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Frontline relaunched

Print edition : Oct 19, 2012 T+T-

The relaunch function in New Delhi, attended by eminent Indians, underlined the magazines desire to expand its niche while retaining its serious content.

Frontline

IT was sheer coincidence though a slight disruption of plans that the relaunch of Frontline took place on a day the political opposition in the country had collectively called a Bharat bandh against a slew of economic reforms initiated recently by the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government at the Centre. With the move, the Centre intended to take concrete steps to deregulate sectors such as the media, civil aviation, retail trade and petroleum and oil, policies that Frontline has been consistently critiquing because of their significant impact on the common people.

It seemed only topical that the magazine, which had been launched in December 1984 against the backdrop of Indira Gandhis assassination and the anti-Sikh riots that followed, reinvented itself at a time when political and economic upheavalsa result of the anti-corruption movement spearheaded by Anna Hazare, the introduction of one of the largest set of reforms since 1997, and a series of scamshave put the Union government on the back foot.

The magazine was relaunched at an event held on September 20, at the India Habitat Centre, New Delhi. Vice-President Hamid Ansari released the new Frontline and eminent early India historian Romila Thapar received the first copy from him. Congress general secretary Digvijay Singh and renowned economist Prabhat Patnaik were to discuss a topic that is most pertinent as independent India celebrates its 65th year: The Constitutions mandate: Whither sovereignty, socialism, secularism, and democracy?

Prominent Marxist literary theorist and political scientist Aijaz Ahmad was also present to share his thoughts on the relevance of a magazine like Frontline in Indian media in contemporary times. While ambassadors, bureaucrats, eminent academics, journalists and civil society activists attended the event, many political leaders, who could not come because of the bandh, registered their presence by sending their wishes to the new Frontline.

Communist Party of India (Marxist) general secretary Prakash Karat praised the magazines commitment to detailed information and objective empirical enquiry. In a message to the Editor, he said: It has taken a clear stand against communalism and the politics of social divisiveness, and against the socio-economic distress and loss of national sovereignty and economic manoeuvrability that are the consequences of the current policies of neoliberalism. The relaunch of Frontline would naturally involve some innovations, but what everyone expects is a continuation of the tradition of serious journalism and long-form articles, which Frontline is known for.

Senior Bharatiya Janata Party leader L.K. Advanis comment was striking. He praised the brand of journalism that Frontline stands for. One striking feature of the magazine has been the comprehensiveness of the coverage and the objectivity in analysis. This stream of journalism came naturally to Frontline, since it was essentially taking forward the traditions of The Hindu, a newspaper that had played a stellar role as an opinion-maker right from the days of the independence struggle and continued to do it through the six and a half decades of independent India. I hope that the redesigned Frontline would continue to reflect these best traditions of journalism and strengthen them even as it seeks to reach out to newer generations, said Advani.

In a message to the Editor, Defence Minister A.K. Antony said, Over the years, The Hindu and Frontline have largely adopted an objective, balanced and a fair approach in reporting and analysing various issues and events. Over the years, Frontline has built for itself a reputation as a magazine that discusses issues from a holistic, in-depth and a balanced perspective. I wish the relaunch of Frontline magazine all success and hope that the debate will be well-attended and come up with new ideas and suggestions.

Noting that Frontline is the only magazine to cover issues of politics, science, and social turmoil comprehensively, Samajwadi Party leader Mulayam Singh Yadav wrote in his letter: After the year 1990, when communalism became the biggest challenge in Indian politics, it was Frontline that took up socio-economic issues most extensively. Its strength is in its secular values. Despite being an English magazine, it has great value in Hindi-speaking States because of its credibility. And I am also greatly influenced by it.

Expanding the niche

Dedicated readers of the magazine, who remained sceptical of the changes that the new Frontline would incorporate, warmed up to the fact that it retained its serious character and was a generous mix of well-researched articles and stories with an improved design. The Editor of the magazine, R. Vijaya Sankar, put it aptly while giving his vote of thanks: Frontline is a niche magazine. The idea is to expand the niche, and not to break it. In the same vein, N. Ram, former Editor-in-Chief of The Hindu and Frontline, divulged the motivation behind the relaunch: We want to be lively while being serious.

Inaugurating the ceremony, Arun Anant, Chief Executive Officer of The Hindu group of publications, said that Frontline had the potential to reach a much wider readership. The idea was to put it on the global map, and that, he said, would be done without compromising on its rigorous editorial standards, its unique selling point.

Frontline and its stories evoke nostalgia in many of its readers, and the relaunch underlined this. Panel members recollected their association with the magazine by narrating personal anecdotes or mentioning important investigative stories published in Frontline over the past 27 years. N. Ram recalled that Frontline was born not with a well-sketched or well-thought-out plan but because the then Editor of The Hindu, G. Kasturi, had secured the most advanced colour press from Japan. Frontline started as an all-colour magazine in October 1984, covering significant issues concerning India and the world.

N. Ram reminisced about the Vice-Presidents long association with the magazine and how he was one of its most valued columnists on West Asian affairs. He rounded up his speech thus: Frontline is one of its kind. It never believed in compromising its content. It has respected long-form journalism and it values freedom of expression and social responsibility equally. It had made no contention about its pro-people, secular, and progressive views.

