Sidharth Varadharajan’s unceremonious exit from The Hindu is yet another reminder of the fickle nature of India’s family controlled media. Raj TV met with the same fate a few years ago when it was used as a pawn in the family feud between the Marans and members of Karunanidhi’s family. Once the families patched up, the DMK started Kalaignar TV and Raj TV went back to being a nondescript entity in the politically polarized Tamil TV firmament.
Narasimhan Ram installed Sidharth Varadharajan, a non-family member, for the top job just 2 years ago after his own attempts to perpetuate his regime met with stiff resistance from the other family members. In a deft move, N Ram brought in his confidant to the top job ostensibly to separate ‘editorial control from ownership’. The fact that it stonewalled the elevation of N Ravi and Malini Parthasarathy was just the side story. The wheel has come full circle with N Ram, now in his new role as Chairman, announcing the appointment of N Ravi and Malini Parthasarathy to the very positions they were denied 2 years earlier. For the two, it is better late than never. But, what about Sidharth Varadharajan who was dragged into the crossfire? And, where does it leave the larger objective of professionalizing the venerable daily?
Although The Hindu continued to remain left leaning, there was some semblance of opinion diversity under Varadharajan. In recent weeks, there were pieces from S Gurumurthy defending the RSS and a brilliant article by Tamil National Alliance member suspecting the Rajapakshe regime’s commitment to devolving powers as per the 13th amendment. His tenure also restored balance in the paper’s reporting on China and the CPI (M). All these were areas his predecessor drew plenty of fire. After the 2G fiasco under N Ram, the paper under Varadharajan was strident in reporting the Reliance KG block stories and the DLF-Vadra deal. The paper also expanded its foot print to cities beyond its traditional bastions in the south. Of course, there were instances of editorializing news items but were they more frequent and more severe than N Ram’s or N Ravi’s tenures? In this age of digital journalism that allows The Guardian and The New York Times to publish ground breaking NSA stories from remote locations, is it really required to have Sidharth Varadarajan at Chennai all the time? Is Varadharajan being held to the same standards that applied to family members? As Varadharajan himself pointed out, if policies or editorial values were flouted, the solution would have been to get another professional editor. Why throw the baby with the bathwater?
When N Ram was at the helm, he defended the paper’s abominable coverage of the turmoil in Tibet and Nandhigram saying ‘working out the editorial stand is our journalistic privilege’. What about Varadharajan’s privilege? We do not yet know what kind of recurrent violations and defiance of the paper’s values prompted Varadharajan’s exit. Apparently, these were not even communicated to him, let alone being given a chance to explain. Did N Ram adhere to these much touted about values? Even his brothers and cousins say otherwise. If Varadharajan’s violations were so serious, should he not have been sacked instead of being made a Contributing Editor and Senior Columnist?
The most striking feature of the entire saga has been N Ram’s overbearing role. Ever since his return to The Hindu in 2003, N Ram has been consolidating his vice grip on the group. He brought in Sidharth Varadarajan in 2004 who owes his rapid rise to the top – overtaking much senior family members like Malini Parthasarathy- to N Ram’s backing. After ensuring that a loyal lieutenant has taken his place, N Ram stepped down as Editor-in-Chief in early 2012. He is now back again as Chairman and has engineered a Jayalalithaa-isque reshuffle.
Varadharajan and N Ram are on the same side of the ideological divide. The former’s views on Modi and BJP are fairly well known. The Hindu has never been sympathetic to the Indian right and Varadarajan, if anything, was more loyal than the king himself. But, it is clear that he outlived his utility the moment family members declared ceasefire. It’s ironic that the avowedly progressive daily-famous for its sanctimonious tone- is putting expediency ahead of its larger, more difficult and time consuming goal of professionalizing itself. In several ways, The Hindu has been a trendsetter in Indian journalism. Its experiments with separating ownership and editorship could have been a prelude to a larger drive to professionalize the nation’s raucous media houses. For now, blood has proved to be thicker than water.
About the Author: Muralidhar is a Chennai based analyst who writes on politics, policy and media affairs. His twitter handle is @murhari
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