When those who report elections go to the polls!

JOURNALISTS IN THE city of Chandigarh, home to the governments of Punjab and Haryana as well as the Chandigarh Union Territory, have been in the throes of an exciting, adrenalin-pumping, competitive and no-holds-barred joust — the elections to the Chandigarh Press Club.

It is a travesty of our times that members of a community which reports on every aspect of life, from the extremely significant to the utterly trivial, haven’t considered it worth their while to report on themselves.

The elections to the Chandigarh Press Club, an annual affair, present an abridged version of Raag Darbari, possibly with an extended cast. 

These could have been an example to our politicians, or trade unionists, or bodies of teachers, doctors, nurses, secretariat employees and innumerable other organisations, about how to wage a fair fight, present your view point, canvass, blow holes into the opposition's arguments and carry the day with logic, an appeal to good sense and a higher moral cause. 

Alternatively, these could simply mirror every stratagem and cheap shot that a morally debauch politician could resort to in a Sri Lal Sukla magnum opus and, thus, vindicate the new normal of a sick society as the default setting.
The elections to the Chandigarh Press Club, an annual affair, present an abridged version of Raag Darbari, possibly with an extended cast. 
Chandigarh Press Club elections should have something to do with the idea of protecting and expanding space for the media and its practitioners to ply their craft with freedom, without fear, in an informed manner and with the onus of an awesome responsibility.

It should not have been so damn difficult, considering the fact that among members of this prestigious club are journalists of remarkable standing — men and women who have made the profession proud with their sheer cerebral power, guts, a proven ability to speak truth to power and dig in their heels when managements seemed buckling under pressure.

Time and again, they have risen to the occasion. They are the practitioners of this craft who inspire us today to write this missive.

It will be a no-brainer to point out the kind of stuff being churned out by the two rival panels vying to helm the club. We understand the material need to save on electricity expenses, the wish to opt for non-conventional sources of power and the endeavour to install compost machines or run a game of Tombola with even more enthusiasm, but need we remind everyone that this is a manifesto for the Chandigarh Press Club? Press Club? PRESS club? PRESS club?

Want is to press the point any further? We do have larger fonts, but you know it isn’t the font size that’s a problem.

A press club has a sort of passing acquaintance with what in normal parlance is called the media. 
To be fair, there are men and women in both panels who, we are sure, know all of this better than many others. In a different paradigm of competitive leadership, they would have played this game differently.
Compost machines are fine and snooker, carom and chess have never hurt anyone. Adventure tourism is a good thing, and from sorority girls to bored housewives to bank employees to street urchins to property dealers to journalists, everyone should partake in such activities. Compost is always a good idea, and a game of chess? Why not?

Except that such a manifesto could be of any Lions Club, Rabbits Club, Rotary Club, Gyratory Club, or Bored Husbands' Pastime Club.

Yes, the campaign has gone slick. We do learn from political parties, from backroom trolls, from a Ramya, from a Tharoor.

No one can deny the slickness involved in poster designs. But neither can one deny the problem with the modes of canvassing being adopted. In the electoral arena in India, from Parliament to Assembly to Panchayat to Student Union polls, we decry the role of big money. And then we fight elections in exactly the same manner. 

By extending lunch and dinner invitations — and we all know what such pow wows involve and cost — we, as a community, are setting a new normal. These are not hush-hush dinners, but lavish spreads. 
Yes, you can argue that these are exactly the occasions where journalists and those allied to the profession discuss the intrinsic merits and demerits of new social media's intersection and interfacing with mainstream media or the inherent strengths of crowd-sourced news reporting models, but you know what we discuss at these lunches and dinners.

We are not mentioning booze, because, seriously, do we even need to?

Cold calling journalists — who you either do not know much, or at all, or from whose work you have made serious effort to stay aloof — has emerged as apparently the most effective mode of campaigning. A senior journalist working with an English daily complained that he was called at 8 am by a rank stranger fellow hack who should have known what time desk hands go to sleep. 

