The Indian Women’s Press Corps will hold its annual election for the managing committee on Saturday, but its premises at Ashoka Road holds a quiet, relaxed look – much like most afternoons here – two days ahead of the event.
A woman in a pink blazer walks around while recording a live piece to camera on her phone, another sits in the garden next to a tripod, two enjoy refreshments in the sitting room, and one woman walks with a white and purple pamphlet in her hand that says “vote-support-elect”, with pictures of several contestants.
The calm at the club, however, contrasts the mood of the elections this year – with an eviction notice, and a legal overspill of an internal turmoil.
The polls are being held for the posts of president, two vice presidents, general secretary, joint secretary, treasurer and 21 managing committee members. There are only two panels running for elections this time - one led by incumbent president Shobhna Jain of Vision News of India and another by Pallavi Ghosh of CNN-News18.
Notice, internal turmoil, polarisation
The election week started with a fresh notice from the directorate of estates, under the ministry of housing and urban affairs, asking the IWPC to pay Rs 18.88 lakh for “unauthorised occupation” and failing to vacate the premises allotted to them by July 31 last year – a deadline specified in a notice about expiry of lease in May.
It was the third notice from the ministry over around 18 months indicating the IWPC’s impending eviction. The bungalow’s lease used to be renewed every few years, until 2021, when the first eviction notice was issued. Last year, in May, the directorate extended the deadline to July 31. The IWPC again sought a three-year extension, but the request was denied and a fresh notice issued this year.
Located in the capital’s most exclusive zone, the property was allocated to the journalist body in 1994 by the Congress government of PV Narasimha Rao.
Meanwhile, there is another episode that has featured in conversations during the poll campaign this time.
Earlier this week, a case was filed in the Delhi High Court by Supriya Satyam, an IWPC member, over the deletion of her name in the final list of candidates. Satyam, who wanted to contest the poll as part of the Pallavi Ghosh panel, demanded that the court either pass an order to set aside the IWPC elections or declare the result “null and void”.
Members Newslaundry spoke to also pointed to an increased polarisation of the panels and an unspoken “left vs right” campaign – even though candidates standing for elections denied being associated with any party.
A ‘save the club’ campaign and ‘lies’
The main agenda flagged by the opposing panel, led by Ghosh, is that if voted to power, they will be able to “save the club”. This was reflected in its manifesto, in the contestants’ social media campaign posts, and in their conversations with Newslaundry.
“We will find a way to ensure that the club stays,” said Ghosh. “There has been a complete breakdown in conversations between the government and the current managing committee. They take time to respond to notices from the government and haven’t made progress in discussions with them. But we will ensure dialogue with them so that we can save the club.”
According to her panel, the current managing committee - led by Shobha Jain - had been “lying” about sorting the matter out over the past year and had “allowed the club to slip away from us.”
Another journalist from the panel said that the management had not been transparent about who they were speaking to from the government while claiming that issues were being handled.
However, the current management says no stone has been left unturned, including discussions with union ministers Hardeep Puri and Anurag Thakur.
“There is a malicious campaign against us. We have done all that we could and more to figure out the lease. We do a lot of things but we don't sing about it,” said Jain, adding that the campaign was turning “dirty”.
Jain said they had responded to the latest notice by the government, and that the new committee will look into the matter of the lease.
The panel led by Jain calls itself the “inclusive, democratic, progressive” panel. Anju Grover is contesting the election for the post of general secretary, Parul Sharma and Suman Kansra for vice president, Preeti Mehra for treasurer, and Ashlin Mathew for joint secretary.
Their manifesto speaks of the activities they will organise, including discussions on media freedoms, skill enhancement workshops, cultural activities, and more. The other panel’s key promises, besides “saving the club,” include healthy meals at reasonable prices, group insurance cover, health camps, upgraded infrastructure, and more.
The panel led by Ghosh has Sunita Vakil standing for general secretary, Annapurna Jha and Poonam Mehta for vice president, Anjali Bhatia for treasurer, and Pragya Kaushika for joint secretary.
‘Doubts’ about poll process
Incumbent member Supriya Satyam’s name was part of the list of valid nominations that was put up on Saturday around 8.30 pm after scrutiny of forms. But an email from the returning officer at around 1 am dropped her name.
Satyam said that this raised “serious doubts in the manner in which the election process is being handled and conducted”. She told Newslaundry that she had to approach the court as the management committee did not properly answer her queries. “I am fighting because how can they remove my name like that, without even communicating? I have a right to know.”
While the court dismissed the case, she said she will “continue the fight” until she gets answers.
But others term it an unnecessary escalation.
“We may have differences or not see eye-to-eye, but never before in the 28-year-old history of the club has any matter like this been dealt with in court,” said T K Rajalakshmi, senior deputy editor at Frontline who is a four-time president and senior member of the IWPC. “Whatever be the nature of grievance, there are ways to find solutions within the electoral process.”
She said the IWPC polls never saw people make wild allegations and personal attacks. “But when discourse in the whole country has gone to a new low, it is not surprising that a section of the media in our country also has. Lease has never been an issue in the elections because it is contingent on the government. It should not be a precondition of elections.”
Several other journalists Newslaundry spoke to felt the campaign has gone too far this time, regardless of the panel they were supporting.
“This has gone beyond any decent discourse. Behind the doors, the panels are left vs right and politics has seeped in,” said a journalist.
Another journalist said it was “suspicious” that the notice from the ministry came days before the elections and that it reached the media before IWPC. “Someone pushed the ministry to this point, games are clearly being played. This election is all the more heated up as the right leaning panel has lost power in the last two elections.”
Meanwhile, with the campaign underway, candidates have been making calls to voters, and personalised posts and videos are being shared through WhatsApp, Twitter and email. Karishma Singh, a first time candidate, said she had called nearly 100 people that day to appeal for votes for the Ghosh panel.
“It is our home away from home,” she said. “We want to make it a more vibrant place.”