Q: What is your idea of India at 60? Do you think the country is ageing wisely?
A: Well, we are a very young country actually. Nandan Nilekani actually uses the term that the country actually has its demographic dividend with us. There are a large number of Indians in the working age between 20 and 60 more than any country in the world at the moment. So, while China is an ageing society, India is actually a young society in that sense, more than 60% of the country is under the age of 35. So, we are uniquely placed in that sense, with a large working population, to be a country that is on the growth path. We are growing at certainly well over 8%. The 3.5% growth rate that existed in this country for the first 40 years after independence, no longer exists.
The question is, will this growth be across the country or will there be pockets where we grow at 14 to 16% and in other pockets at 3 or 4%. I think the real challenge for India in its 60th year is that we are not a country that is retiring; we are a country at 60 that is looking ahead to the future. But will that future involve the entire country or only pockets of India? Will we truly be this aspirational society for entire India or only groups of Indians? How do you ensure it in terms of growth?
To me, that really is the big challenge before India at 60. But clearly, 1947 to 2007, the glass is half-full. I think Ramchandra Guha remarks in his book, “India After Gandhi” that few people believed that democracy will succeed in India. No one can impose his or her will on the Indian people. I think the average Indian feels a remarkable sense of freedom. But all that apart, the fact is that the glass is half-full.
Q: Let us go back in time a little bit. Which four incidents, socially, politically, culturally, economically, in the history of Independent India do you think has shaped the country’s destiny as it is today?
A: That is a tough one. I think certainly 1947-48 and the integration of states. The ability to ensure that this country with hundreds of princely states became one union and give it a sense of unity, I think that was important, a sense of unity and integrity. That was given by that. 1952, the first election, the principle of one man, one vote. That had a remarkable impact on the average Indian. That is two. I think 1975, the imposition of the emergency and then what followed. I think that gave India the sense that democracy needed to be preserved and protected at all times. In 1977 when Mrs. Gandhi was voted out, it showed the power of the Indian people and their refusal to accept any form of dictatorship. That was critical. The movement for linguistic states, which was successful. Today, when we think of it, which other country has so many languages and is yet able to hold together. The space that was given to linguistic ideals, that has got a lot to do with it. That is on the political front.
The other remarkable change was the introduction of colour television in 1982 and as it followed the next year we won the world cup. It changed the way Indians looked at both cricket and entertainment & culture. The Sensex crossing 10,000, I think gave a sense of a more self-confident country coming to terms with the market. Infosys going to Nasdaq, was important in its own way, an Indian company being listed on the NYSE. I think more than individual achievements these are trends, which suggests India coming into its own. The Green Revolution in the 60s, self-sufficiency in food, made a big difference to a country of a billion people. These are random thoughts and there are many more.
Q: The oft-repeated critique of media is that in this fast-paced, SMS world; need for speed, somewhere the core values of journalism - accuracy, quality of content is taking a backseat. Is it really happening?
A: I think if you saw the glass as half-empty, that would be true. There is a tendency to push journalism in the direction of sensationalism, where impact matters more than accuracy. It is not just an Indian disease, it is a global disease, the news media is struggling to somehow or the other to attract eyeballs. And in that process, there is a tendency to exaggerate, and to sensationalise, and titillate. I think that is a genuine problem.
But if you saw the glass as half-full, look at where television is today compared to where it was even 30 years ago. You just had Doordarshan who had the monopoly. Today, you have 35 or 40 news channels. Now quantity doesn’t necessarily mean better quality, but it does offer at one level a multiplicity of choice. The fact that news is now disseminating increasingly through the web, mobile. At one level, news has become fast food, but at another level you are making news more accessible to people.
So, I think it depends on how you look at it. I think Indian news media has much to be proud of. A lot of exposés have taken place and still continue to take place through the news media. It still remains at one level, a kind of a watchdog. But another level, yes, page 3 has come on page 1; there is a tendency to titillate, to sensationalise. It just depends on how you look at the news media, and a new generation of viewers and readers are coming into the media as a result. So, I would look at the glass as half-full. If I did I would find it very difficult to survive.
