Not renewing Lok Sabha passes for journalists seems part of a larger pattern for shrinking media space

It was apparent at the start of the Lok Sabha on Friday that the old order in Parliament has yielded to a completely new, unfamiliar world, at least for the media. Part of the change is the landscape. For instance, the landmark seated statue of the Mahatma has been shifted from the portico entrance in preparation for constructing a new parliament. Much of the compound has been dug up to relocate pipes, cables and other infrastructure. Entry for newspersons is through the Parliament Annexe. The number of journalists covering Parliament has been restricted to a bare minimum. The Railway canteen which handled catering for the Parliament complex, probably since its inception, has been replaced by the far more expensive India Tourism Development Corporation. Central Hall, the famous hub which served as a meeting place for senior scribes, MPs and ex-MPs, is out of bounds for all except sitting members. Some of these changes can be due to the pandemic and the building activity for a new parliament. But the reason for not renewing Lok Sabha passes for accredited journalists in the Long and Distinguished category seems part of a larger pattern for shrinking the media space.

No hurry

Indian diplomacy got a booster shot with the Covid vaccine exports. Our diplomats in the neighbouring countries pressed the MEA for getting the first batch of vaccines for the host countries to earn goodwill. In the running were: the Maldives, Bangladesh, Nepal, Sri Lanka. Brazil, with the second largest fatalities after the US, was first to make a down payment for a consignment. In the end, the government opted to dispatch the first batch to Bhutan. Ironically, the Bhutanese will not utilise the vaccines for well over a month since an inauspicious period, ‘Dana’, begins shortly and would end only in early March. The Bhutan government intends to launch a vaccination drive at the end of Dana.

No photo-op

Amit Shah cancelled his trip to Chennai on January 14 where he was to be the chief guest at the anniversary celebrations of the Thuglak magazine now edited by the Sangh ideologue S Gurumurthy. Instead, he flew to Ahmedabad for a kite flying festival. Shah who met Tamil Nadu CM E K Palaniswami later this month in Delhi expressed annoyance that the BJP in Tamil Nadu had wasted a precious six months because Gurumurthy had led the party to believe that actor Rajinikanth would ally with them. He also vetoed Gurumurthy’s proposal to include V K Sasikala in the AIADMK-BJP alliance. Incidentally, there was much speculation in the Tamil media as to why Narendra Modi was missing in the posters showing EPS and Shah together announcing the BJP-AIADMK alliance. The explanation was simple: Modi was sitting at one end of the 12-foot-long Cabinet table in Delhi and EPS at the opposite end. It was hard for lensmen to capture them in the same frame. And because presenting shawls and garlands is banned due to the pandemic, there was no photo-op.

New avataar

In his earlier stint as Madhya Pradesh CM, Shivraj Singh Chouhan prided himself on running an inclusive and conciliatory administration, which ensured all sections of society were on board, in contrast to UP CM Yogi Adityanath’s divisive image. For instance, Madhya Pradesh’s kanyadaan scheme for newly-weds included minorities. He hosted Iftaar parties for Eid where he donned a skull cap. He allowed exemptions to those not singing Vande Mataram or reciting the bhojan mantra. But in his new avataar, Chouhan appears to be modeling himself on Adityanath with a hardline Hindutva approach since he can no longer risk displeasing Modi and Shah. Chouhan has introduced love jihad laws and imposed harsh penalties. Recently, the state police arrested comedian Munawar Faruqui for offending religious sentiments, even before the performer had actually uttered an offensive word.

Yedi’s 9 Lives

In the last few months, it seemed as if the scandal-hit Karnataka CM B S Yediyurappa might finally be on the way out. A powerful lobby led by BJP’s general secretary (organisation) B L Santhosh is against him. Besides, the unenviable task of meeting ministerial aspirations of MLAs who had defected from other parties and the old BJP loyalists was proving to be a huge headache. Yet, despite some hiccups, the 78-year-old war horse seems to have pulled it off again. Apparently, PM Modi and Amit Shah were against replacing Yediyurappa, fearing it would risk the fall of the government given its wafer-thin majority in the Assembly. Yediyurappa expressed gratitude, comparing Shah to Sardar Patel, both being Gujarati home ministers, which no doubt pleased Shah immensely. As Home Minister in the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government, L K Advani, dubbed as Loh Purush, likewise was compared with the Sardar.

This article first appeared in the print edition on January 31, 2021 under the title ‘Shrinking space’.

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