A lot more than revelry and banter goes down between drinks at the Press Club of India, a 62-year-old institution that occupies one of Lutyens Delhi’s premier addresses – 1, Raisina Road. For a couple of weeks, two groups camp in the outer courtyard of the club, strategically seated at its either ends, puffing cigarettes, munching peanuts, and meditating on what is to be done. They are journalists locked in a fierce battle to run the club, which boasts an annual revenue of more than Rs 9 crore, with nearly 4,200 active journalist members, 900 associate members, and a few dozen corporate members.
The Press Club, or PCI, will hold one of its most contentious elections in recent years on April 10. On one hand is the panel that has been in charge since 2010, seen as a leftist-liberal clique, with not many familiar names in journalism. On the other is a panel with more working journalists, picked from better known media organisations, but who are accused of not being liberal enough.
The PCI was founded in 1959, and boasts legendary journalist Durga Das as its first president. Decades ago, one could spot the likes of Rajesh Khanna, Rishi Kapoor, or Sunil Dutt swilling a peg with journalists at one of its tables, and politician Atal Bihari Vajpayee walking in casually from his residence across the road. It has been, as its website notes, “a meeting point for the journalists” in the heart of Delhi’s political and bureaucratic habitat.
The entrance to the Press Club of India in Delhi.
“The club’s prestige has waned significantly over the years,” says a member who has been around since the 1970s. “I’ve seen a steady decline. And I think petty and ugly politics among journalists is the main reason for it.”
The upcoming election has inherited this bad blood. Last month, journalist Pallavi Ghosh, an editor at CNN News18, alleged that a forged letter under her name was sent to the club’s election commission to request the withdrawal of her candidature. Ghosh, who claimed to be in Bengal at the time, tweeted there was pressure on her to withdraw with “daily calls and warnings”. She even wrote to the Delhi police and requested an investigation.
Ghosh is running for the position of vice president for the challenger panel aiming to dethrone the incumbent committee. Sanjay Basak, bureau chief at Asian Age, is the panel’s candidate for president, Santosh Thakur of Navabharat the secretary general, and Sudhi Ranjan Sen of Bloomberg the treasurer. The 16 hopefuls for managing committee include Praveen Jain of the Print, Nitin Sethi of the Reporters’ Collective, and Poonam Agarwal of the Quint.
The panel in power is passing the baton to former Hindustan journalist Umakant Lakhera, its candidate for president, with United News of India’s Vinay Kumar and Doordarshan’s Jyotika Grover as secretary general and treasurer, respectively. Swati Mathur and Anindya Chattopadhyay of the Times of India are among the candidates running for the managing committee.
The challenger and incumbent panels contesting the upcoming election.
How friends do politics
Journalists on both panels describe each other as friends who only happen to be contesting from opposing sides. Once this is over, they say, we’ll sit around the same table and drink. But poked long enough, and there’s politicking aplenty.
Speaking to Newslaundry last week, Lakhera described the challenger panel as a “splinter group” that is inventing scandals to postpone a losing election. The volley is really aimed at Sudhi Ranjan Sen, who was part of the managing committee running the PCI until last year, but was pushed out after a row erupted during the lockdown.
Nadeem Ahmed Kazmi, who has twice been the club’s secretary general, and supports the Lakhera panel, explained the fracas. “In the middle of the pandemic, Sen and his cohort of defence reporters would sit at the managing committee from 10 am to 10 pm,” Kazmi fumed. “They’d just fool around. The air conditioner would be running all day. We asked him and his buddies to not be a burden, and that miffed him.”
The fooling around was only a part of the problem. Kazmi said that many found the defence beat clique suspect. “They are close to the government, do ‘vomit reporting’ on its behalf,” he said. “Sen himself is liberal, but co-option is a technique this government has mastered. And the press club is the last frontier of dissent under this regime.”
A member of the Lakhera panel, who admitted that her colleagues had launched a “whisper campaign” to paint their rivals as pro-BJP, put it tersely: “We do not want Doval’s influence here.”
Santosh Thakur, the rival camp’s candidate for secretary general, is also a target. In February, he wondered on Twitter why Delhi’s Mughal Gardens were not “named after an Indian freedom fighter or a word associated with any Indian season or Indian tradition”. He tagged prime minister Narendra Modi, home minister Amit Shah and Congress’s Rahul Gandhi, coaxing them to “think once in this direction”.
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Such intellectual gymnastics turned Thakur saffron in the eyes of not just his rivals but also his liberal peers. The running joke is that PCI will be renamed “Deen Dayal Upadhyaya Kalam Dawat Sansthan” if his panel were to be elected. Thakur’s platform is also a source of anxiety – the secretary general is the most powerful individual on a club committee, akin to a chief executive officer. Regardless of the liberals on his panel, the idea of a rightwing secretary general does not comfort many.
Thakur is also a member of the information and broadcasting ministry’s journalist welfare committee. He told Newslaundry that he was one of its five members “chosen” by the government. During the pandemic, he claimed, he persuaded the ministry to deliver compensation of Rs 5 lakh each to families of 39 journalists who lost their lives to Covid.