Q: So, what exactly is the biggest strength of Indian media, in a democracy like India, what do you think is journalism’s biggest strength? And the threat of course, the biggest challenge?
A: The biggest strength as I said is the sheer plurality. The fact that you have so many newspapers in so many languages, you have a Prabhat Khabar kind of paper in Jharkhand doing remarkable work, you have a CNN-IBN doing its own little bit. You have the NDTVs, who have sort of established themselves. You have broken the monopoly of the efficient media, Doordarshan. You have lots of small district newspapers coming up, all of which reflect some of the developments taking place at the ground level. I think the sheer plurality of the Indian media is its biggest strength. It means that no one can control it anymore. I can’t see a repeat of 1975 in 2007.
I think its biggest weakness is that it has somewhere been unable to achieve a kind of quality consciousness or quality control. I think there has been a general numbing down in the media, as has been the case across the world. The Indian media is no different. So, there has been a tendency to titillate, to sensationalise, not to really investigate, not to do the in-depth kind of reporting that media should do, and also somewhere down the line, to get too easily co-opted by the establishment, not to maintain the necessary distance from the establishment. I think the Indian media’s primary role should always be that of a watchdog. Now if a watchdog becomes a lapdog then you have a problem. And perhaps that is one danger that Indian media has to live with and that is something that worries me.
Q: Speaking of dangers, the Internet is one of the fastest growing news mediums of the world. Do you think the Internet in India can ever be a threat to a) the present television dominance and the old world charm of newspapers and b) an opportunity to perhaps segmentise and disseminate news in a better way?
A: I absolutely agree with the second part of your question. I think the Internet is a huge opportunity. Any new media I think has to be an opportunity because as I said it provides access to new forms of media to more and more people. And the market is bound to get segmentised. You are going to move towards narrowcasting from broadcasting, and the Internet is going to play a huge part in that. You are going to personalise journalism, it is going to become more and more news driven, you are going to have to look at niche markets and niche channels. That is going to be the future and I don’t think you can run away from that. I think that is inevitable and you can’t get away from trying to believe that the media will function as it did 20-30 years ago.
The Internet is part of a new age; there is a new generation of Indians. As I said, 65% of the people in this country are under the age of 35. Many of them have access to technology and as technology becomes more and more accessible, as laptops become cheaper, as getting an Internet connection becomes cheaper, you will have more and more people hooked onto the net. The net is the future. You have to embrace it and we have to find new ways in which television, Internet and newspapers can feed on each other. I am not saying, the rise of the Internet means the end of the newspaper, I do not believe that. I do not believe that the rise of the Internet in this country means the end of television. But each one would have to adjust to the other, to strengthen itself.
Q: So Internet journalism is there to be taken seriously in India?
A: Absolutely. 5-10 years from now, I have no doubt. Look at what has happened to BBC. BBC Online today attracts more webbers than does BBC Television. People want journalism to be personalised. It is an opinionated society; people want to express their opinions through blogs. The web will provide that space. So, it may be a particular niche market in India. But every niche market in India has millions of people. I have no doubt that regional language Internet will also become big in the next 5 years.
Q: We have established ourselves as an IT hub, great entrepreneurship skills, business takeovers. Which is that one career option for today’s youth that is still lying unexploited, people who can take to something that still has the potential of making it big on the international scene?
A: That is tough to say. A lot of youth seem to want to go with media. We seemed to have moved from journalism to media, we made a move, which was inevitable in a sense. But the notion of media is broadening all the time. It seems to involve public relations, corporate communications, Internet, newspapers, advertising, radio, all these offer huge opportunities. But it is difficult to say, which is that one profession where Indians will excel on an international scale, where young people will be moving towards as career choices. I hate to believe that I am old, I hate to advice people. They have a mind of their own, they are extremely ambitious, they are extremely impatient, which is fine. Why should someone become an editor only at 50 or 55, those days are gone.
The world has changed. Those editors who believed that their worth lay in how well they knew the Prime Minister of the country. Now it is more about institutions. I think in India you need to have more institutions that will outlive individuals and which are not about individuals. The media in particular has to move in that direction and that is what will make it more attractive to the people. So, I really can’t advice the young what to do with their careers. I have a 12-year old son, I have no communication with him, and I do not know how to reach out to him. So, I don’t know how to reach out to others.
