Smriti Irani is Only the Latest Star in the I&B Ministry's Serial Wars With Prasar Bharati

An imperious minister, who can teach babus several tricks in repressive techniques, has embarked on a rather whimsical, scorched-earth policy aimed at bringing the chairman and the board to their knees.

The latest serial that Smriti Irani is playing out as the minister for information and broadcasting is certainly more interesting than all her previous saas-bahu soap operas. It is heartening to find that she has lost none of her talent for histrionics, and that scoring several self goals means nothing to her as long as the trishul can run through the heart of the adversary.

Her adversary, in the instant case, is A. Surya Prakash, chairman of Prasar Bharati – a pedigreed BJP-RSS loyalist from the ‘Vivekananda Foundation’. When he retaliated in equal measure, he certainly showed a mettle that few knew he possessed, but then, his very existence depends on this battle. As chairman, he refused to believe he has no executive role or powers and that all he needs to do is to chair board meetings.

Since Narendra Modi felt the Prasar Bharati CEO he inherited when he became prime minister protested too much and was taking the much-assured but never-granted autonomy of the public broadcaster a little too seriously, he decided to implant an ‘executive 24×7 chairman’, though it ran contrary to the law as it stood. Prakash gets a salary and first class travel benefits. Within days of his installation in Prasar Bharati in October 2014, the highly-politicised flock of Doordarshan, All India Radio and even the corporate office of PB headquarters at Mandi House made a beeline for his door, seeking the benediction of the new regime.

The I&B ministry and Prasar Bharati may have worked in tandem in those first days – especially after a ‘dissident’ CEO was smoked out before the end of his protected tenure – but the ugliest spat in the history of Prasar Bharati  now unfolding tells us how wrong the ruling establishment was in hoping peace and harmony would reign merely because the chairman was aligned to it. The fact that Surya Prakash and Smriti Irani are at each other’s throat underlines the adage that there are no permanent friends or permanent enemies, only permanent interests. And since the adversaries are well matched in terms of political connections, the top management of Prasar Bharati has been forced to deactivate their right and wrong buttons and swear allegiance to both Irani and Prakash.

No letting go of the remote control

The I&B ministry’s increasing stranglehold over a statutory body like Prasar Bharati shows its obsessive urge to control, not improve. It is also a prime example of how politicians and bureaucrats in post-liberalisation India can compensate for the loss of powers they enjoyed under the previous permit control raj. The hard fact is that as long as bloated ministries exist and are staffed and controlled by powerful mandarins, they are genetically propelled to exercise their hegemony — notwithstanding all the Modi jumlas of  ‘minimum government’. Public sector undertakings, banks and ‘autonomous bodies’ have now to bear the brunt of the megalomania of ministers and babus. This comes in the form of erratic government directions, unabashed interference and the incessant grilling of the officials of public bodies.

To be fair to ministries, their domination has often been encouraged by their appointees on the boards as return favour and there is no question the Prasar Bharati board is packed with people whose loyalty is to the PMO or the RSS. After all, every little or big appointment is tightly controlled by the PMO, which takes years to decide even if it brings the organisations concerned to a standstill. No more can one expect a fearless journalist like B.G. Verghese or a film maker like Muzaffar Ali to grace the Prasar Bharati board. It is well known that no minister has any say in these matters, except to function with such appointees he or she never chose and this is where the roots of the present conflict lie. This same board that is so ‘injured’ by the ministry today had, in fact, ganged up with it in the recent past to kill positive proposals put forth by the PB CEO, just because “the minister so desired”. A huge pile of written evidence exists that can substantiate this.

Bypassing parliament despite the law

But if Prasar Bharati was set up by an Act of parliament, how can Smriti Irani continue her depredations on it? To begin with, the Prasar Bharati Act itself provides for political appointees on the board. What is more dangerous is that it has two sections (32 and 33) which ensure that all major decisions require the ministry’s approval. A former bureaucrat related rather proudly how such hidden buttons are required in all such Acts to ensure that “autonomy does not get out of hand”.

