Stalwarts of the Commentariat

Is political representation on so-called national television diverse?
Of course not. National politics is represented on television debates
by just six politicians from the Congress and BJP. A Hoot monitoring
of nine TV discussion shows over one month by MD ALI.

Posted Tuesday, Aug 10 13:12:38, 2010

Though nobody is likely to be surprised, Mani Shankar Aiyar is
emerging as the most tireless member of India's commentariat. He is
always available to speak on a gamut of subjects and shows. He clocked
a total of 11 appearances on nine shows that we monitored over a
month. ( We can hear you saying only 11? Seems like he's there every
night.) It could have been more had he also been present on shows on
English channels in the  NDTV bouquet. He was on their two Hindi
shows,  Muquabla and Hum Log.  He is one of the few members of the TV
guest brigade to cross the English Hindi divide.

What did he hold forth on? Everything. On Newshour, predictably, it
was on Pakistan, no fewer than four shows, given that programme's
obsession with Pakistan. Also on Kashmir.  On Do Tak and Muquabla it
was on the Commonwealth Games. Elsewhere it was on the saffron
brigade, wasted foodgrains, and on P V Narasimha Rao being the most
underrated prime minister. Whatever the topic, Mr Aiyar is never at a
loss for words.

Nine shows were monitored for 4 weeks, from June 19, 2010 to July 18,
2010. They are Face the nation (CNN-IBN), News Hour (Times Now), Big
Fight (NDTV 24x7), We the People (NDTV 24x7), Centre Stage (Headlines
Today), Muqabla (NDTV India), Mudda (IBN-7), Do Tuk (News 24) and Hum
Log (NDTV India).

Is political representation  on so-called national television diverse?
The answer is of course not. National politics is represented on
television debates by a clutch of just six politicians representing
the Congress and BJP, four of whom are party spokespersons.  There
are, in order of  most frequent  appearance, Mani Shankar Aiyar,
Abhishek Manu Singhvi, Chandan Mitra, Ravi  Shankar Prasad, Manish
Tiwari and Tom Vadakkan.  Jayanti Natarajan and Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi
bring up the rear. Abhishek Manu Singhvi  averaged eight shows during
this month, Mitra seven.

But what about bringing non-Congress, non BJP politicians into the
political discourse on issues of national concern?  On issues not
specific to a state, the  realm of politics is usually represented by
just two parties.  The exception was a News 24 debate which was more
inclusive, simply because its topic was ‘ Politics of the regional
parties in India'.  It featured Abu Asim Azmi, a Samajwadi Party
leader from Maharashtra and Ramkripal Yadav, a leader  of the
Rashtriya Janata Dal, Bihar. And Nitin Sardesai, spokesperson, MNS,

Mudda, the weekly show on IBN 7 broadened its representation a little
bit more than the others. It had a debate on the price rise with
Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi of the  BJP, Shahid Siddique of the  Rashtriya Lok
Dal, Sanjay Nirupam, the Congress leader from Maharashtra and Brinda
Karat of the  CPI(M). It also featured Md Saleem of the CPI(M) on
another panel discussion on whether the government  was unsuccessful
in tackling naxal menace.

Mostly other parties enter the picture only when the debate is on a
subject relating to a state.

Centre Stage featured Rahul Narvekar, spokesperson Shiv Sena, when the
topic was the nexus between Maharashtra cops and state arms dealers.
He was similarly featured by The Big Fight when the topic was a
Maharashtra-related free speech issue, and by Face the Nation, on the
Shivaji issue. (More evidence of the fondness for party
spokespersons.) NCP vice president Suhail Lokhandwala was  also
featured on the cops and state arms dealers' debate. Similarly a
debate on Centre Stage on the mining scam featured TDP MLA Revant

During June and July as turmoil raged in Kashmir the state's
politicians featured a lot.  Sajjad Lone on four panels, across
Newshour, Face the Nation, We the People and Big Fight. Mehbooba
Mufti, Muzaffar Hussain Baig, Senior Leader, PDP, Dr Mehboob Baig, MP,
National Conference, GN Ratnapuri, Rajya Sabha MP, National
Conference, Md. Shafi, MP, National Conference, and Ali Mohammed
Sagar, Law Minister, J&K.

For the rest, it was Aiyar, Mitra, and Singhvi all the way.  All
equally versatile. Singhvi was there for ‘Does Bandh block nation?'
on Newshour. He is a Times Now favourite, six of his eight appearances
were on Newshour. He was also there for Kashmir, Indo Pak relations,
the protest over the Shivaji book,  cabinet action on honor killings,
and so on.

A spokesperson will of course talk on many subjects. But why don't TV
channels go beyond getting spokespersons for guests?  Don't they want
genuine views, rather than the party line?

When Pakistan-based commentators are drawn upon, there too the base is
small. The channel which featured the most debates on Indo-Pak
relations was Times Now. Tariq Azim, Pakistan's former Deputy
Information Minister made three appearances in the period under survey
on Newshour. The channel likes to repeat its guests.  During this
period Gauhar Ayub Khan, Former Foreign Minister, Pakistan  was
drafted for comments  three times  on different shows,  and Tasneem
Noorani, Former Interior Secretary, Pakistan twice. Asad Durrani,
former ISI  chief also popped up on two different shows.

Secondly, the commentariat is overwhelmingly composed of political
party spokespersons and journalists, though the topic may call for
other professionals.  They are present in equal numbers: Abhishek Manu
Singhvi (8) and Chandan Mitra (7), Ravishankar Prasad (5) and Praveen
Swami (5),  Manish Tiwari (4)  and Vinod Mehta (4),  Sajjad Lone (4),
and Vinod Sharma (4),  Mahbooba Mufti (3) and Shefali Vasudev   (3),
Tom Vadakkan (2)  and Swapan Dasgupta (2), Jayanti Natarajan (1) and
Siddharth Varadarajan (1).

Civil society stalwarts on these talk shows include  G Parthasarathy,
Kiran Bedi ,  Madhu Kishwar, Nafeesa Ali, Ranjana Kumar, and Poornima
Advani, three appearances each.

The panelists in the studio are naturally Delhi-based, but the
linked-up panelists are also  Delhi-based, unless they are in


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