On Friday, August 2, ABP News’s show Master Stroke went on air uninterrupted. The only difference was that Punya Prasun Bajpai was replaced by Chitra Tripathi. The news about Bajpai’s resignation from the channel had surfaced on August 1—Thursday evening. Notably, on August 1, ABP News’s managing editor, Milind Khandekar, announced his exit from the channel on Twitter. His announcement came as surprise and took the Internet by storm. The governing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) was at the centre of yet another story of the sacking of an editor.
Those saddened or shocked by the exit of Khandekar and Bajpai claim Bajpai’s Master Stroke had upset the current dispensation. The flurry of resignations by those at the top-most editorial positions in ABP News is seen as the aftermath of the channel’s anti-establishment stand in a couple of its shows. To be precise: Bajpai’s Master Stroke and anchor Abhisar Sharma’s stance—both in the studio and on social media platforms.
We reached out to Khandekar, Bajpai and Sharma. However, they maintained that they have nothing to add to or say on the developments in ABP News. Khandekar told Newslaundry he has nothing more to add to what he has already said in his tweet:
Sources at ABP News say it would be wrong to attribute the exit of Khandekar and Bajpai to one single event. For months now, the tussle between the editorial and the management had been at its peak.
An insider, on conditions of anonymity, said, “The deadlock was there for months now, and it would surface every 20 days. We have heard there was huge pressure on the management by those from the ruling party [BJP] to change its stance.”
The editorial staff further added, “Abhisar’s video blogs and his stance in the studio had become an issue. Bajpai Sir’s Master Stroke became another flashpoint, further deteriorating the situation … It was an emotional moment for the entire ABP newsroom. There was hardly anyone who was not in tears when Milind Sir walked out of the organisation. Almost everyone stepped out in respect, to bid him goodbye.”
On August 1 itself, Bajpai had announced in the newsroom that he would not come to the office from the next day onward. On August 2, the news of his resignation, and that of executive producer Nikhil Kumar Dubey, went public.
Days before Khandekar’s exit, the ABP newsroom witnessed an ugly spat between the editorial and the management. On July 30, Abhisar Sharma—on his show Aaj Ki Badi Khabar—read out “breaking news” of a shootout in Uttar Pradesh’s Sultanpur district, where three gangsters had opened fire on a businessman.
Sharma said, “Pradhan Mantri Narendra Modi kal Lucknow mein the, vyapariyon ko sambodhit kar rahe the. Uska maqsad ye tha ki bade paimane par vyapari aaen Lucknow-Uttar Pradesh nivesh karein … ye sawal uthna lajmi hai ki apradhmukt kab hoga Uttar Pradesh (Prime Minister Narendra Modi was in Lucknow yesterday and addressed the business community. He wanted businessmen to invest in Lucknow and Uttar Pradesh … In a situation like this, it is a pertinent question to ask, when will Uttar Pradesh become crime-free?)”
According to sources, while Sharma was still on-air, ABP News’s executive director Atideb Sarkar stormed into the newsroom. Sarkar, who had also taken over as the Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of the channel in November 2016, was visibly upset.
A senior staff member, who was present in the newsroom during the argument, told Newslaundry, “He shouted, why is Sharma taking the Prime Minister’s name in a stray incident of crime in Sultanpur. ‘Ask him to just read what is being sent on the Teleprompter,’ is what he said. Sarkar wanted Sharma to be taken off-air immediately.”
A few moments later, the source said that Sarkar again stormed into the newsroom. “Why is he (Sharma) still on?” he asked. At this moment, the senior staff member said, a heated argument took place between Milind Khandekar and Sarkar. He further added that Khandekar asked Sarkar to discuss whatever he wanted to inside a cabin, and not in public. The source said Khandekar also argued that he couldn’t simply take an anchor off-air while the show was still live.
The source said Khandekar said he needed to work on the nitty-gritty before taking such a decision. The next development was that Sharma was taken off-air for 15 days from the channel.
