Is AAP Courting the Media by Appointing Journalists to Governing Bodies of Colleges at Delhi University?

21 June, 2016

In May 2016, Fountain Ink, a Chennai-based long-form journalism magazine, published a story titled, “Unraveling the AAP myth.” Written by Arpit Parashar, one of the magazine’s contributing writers, the story brought into focus multiple instances of alleged impropriety on the part of the ruling Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) government in Delhi. Among the many charges that Parashar levelled, the most controversial was the appointment of 27 journalists in the governing bodies of 28 colleges that are funded by the Delhi government and affiliated to Delhi University.

The fact that the ruling government nominates journalists, academics and other prominent personalities of its liking to institutions that come under its purview is not new. For years, Parashar noted, both the Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) have made such appointments. But that the AAP—which was built on the promise of divorcing itself from the old ways of politicking in the country—is indulging in similarly nepotistic acts, does not sit well with the image of the party.

On 1 June, as the story began gathering momentum online, the AAP leader Aashish Khetan, formerly a journalist, dismissed it by attacking Parashar for being drunk at the office they once shared together." Khetan, who set up the Dialogue and Development Commission of Delhi—which, among other things, liaises between the state government and the media—did not contradict any of the claims in the story. He has still not responded to Parashar's allegations. But a few days after his outburst, Khetan tweeted an article that compiled the appointments the BJP had affected in the country's premier colleges and cultural institutions. "This is tyranny," he said.

Over the past two years, the central government of the BJP has drawn considerable flak for filling key positions in academic institutes with Hindutva ideologues. The appointments made by the AAP have not been subjected to similar scrutiny. But the manner in which the party has installed representatives from the media as members of the governing bodies at several colleges in Delhi presents an equally troubling pattern.

For one, the criterion for the selection of these journalists is not clear. Although the posts are not salaried, the members of the governing bodies are in a position to influence the working of their respective colleges. “They play a pivotal role in the hiring of ad hoc faculty, librarians, and Class III and IV posts,” Parashar wrote in his story. “These appointments are also the ones for which huge bribes are paid.”

“Whatever decision has to be taken at the college—educational, financial, administrative—it has to be taken by the governing body,” CS Rawat, the vice-president of the Delhi University Teachers Association (DUTA), told me when I spoke to him on 17 June. “All the money for things like construction of new blocks, purchase of furniture and so on comes from through the governing body. They have supreme powers—they can condemn the decisions of the principal even.”

Since almost all the journalists occupying these honorary posts write about the AAP in leading newspapers and vigorously defend the party’s politics on prime time news debates, the obvious question that arises is that of a potential conflict of interest. A closer examination of the oeuvre of these journalists only makes that question more urgent.

Last year, Saba Naqvi, an independent journalist who has been appointed as a member of the body that governs the Kamla Nehru College, wrote a book on the Delhi assembly elections called The Capital Conquest: How the AAP’s Victory has Redefined Indian Elections. The book, as its title insinuates, is plush with compliments to Delhi’s chief minister Arvind Kejriwal. In January 2016, an opinion piece she wrote for the digital daily, was a “brief tribute to Arvind Kejriwal and AAP government’s first year in power.”

Rajesh Ramachandran, the political editor of the Economic Times, is appointed to the governing body of Maitreyi College. He does not write about the AAP frequently, but in his blogs, he is morethancomplimentary to the Delhi chiefminister.

In the reports of Neha Lalchandani, who covers the AAP for the Times of India and has been given a seat in the governing body of Gargi College, Kejriwal “slams” Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Delhi Lieutenant Governor Najeeb Jung or “fires” at them. According to Lalchandani, Kejriwal has a “vision for the future,” and is fighting to “change the system.”

Sharad Sharma, a reporter at NDTV who is on the governing body of Kamla Nehru College with Naqvi, has written paeans to Kejriwal’s honesty and integrity on NDTV in Hindi. When he went to cover a rally last year before the elections, where Kejriwal was due to appear, he wrote about the ever-increasing crowds to see Kejriwal thus: “the crowd not only listens to Kejriwal, but shouts slogans when he pauses for a break between his words.”

Abhay Kumar Dubey, a political analyst, has been appointed at the Delhi College of Arts and Commerce. In a 6 June debate on the Hindi news channel NDTV India, which was moderated by Ravish Kumar, one of the channel’s anchors, Dubey can be seen eagerly defending Kejriwal against the politicians Yogendra Yadav and Prashant Bhushan. Both Yadav and Bhushan had a fall-out with the AAP leader, which came to a head when they were expelled from the party in April 2015. Dubey is also on an expert committee constituted by the AAP “to suggest policies to protect and support India’s multi-lingual diversity.” It is also worth noting that in 2014, Dubey’s wife, Sandhya, filed a criminal complaint against him for domestic abuse.