Q: Is journalism the right place to be or not?
A: I am old fashioned in that sense. I believe you should be in journalism if you have a passion for news. If you have a passion for news and newsgathering, then journalism in its conventional sense would appear to be attractive to you. If you don’t have a passion for news and you are looking for a job because it seems sexy and glamorous, then you are in media. And it also depends on the individual. Also, in the new age, one thing that will happen in new age journalism is more and more specialization will emerge.
So, you will have journalists doing environment, looking at science and technology, health, these are the new areas of this news country. When I joined journalism 18 years ago, being a political journalist was the biggest thing. Unless you could interview the Prime Minister you had not arrived. I think today’s journalists hopefully have a healthy scepticism for politicians, that is their big weapon.
Q: How can NRIs contribute to our growth outside? There is a considerable chunk of NRIs that India can boast of? Can they somehow help nation build?
A: I will come back to the Kalam statement; nation building is not the job of a journalist or an NRI. All of us can be patriotic and in our own way contribute to the country, in our small way. Let us not give ourselves the glorified role of, we are the nation builders. Mr. Kalam has his own vision of nation building and good luck to him. The biggest contribution that the NRIs have made is that we have moved from being seen as a country of coolies, as we were, 30-40 years ago, to being seen as a part of this knowledge economy.
Q: What is your version of Vision 2020?
A: I have no Vision 2020. That is Mr. Kalam’s vision.
A: I just hope that India is a country of inclusive growth. We can’t have Lindsay Lohan taking over the journalism of this country to the exclusion of all else. I think it has to be inclusive journalism; it has to be Indian journalism. The great Mahatma always got it right. You allow all kinds of forces to blow through your window but don’t get swept off your feet. Sometimes in our journalism, we get swept off our feet by seeing what is happening in the rest of the world. We are Indian, we can Indianise, we have to be ready to appreciate the changes taking place across the world and then adapt it to an Indian scenario and do inclusive journalism. That is the future.
Q: If not a journalist, what else would you have opted for?
A: I wanted to be Sachin Tendulkar. But I am not the Sachin Tendulkar generation; I am the Sunil Gavaskar-Amitabh Bachchan generation. We grew up in the 70s trying to get tickets for Deewar and tried to watch Sunil Gavaskar bat. Amitabh Bachchan I didn’t want to be, Sunil Gavaskar I wanted to. But the good thing about cricket is it is merit based. Your father played cricket, you play cricket, no way. It is not like you are a member of the Gandhi family, so you become a politician, it doesn’t happen that way. I tried; I was good, but not good enough. But I enjoyed the game.
I have always believed to be a good Indian, you have got to appreciate Indian music, which means Kishore Kumar as far as I am concerned, it is primarily Kishore and Asha, you have got to appreciate Indian films, which for me was the Bachchan generation, and you have got to appreciate Indian cricket. Again in generational terms was watch Sunil Gavaskar play fast bowling. If you have done all three, then somewhere around the lane, wherever you are, you live in New York, you live in London, your heart will always beat for India.
Do you think making a mandatory period for today's youth to serve the country for two years can inculcate more discipline and thereby help the country significantly?
I think a period in community service would help.. not sure about the mandatory bit.. but we need to create more opportunities and incentives to encourage young people to contribute to the community...
What do you think can be done to proliferate sports in the country and thereby hone the talent of billion Indians in the country?
i think you need a culture where sports is encouraged, where young people across the country, and not just in the big cities, are provided the facilities to play sports. Where are the clubs and grounds in small town INdia? what is the incentive for a young person to play sports in India today outside of cricket?
Who are your chosen three personalities who have helped build the nation (politicians, businessman, philanthropists, sportsman etc ) and why do you hold them in high esteem?
Baba Amte for working among the leprosy affected, Sachin Tendulkar because he is a phenomenal criketer and ambassador for India,
As spoken to Divisha Gupta for an exclusive independance day web18 feature