The challenger panel argues that this is precisely why Thakur is important. “It is not his views that should matter,” a fellow candidate told us. “But his utility: what he can do for this club and its journalist members.”
But views do matter. Take, for instance, what Ghosh Boom earlier this month in a discussion on the club election. “We cannot be in a confrontation with the government or a political party,” she said. “We can question them, yes...There should be co-existence. We need to work together.” Ghosh’s logic was that since many club members cover the government and meet ministers on a daily basis, their relationship with the state could not be permanently acrimonious.
The other camp scoffs at this position, arguing that with such views, Ghosh’s election would set the club on a road to serfdom.
The challenger panel only has disdain for the label game. “Branding others as pro-BJP is a losing sign,” said Basak, who was persuaded to run for president by friends, many his own reporters. “They should rather focus on the issues that impact the club, for which they haven’t done much.”
Sen, with a cigarette habitually clinging from his lips, nodded.
The Basak-Ghosh-Thakur plank is the following: the club is run by has-been scribes who are “beyond the pensionable age”. It needs younger working journalists who can rebuild the institution’s heft and energise it with debate and discussion on burning issues.
“This place is wanting to be a Ferrari with the making of an Ambassador car,” Sen told us on the other end of the club courtyard. “It is old and gone.”
The panel’s members also say that the incumbent committee is not without its pro-BJP sympathies. Lakhera, for instance, was once a to BJP’s BC Khanduri when he was chief minister of Uttarakhand.
They add that the club management’s accountability leaves a lot to be desired – the allocation of the resources here is not transparent. In addition, female journalists need more representation. According to a PCI insider, of the 4,200 active journalist members, only 400-500 are women. (Ironically, only three of the 21 candidates on this panel are women; the other camp has five. This panel also has only one non-Hindu candidate; the other has four.)
In conversation, members of the challenger panel inevitably drop the word “revolutionary” to describe the change they’ll bring about. Their manifesto promises the following within a year of election: “free food delivery in media houses within a radius of 5 km”; “a weekly ladies night”; fellowships for “colleagues from Dalit, Tribal and other disadvantaged communities”; a sexual harassment committee with “time-bound redress of complaints”; a “Covid emergency fund” for PCI staff and members.
The fault in our liberal stars
A little scrutiny reveals that the supposedly left-liberal incumbents might be throwing stones to hide their hands. Their accusations of Sangh takeover do not gel well with their own imperfect credentials.
Sanjay Singh, a media aide to Uttar Pradesh chief minister Adityanath, has been rallying support for the Lakhera panel. Newslaundry accessed Whatsapp chats showing Singh forwarding the panel’s campaign poster to other members. On Facebook, Singh the panel’s campaign video too.
A sexagenarian who’s been frequenting the club since the 80s told Newslaundry that he has recently seen Singh hold meetings at the club where he “advertised for the party”.
Press club documents show that the UP government is a corporate member at PCI. An insider confirmed that it received membership during Adityanath’s tenure, and is the only state government to enjoy the privilege. While the incumbent committee sells itself as the last bastion of dissent, it is awkward that it would hand membership to a state government for crushing press freedom.
On paper, a corporate membership at PCI comes with an annual fee of Rs 20,000, with membership to any two representatives – without voting rights. Singh, we learnt, is not a representative but an individual member. His Facebook profile throws up a picture of him in “a meeting of the Press Club of India” with union minister Ravi Shankar Prasad. Seated beside him is Lakhera’s secretary general candidate Vinay Kumar.
When we rang Singh, he claimed that he wasn’t an advisor to Adityanath but the Delhi media manager in UP government’s public relations cell. He added: “I do not believe that the UP government is a corporate member at the press club.”
A journalist who has been part of the club’s governing committee many times over the years told us that corporate memberships are often used by brands to build monopolies at the institution, in exchange for below the table commissions to committee members. This explains why one can avail a brand of whiskey at the club but not its competitor brand.
For the three days we spent reporting at the club, our requests for Coca Cola were half-fulfilled with a bottle of Pepsi. We do not have Coke, sir, became the familiar apology. PepsiCo too is a corporate member at the PCI.
Other corporate members of the club include Reliance Industries, Tata Consultancy, Tata steel, Tata Services, ITC, DLF, GMR Infrastructure, Fortis Healthcare, Nestle India, Amway India, Mangalore Refinery and Petrochemicals, Godfrey Phillips India, State Trading Corporation.
PCI secretary general Anant Bagaitkar told Newslaundry that the commission-for-monopoly claim was a “disinformation campaign”. “It all depends on the demand side,” Bagaitkar explained. “Even for liquor brands, if one brand is not selling well, we make it secondary. So if Coke is not in popular demand, and people are buying Pepsi, we’ll make the latter available. We have a bar committee for it.”
Kazmi brushed aside the allegations of financial wrongdoings at the club. “PCI is registered under the Companies Act,” he said. “We have to audit our finances and file balance sheets and other documents regularly. Everything is transparent.”