Anurag Dhanda, a senior correspondent at Zee News, has become a member of the governing body at Shaheed Sukhdev College of Business Studies. In a two-part personal blog post titled, “AAP Ki Mahabharat Ka Sach,” Dhanda wrote about Kejriwal’s rift with Bhushan and Yadav. In the posts, Dhanda made it clear that he sided with with Kejriwal. The quarrel, he claimed, took place because Yadav was perversely ambitious and had collaborated with Bhushan to stage a coup against Kejriwal. In conclusion, Dhanda wrote that Yadav and Bhushan had been ousted by the entire party, which was in solidarity with Kejriwal.

Bhasha Singh, an assistant editor at the news magazine, Outlook, is a part of the governing board to the Maharshi Valmiki College. She conducted two interviews with Kejriwal—before and after the 2014 assembly elections—under joint-bylines. The second one, in February this year as the AAP was completing its first year in power, began with Singh and her colleague Mihir Srivastava prodding Kejriwal to rate his government’s performance. They went on to ask him, “For how long had you been seeking an appointment with the PM?” and “Do you think this is a build up to dismiss your government?” One of the penultimate questions towards the end of the interview read, “You have had such a difficult time with the central government.”

The Twitter profile of Syed Fasil Ali, a group editor with Sahara News Network who is a member of the governing body to the Delhi College of Commerce and Arts, makes his stand on the party’s politics clear. A sample: “AAP Made A Tryst With Destiny... At The Stroke Of The Midnight Hour, When The World Was Half Asleep, Prashant, Yogendra Were expelled.”

Pankaj Vohra, the managing editor of the weekly newspaper, the Sunday Guardian, sits on the governing body of Shaheed Sukhdev College of Business Studies and has written sparsely on the AAP. But in news debates, he stands behind Kejriwal on the issue of granting full statehood to Delhi—a topic that has been a bone of contention between the chief minister and the lieutenant governor Jung.

Sanjay Mishra, the Uttar Pradesh bureau chief of the Hindi newspaper Amar Ujala, has been appointed to the body that governs Shri Aurobindo College. His work, among that of several others, I could not find in print.

Based on what I was able to find, there appeared to be at least one journalist among the 27 who had reported on an assortment of stories about the party. Ambika Pandit from the Times of India is a member of the governing body to Maitreyi College, and has, for instance, written on the failure of the Delhi government’s Odd-Even scheme to spark optimism. She also covered the state government’s decision to disband gender-resource centers that were started by the Congress during its tenure as the ruling party in Delhi, and the appointment of 21 parliamentary secretaries.

Notwithstanding this aberration, it is evidently clear that an overriding majority of those in the list have seldom criticised either the AAP or Kejriwal through their work. The question of conflict of interest can now be framed as a bolder one: why did the AAP cherry-pick the journalists who cushion their coverage to suit the party? The question will have to be left unanswered, since Khetan and the spokesmen of the AAP declined to comment.

Another question of equal importance is about the journalists themselves. Even if the AAP is functioning as a political party that pushes its own agenda by granting favours to opinion-builders in the media, why did the journalists accept these positions? They could have refused; as MK Venu, one of the founding editors of the digital news platform The Wire, did. (Four journalists of the Times Group had also renounced the posts, but only after they learned that it goes against the policy of the media house.)

Before I could pose this question to Sahara News’s Ali, he told me that he is “not the only one to be appointed—there are many others, and that is all that I have to say about that.” Vohra could not be reached directly, and did not respond to a message left at his home. Dhanda has not replied to a text message either. Sharma said that he had resigned from the post as soon as he was appointed last year. He has, so far, failed to provide me with a copy of his resignation letter.

Ranjan told me that he would ordinarily not have paid much heed to this story, and was consenting to comment only because it was for The Caravan. He added that he joined the governing body because he was told, “They were looking for good people to sit on the governing council and guide the college in the right direction.” Even though members of such governing bodies are entitled to take travel allowance from the college, Ranjan told me, he has never done so because “that would be taking a monetary favour for this job.”

Naqvi responded by saying that the president of the DUTA and the principal of Kamla Nehru College had requested her to take the post. “I accept it as a civic duty as I gather people from various fields have been nominated to governing bodies. S Vardarajan, former editor of TheHindu, has also served on the Kamla Nehru College governing body.” She added, “Because I consider it a civic duty I do not accept the honorarium.”