THE Central government's decision to allow foreign direct investment (FDI) in the print media has, predictably enough, evoked sharp criticism from across the political spectrum. Not only the main Opposition parties such as the Congress(I) and the Left parties, but even the Bharatiya Janata Party's allies and Sangh Parivar members such as the Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh (BMS) and the Swadeshi Jagran Manch (SJM) have opposed the decision on the grounds that it will damage the country's political, intellectual and cultural fabric. They have announced protest programmes to force the revocation of the decision.
However, what came as a surprise was the Congress(I)'s about-turn especially since it was its government that initiated the process of economic liberalisation in the 1990s. In fact, Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao in 1995, had sought in vain to allow FDI in print and the issue was left to a standing committee. Congress(I) spokesman Anand Sharma, attacking the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government for taking a decision on an issue on which there was no political consensus, said: "The government has chosen to ignore the need for a free debate on security concerns and other related issues. One fails to understand the tearing hurry to open up the print media when Parliament's monsoon session is slated to begin in another two weeks." He said the party would take an appropriate stand on the issue in Parliament after consulting other Opposition parties.
The Congress(I) has, however, not been able to give a rational explanation for its opposition. When asked to specify the reasons for opposing FDI in print, party spokesman S. Jaipal Reddy, never at a loss for words otherwise, fumbled, mumbling words like "intangible influence". He said that though the Congress(I) was in favour of liberalisation, still the "print media, in view of its politically sensitive nature, could not be treated in the same manner as other fields." Jaipal Reddy mentioned that the government had made provisions for checks and balances; yet he thought the "intangible influences" would be there to make newspapers succumb to pressure. "It would have been all right for scientific and literary journals, not for (those dealing with) news and current affairs," he said.
The Left parties were firm in their criticism. They described the decision as a move to "hand over the media to imperialist forces". The Communist Party of India (Marxist) general secretary Harkishan Singh Surjeet said, "It is a very dangerous game that the government is playing by handing over the media to imperialist powers who have been carrying out malicious propaganda. Now with this decision they will have a right to do so." Referring to the government's misadventure with the Time magazine article on the Prime Minister's health, Surjeet said it had still not learnt its lesson and had taken a decision that would harm the national interest and only help multinational corporations.
Communist Party of India general secretary A.B. Bardhan described the move as an "anti-national" one and as an attack on "democracy and the Constitution". He said that this move would kill the domestic newspaper industry, especially the language media. "The decision should have been taken after deliberating on the issue in Parliament," he said.
K. Yerran Naidu, Telugu Desam Party leader in the Lok Sabha, said that the move was not in the national interest and that his party would oppose it in Parliament.
All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam supremo and Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Jayalalithaa said, "It is a wrong move. My party MPs will oppose it in Parliament."
Interestingly, it was the BMS and the SJP that announced mass protest programmes to force the government to change its decision, saying that the "hasty action will harm the nation's political, cultural and intellectual lifestyle". BMS resident secretary R.K. Bhagat said, "Foreign investment in the print media was not only undesirable but unwarranted," as it would allow foreign powers to invade India's culture and tradition. Even without FDI, pictures depicting nudes were published, he said, warning that "the vulgarity will further increase with legal permission, affecting the minds of young children." He said the government had put forth a silly argument to bolster its case that nudity and vulgarity were already there on television.
Bhagat said rallies would be organised from September 25 to October 2 to protest against the government's economic policies in general but they would focus on FDI and disinvestment.