To be fair, there are men and women in both panels who, we are sure, know all of this better than many others. They are professionals with a good standing. In a different paradigm of competitive leadership of the local journalists' community, they would have played this game differently.
Journalists are not the people anyone can or should tell what a better way of electioneering could have been, what possible goals they could have aimed for in their manifestoes. That's a job they are great at. The question is: are they doing it?
We also acknowledge that it is community service to opt to serve as an office bearer, since the job involves no pecuniary benefit, and is often thankless.

As you gather in that red brick building in Chandigarh's Sector 27 adorned by huge hoardings of liquor companies' surrogate advertisements and encounter journalists wooing and courting you a la panchayat elections, thrusting their little slips into your hands and showing you a sample copy of the ballot paper with their entire panel marked on one side, step back for a moment and think what they think of you. 

This is exactly how a hyper-active worker of the Akali Dal or the Congress gets an old, illiterate woman in a remote Mansa village to press that second button from top on the EVM machine. It is a sight to see the panna pramukhs of the media so enamoured with the practice of the most basic democratic right – balloting.

Journalists are not the people anyone can or should tell what a better way of electioneering could have been. That's a job they do. Journalists are not people anyone can or should tell what possible goals one or the other side could have aimed for in their manifestoes. That's a job they are great at.

The question is: are they doing it?

Press clubs punctuate the journalistic landscape in Punjab and Haryana, and the Chandigarh Press Club is a sort of lighthouse. It needs to set the bar so high every time that others are always aspiring to rise to match it.

Yes, "electricity bills amounting to lacks (sic)" may be saved with solar panels, and regular members of the club may find the idea of taking home Club Compost very tempting, but it would have been better if the manifesto drafting committee had paused at the word "sportsmanship" to discuss the deeply entrenched patriarchy in our language and promised to hold confabulations to discuss and debar such words, phrases and expressions from journalistic writing.

Promising what amounts to PRESS-marked health cards is to promise the creation of a new VIP category of patients to beat the queue at an OPD and get an appointment with the doctor before those we swore to work for. A promise to thrash the issue of social equity in hospital wards would have sounded better, but then only those who fight elections at a press club know what fetches votes.

That promise is a reflection of who we have become as a community.
In these times of Cambridge Analytica, nothing will ever  become raddi; not your slick posters, not your manifestos, not your WhatsApp messages. Not even the cctv footage of brawls being fought for, and what else could it be, press freedom. Ten years down the line, or 20 years, a bored professor of journalism looking for an interesting topic for a postgraduate thesis may opt for how journalists elected their representatives. You think that young student will not pore through the trove you are leaving behind?

You think he will not mention that when the journalistic community the world over was grappling with questions like who to call a journalist, whether Facebook is a media house or not, what ownership models of media are more aligned with democratic spaces, and how robust is the debate on cross ownership of media, here was a body of journalists discussing better ways of composting manure, or ensuring that no member is beaten up in the glare of cctv camera?

Are we afraid or not of what that kid will write in 2028, or 2038? If we are not, we are brave. There is another word for it, too.

Early this morning, a mail dropped in our inbox wherein a senior journalist talks of organising special lectures of reputed names in journalism, of continuing with similar endeavours and also about improving the menu at the restaurant. Now, that's what gives us hope. Yes, we would appreciate a more diverse menu, but more important things must remain the top priority.

A still bigger step will be for each of the panels to declare that they will try and adopt the entire positive agenda of the other panel if they win. 

A dream scenario will be for the press club anywhere to have individuals fighting elections, not panels, but as of now, that seems like a utopian idea. It happens when we set new normals. Party tonight?

(With contributions from four journalists working with other media houses. Full disclosure: All five people who wrote this collectively are men. A couple of points were included after a review of the draft article by a senior woman journalist. We are grateful for her efforts to sensitise the team. – Ed.)

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