The Familiar Outsider

Predictable, formulaic and insipid. Is it too early to write off Tim Sebastian’s new show?

The Outsider – which premiered on Bloomberg TV India on Saturday, August 25 at 8 pm – is posited on the privileged position of the “outsider”. The outsider is one who has no stake in the system, no nexus with the power networks which keep the system running and no necessity to keep the powerful and their brokers happy. The outsider can therefore raise uncomfortable questions and expose people within the system for their biases and prejudices.

Literature on The Outsider, hosted by “award-winning television journalist Tim Sebastian”, says that it seeks to “debate key political and social issues…and take a fresh look at some of the biggest issues in India”. Accordingly, the first episode chose to focus on something that has tickled the interest of academics, civil society and the media for years: dynastic politics.

Sebastian’s show is structured like a high school debate, where two panellists argue for/against the motion. This format isn’t quite popular with television channels in our country, and one doubts whether it is amenable to serious debate or exchange of views in the first place. However, given the way television debates pan out here, where panellists (and anchors) constantly try to out-shout each other, Sebastian and his crew may have thought that it might provide much-needed “sanity” to the debate.

The motion under discussion was “Politics should no longer be a family business”. Arguing against the motion was Rita Bahuguna Joshi of the Congress and Kalikesh Singh Deo of the Biju Janata Dal. They were facing off against Sudheendra Kulkarni of the Bharatiya Janata Party and Sitaram Yechury of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), who were speaking for the motion.

Sebastian started off by asking each of the panellists to make three points in support of their position. Sadly, however, neither did the four panellists bother to outline three precise, well-argued points, nor did the moderator demand that they do so when they slipped into rhetoric.

The first to speak was Sitaram Yechury. He said that politics is neither family, nor business. The problem he said was that politics by virtue of being treated as a business is seen as something that can be inherited. And that the vision of building a better future is what ought to guide people into politics.

Sebastian questioned Yechury once the latter had made his point: what kind of vision was he talking about when his party members engage in political violence, and worse, like the leader from Idukki in Kerala, even proudly proclaim having committed political murders. Yechury, of course, had his stock answers: of how CPI (M) has been at the receiving end of political violence and how the party had suspended the Idukki leader. One wonders, however, about what connection the Idukki leader’s case has with dynasty politics. Why did Sebastian bring that into the discussion?

Next to speak against the motion was Kalikesh Singh Deo. He said that families are not special to politics. Politics running in the family ensures that leaders enter the Parliament at a young age, since if they were to come up through the ranks, it would take them 30-40 years.

Here was Deo talking about one of the pitfalls of the political system, something that was central to the debate. Sebastian’s “research” however, was leading him on to other things: he referred to Deo’s speech at the India Today conclave where the latter had spoken about the networks of patronage that underline dynastic politics, and how it affects democracy within the party. “You should be on the other side”, said Sebastian, by way of banter (ha-ha-ha) adding, “We’ll get you a chair”. Yechury too chipped in, saying, “You’re welcome”. A chance to question why political parties can’t ensure that younger candidates proceed quicker through the ranks was lost.

Sudheendra Kulkarni, speaking for the motion, quoted statistics from Patrick French’s book India: A Portrait to state that almost all MPs in parliament who are less than 25 years of age are from political/hereditary families and two-thirds of the MPs below 40 years of age are from hyper-hereditary families (families which have multiple members in politics). It seemed as if Kulkarni’s research was better than Sebastian’s!

When Rita Bahuguna Joshi spoke for the motion (again, no three points from her, and no demand for so by Sebastian), the anchor referred to Rahul Gandhi’s interview to The New York Times where he had called himself a symptom of the problem of dynastic politics. To which Joshi had her stock answers about how Rahul was a great leader, and a political family only provides one with an entry at best.

A break was followed by questions from the audience. Audience members asked questions and panelists responded, with Sebastian’s role limited to that of choosing the one who would ask the question. Is that all the “rigorous preparation” for the show that the star anchor had been talking about in his interviews? Perhaps, it was about giving “young India” a voice, as the promos of the show underline.

Sebastian’s research, at least what was visible on the show, was limited to two sets of statistics, one speech and one interview. Is this what one expects of a journalist who started Hard Talk on BBC, and founded and conducted the stimulating Doha Debates? The nuggets of information which comprised Sebastian’s research are things any person who follows news is aware of.

The first episode of The Outsider had nothing by way of which it could differentiate itself from the host of panel discussions that we watch every night on NDTV, CNN-IBN and Times Now. It had nothing unique that would make viewers feel that it was indeed an outsider casting a critical, analytical eye on politics and dynasties in India.

The question of dynasties and how they differ at the national and regional level was also not brought up; the show did not question why there is a higher incidence of hereditary MPs in regional parties in comparison to the national parties. What is the connection of this to India’s feudal past? How do dynastic political families and their practices in India and the subcontinent differ from the same in the US and UK, given our feudal society? Nor did the show discuss how dynasty politics and patriarchy are intertwined. While women’s entry into the electoral fray arguably promotes fair representation and gender equity, when this happens within the framework of political families pushing their women in order to achieve the “balance” and project a progressive face, it only leads to perpetuation of patriarchy through the backdoor. In a discussion on politics as family business, surely this is something that ought to have been discussed.

With none of this being part of the discussion, and with the panellists (why did the show feature the same dreary, hackneyed representatives of political parties is something that only the organisers can tell) only repeating what they say again and again to us, evening after evening, to our home-grown anchors, it is hardly surprising that the audience poll results at the end of the show remained the same as it was at the start: 78% voted against the motion and 22% for it, before as well as after the show. Proof enough that the “debate” did not throw up any points to ponder over. It was predictable, formulaic and insipid.

Of course, it was just the first episode, and there are 12 more to come. Is it fair to criticise Sebastian and his team so early on? Perhaps, the more important question might be: is it possible for The Outsider to offer any insights, given its high-school format and predictable guest line-up?

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