Ashutosh gears up for Chandni Chowk race; talks about ‘biased’ media
(Any opinions expressed here are not those of Thomson Reuters)
Aam Aadmi Party’s Ashutosh might have been a TV news host, but now he talks like an experienced politician. “I am enjoying” being on the other side of the microphone, the former managing editor of Hindi news channel IBN7 told India Insight during an interview in which he discussed his decision to stand for Parliament.
It probably won’t be easy. He is taking on Kapil Sibal, a Congress party veteran and influential government minister. Sibal, a two-time member of the Lok Sabha from central Delhi’s Chandni Chowk constituency, has a knack for landing in controversies. From trying to police social media to trashing a popular upsurge against corrupt politicians in 2011, he often has become a target of public wrath.
Ashutosh, who goes by a single name, said the media is being manipulated by political parties and corporations to make sure that Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi wins the prime minister’s race in May. Regarding his own former media company Network18, which accepted a large investment from Reliance Industries in 2012 in a complex deal, he had little to say. Nevertheless, he shared his thoughts on how he sees the media now that he is on the other side of the camera. Here are edited excerpts from the interview.
Why start your parliamentary race in Chandni Chowk?
For the simple reason because Chandni Chowk is the real Delhi. I don’t mean that rest of Delhi is not Delhi, but that is the real Delhi. The rest of Delhi expanded later on. Secondly, because you know Kapil Sibal. I was tracking the Anna movement for a very long time and I was associated also, informally. Kapil Sibal was the one man who ridiculed the Anna Hazare movement. When you ridicule Anna Hazare movement, that means a spontaneous mass movement was ridiculed by a cabinet minister who happens to be there, like he represents that constituency where this mass movement was happening. So that is insulting in a way democracy.
But you are also an outsider, don’t you think that will affect your prospects?
I have been living in Delhi for the last 28 years probably. I have seen Delhi growing in front of my eyes. When I came to Delhi in 1986, because Delhi is a cosmopolitan city, I came here as a student and then I became a citizen of this city. Yes, it’s true that I have never lived in Chandni Chowk. But whenever I have felt like feeling Delhi, I have gone to Chandni Chowk. Whenever I wanted to have the exotic jalebis which I relished when I was in Allahabad, I used to go to Chandni Chowk and have jalebis, so whenever I wanted to feel as a Delhiite I would go there.
People are very, very upset and angry with him. And people are ready to teach him a lesson. I want to float a question to the people of Chandni Chowk: do you want a representative who has ridiculed you, insulted you? Or do you want a representative who represents you, who fights with you when you are down, who cries with you when you are upset and rejoices when you are happy? Kapil Sibal did not do that and that is why he deserves to be defeated.
So you think that you can take advantage of the situation?
This is a new India and Indian politics and society is changing fundamentally. And it is this fundamental change which is happening which has provoked me, given me confidence that a man like me with no money can fight with one of the most powerful persons in the Delhi cabinet with a lot of corrupt money, with a lot of power. And I am confident that I am going to defeat him.
Did the Aam Aadmi Party abandon Delhi when Arvind Kejriwal resigned after just 49 days as chief minister?
See, that is the part of the propaganda which has been unleashed against us. You have to understand two things. Firstly, that Jan Lokpal bill has been our fundamental commitment. Jan Lokpal has been our reason for existence. So when we are contesting elections, we made it very clear that within a month’s time, we will form the Jan Lokpal bill, and we were against the Jan Lokpal bill which is formed by the central government. When we found that it’s not possible for us to make the Jan Lokpal bill law, we decided to quit. People are also saying we were too much in a hurry. If you are implementing your manifesto, is it hurry? Then somebody who is not delivering they should be called lazy, but nobody is calling them lazy.
Do you now regret calling the Delhi Lieutenant Governor Najeeb Jung a Congress agent? Arvind Kejriwal publicly disagreed with that statement of yours.
It’s a democratic party and you should appreciate that. The beauty of our party is that I can disagree with my top leader. Let me also clarify this. It has been wrongly interpreted. Agent means what? Agent means representative. Different players have different agents. Sachin Tendulkar had an agent called Mark Mascarenhas, he was a celebrated person. So should I call these agents as dalals (brokers)? No. It was interpreted differently because there is a propaganda machinery by the BJP and the Congress to tarnish everybody’s image. I still stand by what I said. And I still disagree with Arvind Kejriwal on this question.
This is one of many instances when leaders of your party made contradictory statements. Don’t you think your party’s credibility is hurt by such instances?
Why should (it)? A democratic party should have place for different opinions.
But opposition parties attack you because of this.