An important mandate of the Act requires a 22-member parliamentary committee to be constituted under section 13, to supervise Prasar Bharati on behalf of parliament. Its members are to be from both houses of parliament, through proportional representation. No government has, however, set up this committee as it does not want to give up powers and allow Prasar Bharati an opportunity to explain, a bit like the BBC, its problems and projects directly to parliament, thus bypassing the ministry. This would militate against the prevailing narrative as every minister is coached by babus to insist that she/he alone is responsible to parliament and therefore, she/he can summon officials any time, for any reason. Even section officers exercise these powers quite vicariously and the whole idea is to grill the officers of Prasar Bharati, Doordarshan and AIR and to question every act of theirs, until they succumb to the ministry.

It is almost certain that members of parliament are not even aware of this provision for a parliamentary committee which could cut bureaucratic interference substantially and avoid recurring wars with the I&B ministry. Nor is anyone aware that there are other parts of the Act, such as sections 14 and 15 that require the setting up of a Broadcasting Council to ensure political impartiality. Successive I&B secretaries and ministers have taken pains to play down or forget to mention this vital information — that sections 13, 14 and 15 of the Act enjoin the mandatory democratisation of Prasar Bharati’s supervision before parliamentary committees. How else can all powers remain locked up in Shastri Bhavan?

It’s not just the purse strings

Budget and finance are two areas where all public-funded bodies which receive grants from parliament through ‘their respective ministries’ are made to grovel before the ministries. I have had a long stint as secretary of the Union ministry of culture and more than half my time was spent fighting many of my own babus who were periodically harassing the autonomous bodies under the ministry. It is not that Prasar Bharati or other autonomous bodies are filled with saints but the irresponsible power exercised by assistants, section officers and under secretaries of the ministries is definitely the most negative force that stymies any positive progress in India. They have no idea what the real India outside Delhi is, but they flourish because IAS and Central Service officers are too busy attending to the many desires and diktats of the PMO, Niti Aayog and their own ministers to find time to control them. Or, they enjoy the power of adjudicating between the perpetrators and the victims, both of whom are equal in their myopic view. This condition applies to every ministry and every autonomous or public body in India (except atomic energy and space) and the mechanics of hegemony have actually become more intolerable under the present regime.

Prasar Bharati headquarters at Mandi House, New Delhi: Credit: File photo

In the current imbroglio, it is clear that Prasar Bharati’s back is to the wall. An imperious minister, who can teach babus several tricks in repressive techniques, has embarked on a rather whimsical, scorched-earth policy aimed at bringing the chairman and the board to their knees. This is taking some time, though even the senior-most PB officials have accepted the nuisance of being at the beck and call of the ministry.

Quality sabotaged

It does not need a former soap star to discover that DD’s serials are mediocre. One of the main reasons for this lies in the decisions taken in the 2000-2003 period when the I&B ministry ran Prasar Bharati by ensuring that only its own tightly-controlled additional secretaries could be CEOs of the public broadcaster. Some unscrupulous Doordarshan officers advised them to junk the outsourcing of serials that had elevated this bland governmental TV channel to historic heights,  serials like Ramayan, Mahabharat, Buniyaad and Hum Log. DD decided to file cases against many iconic private producers even though they were literally their golden geese. One Mandi House Machiavelli, who is no more, ensured that private TV channels gained at Doordarshan’s expense.

DD then started ‘commissioning’ serials, though almost no one inside it knew how to make a box office-busting serial. This meant that instead of earning hugely from (say) a Yash Chopra serial, DD now paid large sums to new producers, many of whom were sub-standard. Some of the tales of how these B-class producers were sent to DD with chits from VIPs or from Shastri Bhavan (where the I&B ministry is located) were found to be true when the CBI raided the PS to an I&B minister in his office. The user friendly CEOs of the last decade and many DGs who ruled DD with the ministry’s blessings had certainly joined the chorus. As expected, more money was paid to these new breed of producers than what DD could earn from their serials, but no one seemed to mind or notice, as long as other pleasures existed. Herein lies the beginning of the end of Prasar Bharati and DD.

