reading a seminal research paper by market analysts Murugan and Saini on why cows chew the cud when there are enough gum brands (Center Fresh, Wrigley’s Doublemint, Big Babol, Orbit etc) in the market. Apparently, the bovines dislike the flavours on offer and resent the flat aftertaste.

Indeed, so engrossing was the study, particularly the almost poetic interpretations of the mooing and swishing of tails by the animals while chewing gum, that I almost decided to ignore the call when the mobile rang. Luckily, I responded after several rings.

“Is that Shunk-Hur,” said the voice across long distance pronouncing my name as if it was Ben-Hur. “This is Sore Throat here from Washington – CIA, Special Branch. I will be in your part of the world later this week and we got some work for you. Are you game?”

“What will it be this time? If it’s bourbon, make it a A.H. Hirsch Reserve – the one that comes for $ 300 a bottle,” I said. “And if it’s scotch it better be a good single malt. Come with Jack Daniel’s and I’m not interested.” I made it fairly explicit that I wouldn’t allow myself to be shortchanged.

“Buddy, this assignment is worth $ 3000. Plus, an official Red Sox baseball cap and a lifetime free supply of Snickers. I must also add that the job is for the big man in the big white house.”

I was incredulous. “You mean Donald the Duck?! But how am I to know you are from the CIA. And what sort of name is Sore Throat anyway?”

“Well, I’m a friend of Roger. He said you will understand once I mutter the code, `Yanks love yogurt after yoga.’ I hope that clears the air. As for my name, I would have preferred to use something like Deep Throat but for this nasty cold. Anyway, in this instance, you are the Deep Throat, like in Watergate, since you will be the one passing on the information.”

“Okay, that makes things clear. Roger’s friend is Shankar’s friend,” I said. “Tell me, how can I help?”

“All you have to do is find out if your Information & Broadcasting (I&B) ministry is on to something big. Something, let’s say, which is big and newsworthy. The Prez wants to know. He has been hearing things. It’s obviously in the air,” he said rather cryptically and then hung up promising to meet over the weekend.

I quickly got to work because $ 3000 meant a lot. For a start, I already knew a thing or two about the latest controversy involving the I&B Ministry which was in the news. It had to with the spat between its temperamental Minister – Smriti Irani – and A Surya Prakash, Chairman of Prasar Bharati which runs Doordarshan and All India Radio (AIR). The big fight was over autonomy issues, appointments and the ministry’s reluctance to release funds to pay the salaries of those employed by the public broadcaster.

But after going through the press reports, I wondered if Trump would be interested in this bickering to employ the services of the CIA. It was obvious that there was something else that warranted his attention. Two days of dogged digging and phone tapping drew a blank, but my patience paid off when I hit pay dirt on day three. I learnt of an informal meeting of I&B officials in Delhi’s Nehru Park that very afternoon.

Disguised as a vagabond I planted myself close to the group of six bureaucrats huddled on the green and engaged in animated conversation. I seized upon every word they said and took copious mental notes by feeding foolscap paper sheets through my right ear. Later, I distilled the information into the following key points:

* The meeting was an informal one being ostensibly held without the knowledge of the ministry. For the record, the babus had gathered voluntarily to ascertain from frequent visitors whether Nehru Park should be renamed after a more appropriate nationalist leader.

* Of course, the real reason was to discuss the government’s tentative plans to launch a new multi-media platform which would include news channels, radio stations and a website. The new venture – if and when it happens—will eventually take over public broadcasting, currently the mandate of AIR and Doordarshan. It would also render the troublesome Prasar Bharati redundant.

* The broader government plan, articulated by the most talkative in the group playing moderator, was to create a platform dedicated to sarkari propaganda but cleverly disguised as hard hitting and critical of those in power. It would be projected as an initiative aimed at safeguarding press credibility at a time when the mainstream media, by toeing the establishment line, was leaving no space for criticism or objectivity.

* Given this bold mandate, it was felt by everyone in the group that Doordarshan, like Nehru Park, needed to be renamed. Several alternatives were suggested – Sacch ki Baat, Divya Drishti, Vedic TV, Door-to-Door Darshan, Republican TV etc. But consensus finally veered around Dour-Darshan which, everyone felt, would be in keeping with the grim and forbidding nature of the propaganda it will disseminate. (Incidentally, dour, the Oxford Dictionary tells me, means stern and severe. In Hindi the word daur means era).

* It was also agreed that given this accent on so-called harsh content, reporters of the new platform would no longer be mere reporters. They needed to be re-designated as discontent providers. This move, it was felt, would rattle the anti-government websites which currently carry unwarranted and half-baked exposes of the establishment.

* Several names for the prospective newspaper and website were bandied about. But it was unanimously agreed that The Daily Delusion was as a good a name as any. As for the website, the obvious choice was Delusion 24/7.

* Several suggestions were put forward as to who should be Editor-in Chief of the new project. Among the names that came up were Dr Subramanian Swamy, Arnab Goswami, Navika Kumar and Dinanath Batra (the school teacher turned vedic `historian’ who claimed cars were invented 5000 years ago in India.) The names of MJ. Akbar, Swapan Dasgupta, Chandan Mitra, Prabhu Chawla and Shekhar Gupta only found passing mention.

* Though the nature of the content/discontent was briefly discussed at the meeting, it was decided that was best left to a committee of experts from Nagpur to be nominated soon.

* The meeting ended with the group of six discussing whether opening pakora stalls was a viable post-retirement option. Later, they played a few rounds of Antakshari before calling it a day.

For a silent observer like me it was, no doubt, a long drawn and tedious outing in the park. But at the end of the evening, I reckoned it was a job well done. After all I had something to show the man from the CIA.

When I finally caught up with Sore Throat at the Meridien, I was understandably nervous. He ran his eyes through my report and, to my immense relief, looked impressed. “Bud, that’s real interesting stuff,” he said, “I am sure the Prez will be mighty pleased.” With that he handed over an envelope with crisp $3,000 bills, a bottle of A.H. Hirsch Reserve and the Red Sox baseball cap. “The Snickers will be duly despatched to your home,” he added as an afterthought.

I was frankly overwhelmed that I had passed the CIA test and was speechless for a moment. But I soon recovered enough to ask Sore Throat the question that had been nagging me from the beginning of the assignment – why was Trump so keen on finding out what the I&B Ministry in India was up to?

“Well,” he said, “strictly between you and me, the Prez plans to launch a channel and a newspaper to counter CNN, NBC and the Washington Post….”

That night, rather pleased with myself, I slugged a few large shots of bourbon before hitting the sack. I soon dreamt of interrogating vandalised statues in Tripura and Tamil Nadu and woke up in cold sweat when I heard Lenin’s dismembered head scream it was a Stalinist plot hatched by friends in the Parivar. To calm my nerves, I quickly downed another shot of Hirsch Reserve and hoped it would be daylight again….

(As imagined by Ajith Pillai)

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