Yes, because those political parties are led by their high command. I can disagree openly with Arvind Kejriwal and survive. But will anybody disagree with Narendra Modi and Rahul Gandhi and survive? That is why BJP and Congress have got chamchas (flatterers), we have volunteers. And that is why the Indian democracy is suffering, because BJP which used to talk about the philosophy and organisation is now reduced to a one-man party, unfortunately.
The list of politicians that Arvind Kejriwal claims are corrupt and need to be defeated in the upcoming election, do you have evidence against those people?
What evidence do you need against (oil minister) Veerappa Moily? Jaipal Reddy, his own minister, has levied a charge against Mukesh Ambani. The successor (Moily) should have respected the orders passed by his predecessor (Reddy). Why it was not honoured? Doesn’t it mean that there is something fishy and wrong? And second, names taken on that list, the respected journals, magazines, newspapers and the TV channels came out with their own investigations about them. Do you mean to say the entire media was wrong reporting on that? And thirdly, if they have nothing to hide, why should a time-bound investigation not happen?
Is your politics based too much on allegations and counter-allegations instead of positive politics? Where is your vision for India?
Today the time has come when the establishment has to be challenged. It’s not about alleging, it’s bringing about the truth. Unless you challenge the establishment, unless you challenge the status quo, how will the reform happen, how will the change happen? And I think Aam Aadmi Party, with the history of the Anna Hazare movement, has done that because there was a time in this country when the top politicians used to say you can’t contest the elections on the agenda of corruption. We changed the national political discourse of this country.
But what about your party’s vision for India beyond corruption?
What is the central problem of this country? The central problem of the country is corruption. There is a price rise because of corruption. What is BJP’s vision about India, what is Congress’ vision about India, I want to know. I do not find a single difference between the economic policy of the BJP and the Congress. Our economic vision is that the government which governs the least is the best government — that’s what Arvind Kejriwal has said. It is not the business of the government to be in business. Is it not a revolutionary idea? We say that it is not the one man who will change the country but you have to bring democracy at the grassroots level. He (Modi) is talking about centralised dictatorial system, we are talking about it’s not the dictatorship, but it’s the dictatorship of the people on the ground. They (BJP and Congress) are just fooling people. And in fooling people Narendra Modi is a master, that I accept.
In recent weeks, why is your party directly targeting Narendra Modi and Mukesh Ambani? Why now and not earlier?
Whatever is India, he is against that. India is diversity. He is not talking about diversity. India is inclusiveness. India needs a leader who can listen because it is Indian ethos — we talked about vaad-vivaad-samvaad (debate and conversation). Have you ever heard Narendra Modi indulging in any kind of conversation? And he needs to be countered.
So is there an election campaign plan in place now that you are executing?
We have nothing in terms of resources, in terms of money. But we have what is called in Hindi deewanapan (to be passionate about something). People have come to us after quitting their 5 lakh rupee jobs. Even I quit my job. Today I am unemployed. I am living on my wife’s salary who teaches in Delhi University. Why am I doing this? As a senior journalist, I could have found a way out through Rajya Sabha and could have gone inside. Why am I in politics and that too with a political party which doesn’t give you anything? It’s because our volunteers, our workforce, our mind is very, very different and that is our achievement and our entire strategy revolves around it. If we are contesting around 350 parliamentary seats, roughly, we will need about 150 crore to 200 crore rupees. That can be a rough estimate that can vary also.
Should the private sector be scared of your coming to power?
Only those industrialists in the corporate sector need to worry who indulge in corruption. Those who are doing their business honestly, they have nothing to worry.
You have been a media person all your life and now you are the subject of media. Would you say the media is biased?
I will not make a very generalised statement about media, but when I am on this side of the media, I do believe that there is certain amount of bias. There is certain amount of manipulation also. That pains me. Probably I was blinded when I was on that side because I could not see all those things happening, because I was practising honest journalism. But now when I am on this side I can see that there are people with mala fide intentions, there are people who are willing to be bought and sold. Unfortunately, there are political parties also who are willing to buy these people and they want to be on the right side of the political parties. We do have ideological biases but when it comes to journalism, we are supposed to be neutral.
That’s the biggest danger right now. I don’t want to spell it out, but if you find out the equity percentages of these big business houses you will realise in the last one-and-a-half years how these big business houses have suddenly eroded into these so-called big TV channels and newspapers. So my hunch is everything was planned almost two years back and it was planned to help Narendra Modi at a time when it is required.
Including in Network18?
I don’t want to pass any comment on anybody. I have great respect for Network18, I have worked over there and I would not like to make any comment on it.
Can it be expected that if you were to win the election, you will quit from the government again if your demands are not met?
There will not be any compromise on the basic fundamentals.