Aijaz Ahmad praised Frontline profusely: I remember a Canadian professor of Political Science who found a copy of Frontline in an Air India flight from London to New York long time back. She told me that no airline carries a magazine of such intellectual depth and calibre. We have to keep in mind that Frontline is a news magazine and then judge its value. It has neither any rival nor any counterpart in the English-speaking world. I am sure that the new Frontline will live up to the great legacy that it inherits.

Digvijay Singh hoped that the new avatar of Frontline would cater better to the younger generations who probably find its content very heavy. While maintaining that it was one of the best magazines in the country, he said the serious journalism that Frontline promotes by its own example should also keep in mind the shrinking attention span of readers today and highlight relevant issues in a more reader-friendly way.

Vice-President Hamid Ansari reiterated the need for more such magazines in this era of real-time news defined by the breaking news syndrome. There remains a real and popular demand for serious publications on topical issues which cannot be substituted by the breaking news culture and short-attention-span snippets in the domain of the electronic media, he said. Despite the incursion of the audio-visual media, he noted that the demand for serious journalism, as exemplified by Frontline, remained.

He said as a dedicated reader he had been sceptical about the changes that the new Frontline would usher in. I may be forgiven for admitting that I am moderately conservative and tolerably radicalconservative in habits and radical in thinking. For this reason, I was less than enthused with the suggestion that I attend todays relaunch function. I could not help recalling the old maxim, Dont fix what is not broke. To me personally, Frontline has always been a stimulant to the mind, apart from providing good reading on most matters that I care to spend time on, the Vice-President said.

Space for dissent

Frontline has consistently carried the most relevant issues of contemporary polity, and it is for this reason that it has delved deep into not only Indian realpolitik but also contemporary world issues, debates in the academia and peoples movements like no other magazine. Romila Thapar, who received the first copy, reiterated this point. Frontline not only contains information, but also analysiswhich is important because it forces people to think, she said. She added that Frontline is the only magazine that has given space, in its journalism, to dissent, the alternative view, and most importantly, have followed up two most important issues of the Indian polity: secularism and communalism.

Citing an example of Frontlines commitment to serious, secular journalism, she recalled that the magazine had published an article disproving the Hindutva Parivars claims that horses existed in the Harappan civilisation. Frontline, in its Cover Story titled Horse-play in Harappa, exposed the history writing that suggested the existence of horses in Harappa as completely ahistorical and lacking in academic rigour. The larger story behind such history is political. The efforts to establish horses in Harappa were only to justify the Hindu right wings theory that Aryans were from the Indian subcontinent, and not central Asia as proven by many historians of repute, Romila Thapar told the audience.

The relaunch was followed by a debate on The Indian Constitutions mandate: Whither sovereignty, socialism, secularism and democracy? The debate had representation from various shades of political opinion. Digivijay Singh and Prabhat Patnaik were the speakers in the debate moderated by N. Ram.

Prabhat Patnaik flagged off the debate by highlighting the fact that the 1931 Karachi Congress resolution had laid down a vision for post-colonial India. He focussed on the question of whether independent India had shown respect for the implicit social contract outlined in the resolution. The Karachi resolution spoke of universal adult franchise, civil liberties, equality before law, neutrality of the state in religious matters and an end to the exploitation of the starving millions. Patnaik argued that the Indian state had reneged on this social contract, especially with respect to economic freedom.

Patnaik said that the embrace of neoliberal economic policies had led to a complete abandonment of the concept of social contract. For some years before and post-Independence, there was some emphasis on the need to do away with inequality. Gandhis conception of a fraternity was essentially a fraternity of equals. Indira Gandhis move to nationalise banks was also a step in the direction of removing inequalities. However, with the onslaught of neoliberal economic policies, giving free rein to private enterprises is seen as the only way of achieving growth. It is assumed that growth will lead to a trickle-down effect of removing poverty. The inequality seen as a result is not even regarded as a violation of the social contract, Patnaik said. He also explained how the withdrawal of support from the state on all fronts had led to an enormous increase in inequality. He located the rise of identity politics in the context of rising inequality and stressed the need to universalise certain minimum rights such as the right to a decent standard of living and free and compulsory education.

Digvijay Singh highlighted the challenges to secularism in the Indian polity in the face of the rise in religious fundamentalism. He said that efforts to impose the religious beliefs of one group over another led to a defeat of the ideals of secularism. The spread of communally charged schools and the use of social networking sites to spread communalism constitute an instance of how the evil of communalism is spreading fast among young people, he said.

Referring to the social contract outlined by Patnaik earlier, Digvijay Singh said the present government had been proactive in respecting the foundations of the social contract. The idea of a right to food security, and universal employment through the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act, are all steps in this direction. The NREGA has enhanced minimum wages given to labour and led to a reduction in migration of labour in several States. The quality of teaching in government schools has to be improved for free and compulsory education to be a success. For the idea of national health services to be successful, the issue of proper utilisation of funds allocated by State governments has to be looked into.

Regarding globalisation of the economy, Digvijay Singh questioned if it was possible to insulate the country from the latest advances in technology. Can we keep our country away from technology? In the realm of information technology, our own companies have become multinationals.

The debate was followed by a question-and-answer session with the audience.