It goes to the credit of Surya Prakash’s board that it finally agreed with the CEO’s persistent proposal to stop the bleeding losses on account of mediocre serials and the corruption that went with it. In 2016, the board finally approved, after several months of discussion and hair-splitting, the policy of sale of DD’s serial slots to the highest, qualified bidder. Some in DD spiked progress several times and a board member fought to extend the patronage raj of serials, as some of the new regime’s followers had started tasting blood. But even this transparent bidding process passed by the board and agreed to by the ministry earlier has now been stymied by Irani and her bureaucrats, with no explanation or justification for acting well beyond their powers.

Another main source of DD’s revenue, namely the money it earns from its Free Dish satellite slot-auctions, has also been stopped by the minister for reasons not clear. The cumulative result will be to pauperise the gasping organisation. In 21 years, the ministry has not found time to frame rules to operationalise the transfer of assets to Prasar Bharati under section 16 of the Act and who knows how many crores have been lost when vacant or unused lands were encroached upon by various ‘interests’ in this man-made confusion.

Replay of Tughlaq

On the personnel front, Prasar Bharati was afflicted with deliberate incapacitation at birth as 48,000 government servants who were recruited by the ministry over decades for AIR and Doordarshan were ‘transferred’ to it in 1997, without consulting either the employees or the public broadcaster. Under the law, their salaries have to be paid by the ministry, even if they work from home. Prasar Bharati was chosen unilaterally to accommodate all of them, without any option to refuse many who were unwilling or who just do not fit into the cut-throat competitive world of modern broadcasting.

As Mrinal Pande, former chairperson and journalist mentioned, the cream within left for greener pastures in private television and radio and there is no doubt that Prasar Bharati could have done better if it did not have to inherit so many rights-conscious, rule-obsessed babus. For 25 years, no promotions were permitted by the ministry, sadistically quoting rules, until Prasar Bharati revolted a few years ago and gave ‘ad hoc’ promotions to lots of employees: mainly to pep up their morale.

Smriti Irani’s Tughlaqian decision to stop the salaries of Prasar Bharati employees is not only unjust but quite contrary to the legal obligations that her ministry has to bear. It was bad enough when successive secretaries and ministers complained loudly in public that Prasar Bharati’s salary bill eats up 80% of their budget, for they were being miserly with facts. But no minister can insult parliament which voted for this expenditure of Prasar Bharati as there is really no option, even if it is shut down. This is real life, not a serial where tantrums come with a loud melodramatic clang.

While Prasar Bharati itself is an glaring example of how a broadcaster should not be run — rife as it is with mediocrity, intrigues and petty corruption — in the present scenario, it is correct to resist the minister’s attempt to force it to hire high cost journalists, even if they are saffron. The ministry’s tit-for-tat order to Prasar Bharati to terminate all its hired hands is ludicrous, as many of these people ensure that the organisation is still alive despite all attempts to finish it off. It was compelled to set up numerous installations all over India for over two decades on the orders of whichever government was in power but no staff were sanctioned. DD and AIR run most of these with contractual employees.

Another glaring misuse of the minister’s powers has come to light. DD may dish out tasteless fare but on special occasions like Independence and Republic Days, its coverage is as good as the best anywhere. Irani arbitrarily stopped DD from covering the opening and closing ceremonies of the International Film Festival of India in 2017. Now DD is being told to pay ₹2.9 crores to NFDC – a corporation under the I&B ministry – so that it can pay a firm (whose directors are reportedly close to Irani) for the work. But nothing matters to the minister even though parliament is about to meet once again. Because, the more the din, the better it is for the government to claim that it is unable to function and then hustle through all Bills, without debate.

As far as the I&B ministry is concerned, the current controversy is no skin off its back as it is genetically programmed to dominate the public broadcaster. Without Prasar Bharati, the ministry would be left with boring tasks like registering newspapers or tom-tomming the limited achievements of a government that sold so many rosy dreams. As for Smriti Irani, let us wait for the next episode of this tragic-comic serial.

Jawhar Sircar retired from the Indian Administrative Service as Union culture secretary in 2012. He was CEO of Prasar Bharati from February 22, 2012 to November 3, 2016. He now lives in Calcutta.