In 2002, writing one of his weekly columns, Chandan Mitra recalled how his father had gifted him a ceiling fan in the early 1970s. At the time, Mitra was an undergraduate student of economics at St Stephen’s College in Delhi. His column wasn’t a nostalgic trip but put in context the evolving ways in which the urban middle class was coping with the summer.
Mitra intermittently reflected on slice-of-life themes and the social milieu of his times. It isn’t surprising that in an anniversary issue of Outlook, he recalled a piece on the changes in the idea of a drawing room in middle class households as one of the more striking write-ups he had read in the magazine. A slightly older generation might also remember his mid-1990s piece on the portrayal of rains in Indian cinema or, a decade later, his reflections on the emergent notes in Hindi film music.
These were worthy detours from his prolific contributions as a political commentator and as one of the very few erudite editors in India’s news media. A late foray into politics – as a Rajya Sabha MP and a member of the BJP and TMC at different points of time – did mean that the frequency of his writings had to contend with regular panel appearances on TV news channels. The demands of political engagement meant that the latter claimed more of his time, much to the loss of his more rounded take in the written word.
He was a useful face in TV studios for both the political parties he had joined: the BJP, which nominated him to the Rajya Sabha in 2003 and got him elected as an MP from Madhya Pradesh in 2010; and the TMC, which he joined as late as 2018. He was supposed to have the suitable institutional pedigree to carry the heft in TV studios, particularly the English news media.
Schooled at La Martiniere in Kolkata, graduating from St Stephen’s Delhi and then a DPhil in history from Oxford University, Mitra’s credentials and the generation in which they were earned opened many doors. To add to that, his entry to what is called Lutyens’ Delhi was made smoother by the fact that he rose to top editorial positions in leading English news dailies like the Statesman, the Times of India, Hindustan Times and, finally, the Pioneer.
You also saw him engage in Old Boys’ Stephanian banter with political opponents. In a TV debate, for instance, fellow Stephanian Mani Shankar Aiyar took a light-hearted potshot at Mitra with the one-liner, “Journalists are people who either flunked or funked civil services examinations.” Even while being a critic of the old order in Delhi, his access to the entrenched elite, or their gatekeepers, made him an asset for both a national party like the BJP and later a regional force like the TMC.
From his campus days to newspaper offices and finally active politics, Mitra’s ideological evolution had different strands. He moved from his Marxist ideological leanings in the campus to a more sympathetic interpreter of the right-of-centre stream in Indian politics. His doctoral research on the political mobilisation in eastern Uttar Pradesh and Bihar (1936-42) at Oxford had hints of the arc that he would follow in his political persuasions. In the years to follow, his understanding of the Ayodhya movement and the historical processes of neglect that underpinned and galvanised it was one of the few dissenting voices in the mainstream English press almost three decades ago.
Besides that, it was in the late 1980s and throughout the 1990s that his political commentary found national readership in the Times of India and Hindustan Times, almost a decade and a half after he had joined the Statesman as an assistant editor.
By the turn of this century, his political leanings and the BJP’s search for a suave and scholarly face in parliament and TV debates had drawn him close to the LK Advani camp. He was nominated to the Rajya Sabha in 2003 and, seven years later, the BJP again filled one of its MP seats in the upper house by getting him elected.
It was perhaps his proximity to the Advani camp that cost him any significant role when the Narendra Modi-led party was voted to power at the centre in 2014. It is believed that the fact that Advani had opposed Modi’s projection as the party’s PM face had made it difficult for his acolytes in the party to get any substantial role. Moreover, Mitra failed to win the Hooghly Lok Sabha seat in the 2014 poll, his sole attempt at seeking the popular vote. While to the TMC in 2018, he said he had no bitterness against the BJP. He argued that the move was guided by getting back to the home state with the TMC, a party which was in a powerful position to do something in the state.
In the wider canvas of time, however, Mitra’s most enduring legacy would be his role in resurrecting the Pioneer from being reduced to the footnotes of the history of the Indian press. That would have been a pity, considering it’s the second oldest newspaper in India. After starting publication from Allahabad in 1865, the paper passed through different illustrious owners and editors to the verge of being shut down when the Thapar group had decided to cease its publications in a bid to cut its losses. With whatever resources and support he could get, Mitra bought its ownership and the paper was saved. He later invited other investors too.
Besides being a newspaper of historical value, Pioneer remains a paper which could count two Nobel laureates as part of its staff: Winston Churchill as a war correspondent in the 1890s and Rudyard Kipling who joined it as a sub-editor and later reported from Shimla and Calcutta. As a key news register of what is now Uttar Pradesh in pre-independence days, Mitra’s role in not letting the paper fade away into oblivion can be appreciated in how English dailies based in Bihar in the pre-independence era lost the battle of survival to big national players. The Pioneer, with its limited and niche readership, continues to be a multi-edition paper now.
Almost a decade ago, the paper was at the forefront of investigative reporting on the 2G scam. While the vagaries of his late entry to politics might not have been to Mitra’s liking, he could take pride in preserving one of the hoary mastheads of the Indian press.
In today’s news media space of shrinking attention spans and clickbait-driven priorities, Chandan Mitra reminded one of a rare breed of scholarly editors. His forays into party politics straddled the ideological evolution of his worldview and his pragmatism. However, his lasting imprint would always be the sense of history he carried in retrieving a newspaper from the danger of extinction. In doing so, his early training as a young historian found a meaningful purpose.