Even as the Trinamool Congress’s polls strategist Prashant Kishor’s “leaked chat” created quite a stir on Twitter and the national media, it failed to generate a similar excitement in the Bengali media. The media in the state remained focussed on the , in which five persons were killed on polling day, and high-profile rallies by the prime minister and the chief minister in the state.
Early morning on Saturday, April 10, Amit Malviya, the BJP IT Cell head, recorded from an informal conversation between Kishor and a host of journalists on Clubhouse the previous evening. In the clips, Kishor was heard acknowledging Bharatiya Janata Party as a formidable force in West Bengal and Modi as hugely popular, as much as chief minister Mamata Banerjee. The Modi cult and polarisation will go in the BJP’s favour even as it will get the most votes from Hindi-speakers and Dalits in the state, he was heard saying in the Clubhouse chat.
Kishor also touched upon the anti-incumbency factor in the state and spoke of the politics of “Muslim appeasement” going on for the last 20 years.
Much of what he said about BJP, the principal opponent to the TMC in the ongoing Bengal assembly election, is not new. He said similar things, for example, in given to the Telegraph on March 21. But with Malviya saying “,” while tweeting the audio clips on a day that Bengal went to the fourth phase of its poll, the “leak” was bound to become an issue, and it did.
Several hashtags such as #Clubhouse, #ClubhouseLeaks, #PrashantKishor and #BrightWing trended the whole day and the national mainstream media reported it with fervour.
Bengali television media was quick to pick up the story. However, as the day progressed, the “leak” got drowned in the coverage of major events of the poll day. News came in that the central forces had gunned down four persons, while an 18-year-old first time voter was reportedly shot at by unidentified miscreants while he was caught in a clash between the TMC and BJP. This apart, prime minister Narendra Modi addressed a massive rally in Siliguri and chief minister Mamata Banerjee in Bongaon.
In its 10 am bulletin, News18 Bangla broadcast a high-voltage news segment headlining it with Amit Malviya’s claim: “BJP will win in Bengal.” Assistant editor Kamalika Sengupta appeared in the studio to clarify Kishor’s position, which Kishor had not tweeted until then. Sengupta said she had spoken exclusively to Kishor who told her that his statements were taken out of context. Presenting Kishor’s side of the story, she said the poll strategist told her that he was only responding to questions from journalists who wanted to know about the popularity of BJP in Bengal. News18 Bangla also interviewed TMC leader Saugata Roy who stood by Kishor and called Malviya a “manufacturer of lies”.
At 10.30 am, Kishor at 10.30 am saying the BJP was “excited” by the “selective use” of parts of his conversation on Clubhouse. He reiterated that the BJP would not cross 100 seats in Bengal.
Kishor’s version was duly carried in all media reports. ABP Ananda but also carried Kishor’s clarifications and a phone interview of Saugata Roy, the party stood by Kishor.
On , the anchor read out the transcript of Kishor’s audio leaks and also incorporated bytes of BJP leaders Rajiv Banerjee and Babul Supriyo. The channel also played up the claim that “BJP is set to win in Bengal” and attributed it to Kishor, who had said in the purported chat that many people internally surveyed by the TMC had said they felt the BJP will form the government.
The only channel to buck the trend was , which gave extensive coverage to the story all through the day. The channel carried the live broadcast of the on the issue by Amit Malviya and Bengal BJP vice-president Jay Prakash Majumdar. Kishor’s “explosive” revelation was also the topic for debate on (Bengal wants to know), the Arnab Goswami-style panel discussion featuring eight talking heads.
In the print media
The matter was also reported by newspapers but they mostly stuck to reporting the facts and presenting all sides.
Ei Samay carried the story as a module on the , which contained only two stories, the other one being on the Covid crisis. Headlined “BJP exposes audio, debate rages”, the four-column spread contained an infographic presenting the quotes of Dola Mitra, Derek O’Brien and Saugata Roy from the TMC and Rajiv Banerjee, Babul Supriyo and Amit Malviya from the BJP.
Anandabazar Patrika carried the story as the lead on page eight with the headline “Controversy over PK’s audio tape”. Bartaman the story from Kishor’s angle with the headline: “Prashant Kishor challenges BJP to put out the recording of the entire discussion.” Uttarbanga Sangbad, the largest circulated daily in north Bengal, has a on the first page and the story was carried over eight columns on . Its banner headline said: “PK’s mid-poll audio clip causes Trinamool discomfort.”
Kishor’s audio clip might not have received much attention in the regional press, but the election in Bengal had taken off with a . At the start of the poll season, an audio clip purportedly of Mamata Banerjee seeking the help of low-rung BJP leader Pralay Pal, and another of BJP leaders Mukul Roy and Shishir Bajoria in conversation on ways to influence the Election Commission, were big media stories.
“PK’s audio clip was reported as a news story, but it got none of the attention that the earlier audio leaks had got because the polling day events were far bigger stories,” said a Kolkata-based senior political journalist with a Bengali daily, adding that the buzz around Kishor’s leaked audios is unlikely to make an impact on the upcoming phases.
He also hinted on the dependence of journalists on Kishor’s organisation, Indian Political Action Committee or I-PAC, which handles TMC’s media campaigns these days. “Be it press meets or election campaigns, or even a byte of a TMC leader, journalists have to depend on I-PAC for everything,” he said. “All events of the ruling party are handled by I-PAC. As a result, a ‘working relationship’ has developed between journalists and Kishor, and his team.”
TMC leader and MP Derek O Brien said the national media needs to introspect. “A Clubhouse audio with selective leaks is the subject of dozens of panel discussions on Delhi-Noida channels,” he told Newslaundry. “Yet, sadly, on the same evening the genocide in north Bengal is second lead. The media (and the owners) need to ask themselves a few searching questions.”
O’Brien told that the BJP should “release the entire audio tape”. “What state are they in?” he asked. “They will win no seats, or only one or two, in the fourth phase of the election. [That is why] they are trying to create confusion. BJP is becoming desperate.”
While O’Brien did not respond to Newslaundry’s question as to whether he thinks the controversy will impact the remaining phases of the election, he sent across a pre-recorded video address, where he said: “We are winning Bengal...Modi and Shah have got to know that money can buy you everything, power can buy you everything, but money cannot buy you love. Bengal loves Mamata.”