Sharma, a vocal news anchor, has been the target of BJP supporters and the Right-wing. More than his show, Sharma’s video blogs on Facebook—in which he is visibly anti-establishment or critical of the saffron party—has often come under attack. However, after the crackdown from the channel management, Sharma stopped the video blogs.
This is further substantiated by the fact that Sharma stopped doing his video blogs after June 29. We scrolled through his account and found that on June 29, he took on the BJP government in Uttarakhand and chief minister Trivendra Singh Rawat over the school principal row. Earlier, on June 22, he came out with a point-by-point response to trolls and those attacking him and his family.
Sharma and his family have often been attacked on social media platforms, where the target has been his wife Sumana Sen, an IRS officer. Misinformation has been spread against him and Sen. In a piece for Newslaundry in 2016, Sharma went public about the concerted attacks on him and his wife, and the investigation by the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI).
Coming back to the goings-on at ABP. While Sharma was sent off-air for 15 days, the major problem—the show Master Stroke—was still taking on the current dispensation every night at 9 pm
A senior staff member of ABP said the pressure from the BJP mounted with every passing episode. “No management can be blamed for the action it has taken in Master Stroke’s case,” the staff member said.
Sources added that it was clear that they (the BJP) wanted either the show to be taken off air or Bajpai’s exit. A senior staff member said, “Khandekar’s exit is a result of this tussle. There were missed signals from the management. On some days, it would ask Bajpai to carry on the way he wanted, and on other days, they would ask him to tone it down.” He added that because the channel had already invested a lot in the show’s resources and branding, they couldn’t afford to take Master Stroke off-air.
Sources add that Khandekar chose not to ask “player of the show” Bajpai to step down either, and hence he chose to quit himself.
Another source at ABP told Newslaundry, “Khandekar Sir chose to quit, and Bajpaiji’s show was the major reason behind this decision. Hence, Bajpaiji resigned in solidarity.”
Newslaundry has sent an email to Sarkar, seeking his responses to these developments. The story will be updated as and when he responds.
Importantly, after leaving the India Today group, Bajpai joined ABP News and did his first show on April 2. In barely four months, his show Master Stroke, on several occasions, embarrassed political parties, especially the BJP. The central government was left red-faced when the show fact-checked the claims made during PM Modi’s conversation with farmers in Chhattisgarh. “Master Stroke: Reality Of Chandramani’s Claim Of Income Got Double In Chhattisgarh” was broadcast on July 9. It came as a huge embarrassment to the Modi government. The reaction of BJP leaders, chief ministers, and Union ministers. Information and Broadcasting Minister, Rajyavardhan Rathore, are a testimony to it.
Rajasthan CM Vasundhara Raje, BJP IT Cell head Amit Malviya, and even Union ministers such as Nirmala Sitharaman tweeted against Master Stroke and ABP, using the hashtag #unfortunatejournalism. This was probably the first time when BJP leaders, including such senior leaders, ran a campaign against a journalist and a news programme.
Meanwhile, the last seven episodes of Master Stroke, are a testament to a unique kind of muzzling against the show. The prime-time show had no advertisement breaks. So technically, the show was performing poorly in terms of revenue generation. Only three companies (Kent RO, Wonder Cement, and Snakker Biscuit) associated themselves with the show, but their ads didn’t feature in the entire one-hour segment.
The show’s broadcast also faced glitches and interruptions in several states across cable operators. In two videos, former journalist Vinod Kapri has posed a serious question related to the broadcast. He questioned how ABP’s broadcast between 9 pm and 10 pm faced interruptions, while its post-10 pm broadcast faced no glitches. Sources in the channel also told Newslaundry that many regional ABP channels were also being disrupted.
Yet the channel chose to stay silent on these issues.
Now with the exit of the editor—who built ABP’s unique programming structure, accommodated journalists with different ideologies, trained young journalists with in-house programmes, and was known for backing his reporters—the management needs to respond to a flurry of questions. And above all, there is a question looming over the media industry: to what extent can news channels, media organisations and reporters can hold power to account? And for how long?