The sloganeering is absent, and candidates hop from one table to another to discreetly hand out pamphlets. In stark contrast to the , the campaign for the annual polls at Delhi’s Press Club of India appears to be lacklustre this year, despite a list of unfulfilled promises.
There is no “right-wing” challenger this time as the club in Lutyens Delhi prepares to hold elections on Saturday – for the posts of five office-bearers and 16 managing committee members.
Elections at the club, which has an annual revenue of Rs 10 crore and is managed by annually elected functionaries, are usually contested between panels.
But the governing panel, seen as a leftist liberal clique in charge since 2010, is facing a “weak” challenge from another panel for only four of the five office-bearer posts this year. It is up against only individual candidates for seven other posts, including six of the 16 in the managing committee.
This year, the governing panel has passed the baton to independent journalist Gautam Lahiri while the challenging panel is led by senior journalist Prashant Tandon.
For the position of vice president, independent candidate Pramod Sharma will contest without any panel’s support against NDTV managing editor Manoranjan Bharti, who is part of the Lahiri panel.
Besides Manoranjan Bharti, other candidates part of the panel include Probe editor Niraj Thakur for secretary general, Wire journalist Mahtab Alam for joint secretary and News Nation’s Mohit Dubey for the post of treasurer.
On the other hand, the challenging panel led by Prashant Tandon includes Pradeep Srivastava for the post of general secretary, KVNSS Prakash for joint secretary, and Rahil Chopra for the post of treasurer.
The elections are scheduled for September 23, yet on September 18 and 19, more than half the club seemed deserted.
"This election is one-sided. The opposition is absent. Those who are contesting against the ruling panel were once part of the same panel,” said a senior journalist associated with a national English daily.
The absence of a “right-wing” panel has triggered speculation about the possible reasons: some point to repeated failures, others claim they are backing one of the panels.
In 2021 and 2022, a panel including senior journalists Pallavi Ghosh, Sanjay Basak, Santosh Thakur and Sudhir Ranjan Sen had failed to secure victory.
“They have now left the battlefield. They realised that they couldn't defeat us,” claimed senior journalist Dhirender Jha, who supports the panel led by Lahiri.
A member of the club’s management committee claimed that the panel may not be contesting the elections but “may back the weaker panel”.
Reached for comment, Sanjay Basak said there was no specific reason for the panel not contesting the elections this time. “Office has started, and we are all busy with work.”
A ‘weak’ challenger
There seems to be a lack of preparedness and unity in the challenging panel.
Until September 20, the Tandon panel was yet to come out with a manifesto.
“We were actually contesting individually and came together only after the nominations were approved. So, we are still working on it and will come out with it by tomorrow,” said a member of the challenging panel.
The panel’s members are hardly seen campaigning together. Their presidential candidate could not be seen on PCI premises on the first two days of the campaign, while other panel members were seen distributing pamphlets alone.
Rahil Chopra and Pradeep Srivastava campaigned alone in the courtyard.
At one point, Srivastava approached the ruling panel’s presidential candidate Gautam Lahiri to ask for his vote. “I am contesting for the position of joint secretary. Please vote,” Srivastava said. “Though I am contesting to lose, I will break your back this time,” he said, going on to ask for votes, returning four minutes later. “I can’t beg for votes with folded hands.”
Rift in the governing panel?
Even though the Lahiri panel is in a comfortable position, there has ostensibly been a rift within this camp. Umakant Lakhera, who has been president for the last two years, has not been seen in the club or campaigning for the panel.
While office-bearers dismissed Lakhera’s absence, attributing it to the latter's personal reasons, Newslaundry has learnt that there have been disagreements within the group over some management related issues over the last few months.
According to a member who is part of the governing panel, the rift began in December last year when other committee members opposed Lakhera’s proposal to outsource the club’s sanitation work to a company managing the same at the IANS building. Those who opposed the plan had cited “financial burden” and “labour rights”, claimed the member.
Newslaundry tried to reach Lakhera for comment, but his phone remained switched off.
Allegations and counter
Anil Chamaria, who is backing the Tandon-led panel, said the fight is against a nexus that has been controlling PCI for a long time.
“Here, a nexus has been formed. Those who are part of it contest elections after a gap of years. Gautam Lahiri, who has been the president twice before…(Manoranjan Bharti) won the elections in 2013. Last year, he became the vice-president and is now contesting again. What is it about the Press Club that some people are so entrenched? New people should have a chance. That’s why Prashant Tandon is in the field.”
On September 20, when Newslaundry met Tandon at the club, he levelled similar allegations. “Contesting elections should not become a career. It should be democratic for journalists. That’s why I decided to contest.”
Meanwhile, commenting on Chamaria’s allegations, a journalist supporting the Lahiri panel compared him to AAP leader Arvind Kejriwal. “For him, everyone except himself appears corrupt.”
A member of the PCI’s management claimed that the club’s revenue has only increased under the present committee. “There has been an increase of Rs 3 crore in PCI’s revenue under this management. The club’s employees are receiving their salaries and other benefits on time. A decade ago, when we took control of the management, the club was in debt.”
“As for allegations of corruption, the club operates as a company, and we submit annual reports. Everyone knows how satisfied the central government is with the Press Club. If there were any irregularities, would they have let us be?”
Gautam Lahiri said the club operates in a transparent manner. “Leave aside the past year; transparency has always been maintained here.”
What is more contentious is the fact that major promises made by the panels over the past two years have remained unfulfilled and reappear in the poll pamphlets each years – be it awards or fellowships for budding journalists,
Out of the 10 promises made in 2021, five major announcements, such as the pledge to launch the ‘Press Club of India Awards’, have remained unfulfilled.
In 2022 too, only seven of the 14 promises were fulfilled.
When Newslaundry asked incumbent secretary general Vinay Kumar about the promised awards, he blamed it on lack of funds. “To grant awards, we need financial support. This is our dream project. We made efforts to secure sponsors, but unfortunately we couldn't find any. Mumbai Press Club can easily secure sponsors from various companies, but we cannot take sponsors from all.”
In 2022, the ruling panel promised to start a fellowship program for journalists, launching a web magazine for the Press Club, organising science workshops for members' children, connecting job opportunities through LinkedIn, and conducting writing and editing workshops, among others.
However, all these promises, too, remain unfulfilled. “We had formed a committee to provide fellowships for young journalists from Northeast India under the name ‘Kalyan Barua’. However, we couldn’t proceed with it because we are facing a shortage of funds,” Kumar said.
Kumar then went on to recall the committee’s achievements.
“We have also done many things which were not promised in the manifesto. For example, Mahtab Alam conducted weekly discussions on books where eminent authors and journalists such as Geetanjali Shree and Hridayesh Joshi took part. For the first time, the Press Club collaborated with the IIC to organise talks. FTII was also roped in to provide training. A total of 100 events took place in PCI during this panel’s tenure. I don't think such a volume of events or work has happened under any other panel.”