When Hindi became telegenic

I think of 'SP' every time I face the question: "Are you the same man that appears on Aaj Tak?" I continue to face this question hundreds of times, years after my formal association with Aaj Tak is over. Not surprising, for Aaj Tak was for Hindi television news what Surf was for detergents or Xerox for photocopiers.

I think of him whenever anyone's Hindi credentials are mentioned with some respect in Delhi's charmed circles. Not so long ago, it was not enough to know English; it was equally important not to know any other Indian language. Failing in Hindi was a mark of honour. Being at ease with a desi language defined you out of the monolingual English-speaking power elite. This power equation has altered a bit in the last decade or so. Your station in life is still determined by how well you speak English, but knowing Hindi is no more a disqualification.

If we can credit one person with this shift, it must be Surendra Pratap Singh. 'SP' launched Aaj Tak, initially as a half an hour news bulletin on Doordarshan, and took it to its iconic status. Today everyone knows that the viewership of all the English news channels put together is but a small proportion of the Hindi viewership. For every big media house, their Hindi channel is the real money spinner. It appears quite logical, if you compare the number of English and Hindi speakers. But only ten years ago it was not so obvious. Hindi media was a distant and very poor cousin to the all-powerful English media.

SP set out to change this by adopting a fresh and bold approach. He broke ranks with the many devotees, servants and fanatics of Hindi. Instead of worshipping Hindi, he worked with it. He worked out a simple yet crisp Hindi for television, distinct from the stuffy language of the print media, without giving in to the pressures of Hinglish. He recognised that Hindi was not an endangered species waiting to be rescued by the faithful. Unlike his contemporaries who had a contempt for or fear of the market, SP built on the huge market potential of Hindi his confident Hindi did not need to be fanatic. He was perhaps the only Hindi journalist whose column was translated into English and carried by The Economic Times.

SP instilled professionalism in Hindi journalism. I was sitting by him when he received a call from a very powerful chief minister, complaining against an adverse personal report in the bulletin the day before. SP calmly replied that he was planning to use the story again that evening. And sure he did. When all of north India was celebrating Lord Ganesha's milk drinking feat, SP got a scientist to explain surface tension in the evening bulletin. He dragged me into television, after reading my articles in the Economic and Political Weekly, for he thought Hindi media needed election experts.

Yet his professionalism was not apolitical. A man of deep political convictions and a political animal to the core, SP held his own against the communal wave that threatened to drown the Hindi media. Unabashedly pro-Mandal, he translated his conviction by recruiting and training a large number of non-upper caste Hindu journalists.

The day I heard about the sudden announcement of Pratibha Patil's candidature, I surfed all the Hindi channels for more news about her. Her candidature was not important news for any of the prime-time bulletins. One leading channel had a special programme on how Rampur ka nawab was caught distributing sewing machines. There was a promo for a special programme on wife swapping. My mother shared my frustration: "ab to khabar ki channel par bhi khabar nahin dikhate". I thought of SP once again and wondered if Hindi television would still show all this if he was still around?

The writer is a political scientist at CSDS, New Delhi

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