On April 1, the liberal vanguard of the press club allowed Yati Narsinghanand Saraswati, the of a Ghaziabad temple, to hold a press conference on its premises. Two days later, videos of the event went viral, showing the priest lashing out at Muslims and Islam. Saraswati called Islam “filthy” and its Prophet a “dacoit”, adding that if “Muslims come to know about Muhammad’s reality, they will be ashamed to call themselves Muslims.”
The police booked the priest for promoting enmity between religious groups and outraging religious feelings.
Vijay Kumar, a journalist fighting independently for a managing committee position in the upcoming election, told Newslaundry that he had booked the room for the priest. “I have been a follower of his for a long time,” Kumar said. “He had requested me to avail the press club space for a religious congregation so that it would save him money. I’m not aware of the things he said there.”
The club’s management did not tolerate Saraswati because of a belief in free speech. Or it would not have a group of activists from sharing videos from Kashmir days after the erstwhile state’s autonomy was removed by the Narendra Modi government in 2019.
A history of petty, shady politics
Why does the press club election matter so much to those who run for it? A journalist who served on the PCI committee a couple of decades ago explained that the club's raison d'etre was that it represented scribes across India. “But that has gone now,” he said. “It is now an adda for journalists who do not have proper jobs or are freelancers. Once they stop serious work, they start running their shops by doing politics at the club.”
He added that the allure of the club committee was better access to the government and profits. “It started out in the 1950s to help reporters who were poorly paid then,” the journalist said. “But it has strayed from its ideals. Panels now spend lakhs on one election. Why would they do that if not in the hope of getting better returns?”
Another old member explained that the anxieties around party sympathies and lack of transparency have been a constant feature at the club. “The groups are always divided between pro-Congress, pro-BJP and pro-Communist,” he noted. “And once a leadership is out of power, the other committee wrecks everything the previous management did, however good or beneficial.”
The journalist gave the example of a gym that a management had set up at the club about a decade ago. When it was voted out, the facility fell upon bad times. The new committee had little interest in maintaining what its rivals had bestowed.
The state of the Press Club’s gym.
Journalist Narendra Bhalla told an anecdote to illustrate the club’s history of shady operations. During the third Vajpayee government, when Ram Jethmalani served as the minister for urban affairs, the press club was allocated space at 7, Raisina Road, which now houses the National Media Centre. It was going to be the new press club, since 1, Raisina road, was struggling to house all the members.
“We had been winning elections for 8 or 9 years, but we lost the election in 1999,” Bhalla recalled. “When the new committee came, it did not use the lawns of that property for media functions. Instead, they were rented away for weddings for Rs 15,000. The committee was making money out of it.”
Later that year, Jagmohan replaced Jethmalani as the urban affairs minister. “I used to cover the parliament back then,” Bhalla said. “And during a session one day, Jagmohan told me he had served a notice to the press club to vacate the new building since it was not being used for media functions. The president and secretary general did not reply to the notice. They instead went to I&B minister Sushma Swaraj which angered Jagmohan even more.”
The warning soon turned into reality. Weeks later, the Central Public Works Department threw out the press club’s property out on Raisina Road. “It was like eviction in slums,” Bhalla mused. “We lost an opportunity for a better property because of their tomfoolery.”
Ten years later, when the Congress was in power, another press club committee went to the party chief Sonia Gandhi, and 7, Raisina Road was coveted once again. Gandhi agreed to set aside a few lakhs from the party fund for the project. Glad, the press club gifted her an honorary membership. “But once again,” bemoans a journalist aware of the episode, “the rival faction to Indian Express and Times of India that Sonia was getting involved in PCI politics. She renounced her membership and we lost the money and the building.”
Sonia Gandhi’s honorary press club membership. Picture courtesy the Indian Express
In a similar fashion, infighting scuttled ambitious plans to start annual press club awards in the late 1990s. A liquor baron based in Britain had proposed to fund the award, and the club had finalised its fineprint. To attract attention, the committee decided to announce the awards at a press conference, where two journalists would win VIP tickets – financed by the baron – to the cricket World Cup final at Lord’s in London through a lottery. Soon, the president and the secretary general were at each other’s throats over the selection of jury members. The dismayed baron pulled out, and months later, the secretary general was seen in the VIP box at Lord’s with his mistress.
In 1993, the press club expelled journalist Arvind Kala for writing against its members. “I simply wrote in the Pioneer – then edited by Vinod Mehta – that the waiters at the club were more sophisticated than its members,” Kala told us over the phone. “It had become a den of drunkards. I was thrown out by the committee for writing this. The case went to the high court and Kapil Sibal represented me. I was voluntarily reinstated a year later.”
In the archives of the Sunday magazine, we found a reader’s letter on Kala’s expulsion that raised questions many members, old and new, still ask of the club. “If the press club itself behaves this way, is it any wonder that our politicians, with their vested interests, treat reporters the way they do?” wrote Debashis Sen from Calcutta, now Kolkata. “How is the press club different from these people, if they go all out in muffling a journalist’s free expression?”
A letter to the editor on Kala’s expulsion from the Press Club. Picture courtesy Sunday magazine
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