Mumbai’s last and final appointment with the late Shiv Sena supremo Bal Thackeray was a long and emotional day for half the city and perhaps an intriguing experience for the rest of the country, given the non-stop coverage of his funeral on most new channels.
After the announcement of his passing was made on Saturday afternoon, TV channels were up and running with their assessment and forecasting programmes. As expected, most got Mumbai-based newspaper journalists to share their expertise with viewers. As perhaps not so expected, some journalists were caught between their respect for someone who had just died and their objectivity. Senior journalist and columnist Sidharth Bhatia and author Shobhaa De on CNN-IBN stood out for their frank appraisals of Thackeray’s politics. Kumar Ketkar, editor of Divya Marathi, was a disappointment as he tried to hedge in his comments about the Shiv Sena chief. Praful Bidwai was characteristically outspoken in his criticism of Thackeray as was Paranjoy Guha Thakurta on Headlines Today, but perhaps not quite so brutal. On Sunday morning, it was veteran journalist Mahesh Bijapurkar (for many years with The Hindu in Mumbai), on CNN-IBN who was objective and knowledgeable in his assessments of Thackeray. Ketkar on Times Now (and occasionally on CNN-IBN) continued with his wishy-washy analysis which sometimes bordered on hagiography.
The fact is that Thackeray was a controversial character. His hold over Mumbai was perhaps unparalleled and he did give hope and courage to many who felt marginalised by geography and circumstance. But he did break many rules of democracy, of the Constitution and of unwritten rules of social discourse. There were aspects of his politics which were divisive and dangerous. He was also witty, warm and charming in person. All these factors have to be discussed.
The non-stop TV coverage of Thackeray’s funeral procession however meant that news channels had to come up with constant chatter. This meant calling on “experts” to share their views since we know that TV editors cannot trust their own opinions. But by now, they were running short of experts. As one wag on Twitter put it, just about every journalist who had spent 10 minutes in Mumbai was now an expert on Thackeray and the Shiv Sena. Their lack of insider knowledge or the fact that their opinions were gleaned from newspaper reports was evident to any Mumbaikar (or do we now go back to saying “Bombaywallah”?) The Hindi and Marathi channels both concentrated more than the English ones on the fact that nephew Raj Thackeray was not on the truck with the body but walking ahead. Times Now gushed a bit about Raj Thackeray’s “humility” but Hindi and Marathi channels had other ideas, corroborated by the morning papers on Monday which made it clear that he left the procession mid-day in a huff.
Of all that channels, CNN-IBN was the best in its objective analysis of Thackeray’s life and politics. In the evening, Smruti Koppikar, lately of Outlook and now of Hindustan Times, shared her first-hand knowledge of the city and the Sena. It was also interesting to hear former police commissioner Julio Rebeiro’s reminisces of Thackeray, which were also frank. A complete contrast to another former commissioner M N Singh who claimed in Monday’s Hindustan Times that Thackeray never created law and order problems in Mumbai or some such arrant nonsense.
Times Now and Arnab Goswami came up short with its inability to distinguish between journalistic objectivity and personal pain. The channel and its star editor-in-chief treated Bal Thackeray’s death like it had happened to one of their own and behaved a bit like British TV presenters at Princess Diana’s funeral – lacking in both distance or perspective.
Where all TV channels failed is perhaps in their assessment of the crowds on Sunday. The common consensus seemed to be at 20 lakh – which is 2 million people and they immediately decided this was the biggest ever. On Monday, newspapers hedged between 5 and 10 million which is quite a different number. The state government’s home department put the figure at 5 lakh. The Times of India carried a photograph of Shivaji Park with vast empty spaces!
Speaking of the Times of India, it did demonstrate its superior knowledge of the city and its relationship with the Sena but almost all of it through Ambarish Mishra who wrote almost the whole newspaper!
Mid-Day lived up to its standing as a city newspaper by carrying a page full of details of what would work in Mumbai on Monday and what wouldn’t – much-needed for a citizenry which has been living without food and transport and in fear.
The next few days are going to see more analysis about what next for the Sena. But without a doubt, a massive chapter in the city’s life – and in the media’s life – has closed with the passing of Bal Thackeray.
Ranjona Banerji is a senior journalist and commentator based in Mumbai. She is also Contributing Editor, MxMIndia. The views expressed here are her own.