The first Lok Sabha election that I followed closely was the 2004 election. Following it closely meant that I was tuned in to NDTV throughout the day. At the time, we were given this impression by the foremost journalists and intellectuals that the country had chosen wisely, and it was going to be all hunky-dory from hereon. Back then, as we watched NDTV, we believed that India was a country on the move. We had a brilliant economist as Prime Minister, some of the foremost legal minds managing the top ministries, a bright young heir apparent biding his time, and intellectuals from various walks of life advising the government through a super cabinet. Nothing could go wrong. The setup was perfect, and India was headed for greater things. NDTV was not only the messenger but a symbol of how things were done right in India, a reminder that India could create a world-class product successfully. It was the Jet Airways of the television media. It represented hope, it represented the future.
Not everybody launches their flagship product at the Prime Minister’s residence, or celebrates their 25th anniversary at the Rashtrapati Bhavan, with the who’s who of the country in attendance. But NDTV was different. If any private company, especially a media outlet, received this treatment today, one can only imagine how people would be up in arms. Back then, it seemed perfectly natural. NDTV had been India’s first independent news network at a time when the government had a monopoly through Doordarshan, it was the first to bring international standards of reporting and presentation to Indian television screens, it was the first to cover election results in real time. It was said that if you were a serious politician back in the day, you had to appear on NDTV at least once a month.
A decade and a half down the line, a lot of water has flown under the bridge. Most of the network’s star anchors are anchors elsewhere now, and only one of them is still a star. The channel is under investigation for financial irregularities. Their numbers are down, barely a handful of people watch it anymore. Their allegiances are well known, and their credibility is in the dumps. This network, which enjoyed a stature that others could only admire from afar and only aspire to reach in the distant future, has been falling lower with every passing day. And just when one thinks it cannot fall any lower, it springs a surprise.
If one and a half decades ago, someone asked me how NDTV would be covering the general elections in 2019, I would have said that it will be the one-stop-shop for everything imaginable. The best reportage, the best presentation, the fastest updates, the most accurate projections, the most incisive analyses, is what I would have imagined. The sharpest minds, the most experienced journalists, the most articulate spokespersons, would be on air. I would have imagined that the Prime Minister, the opposition leaders, Union Ministers, Chief Ministers and every important player would be making a beeline for their studios, because the entire country’s eyeballs would be transfixed on NDTV. Hell, I would have even imagined in 2004 that if India ever witnessed a US style presidential debate among prime ministerial candidates someday, that the natural home for this grand political spectacle, the grandest of our times, would be NDTV.
And what do we have in 2019? A show allegedly busting fake news by a Canadian Youtuber called Dhruv Rathee, who has pedaled more fake news than Donald Trump and CNN put together in his short stint as a YouTuber. This is the flagship show that the network will broadcast this election season. Meanwhile, other networks are throwing exclusive political newsbreaks at us, interviewing the Prime Minister and other important players.
The purpose of this piece is not to ridicule anyone or pass moral sermons or teach anyone about the karmic cycle for that matter. It is simply to ponder about the ups and downs of life. And to light a candle, as we watch one of India’s television networks which could have become the next BBC or CNN, slowly fade into oblivion, and then into the annals of our history.