The game-changer: Ambika Soni

In conversation with MP & Former I&B Minister Ambika Soni, who led the DAS movement in India and was awarded IMPACT Person of the Year 2012 for the same. Excerpts:

e4m by Annurag Batra & Srabana Lahiri
Updated: Aug 21, 2019 3:48 PM
The game-changer: Ambika Soni

You have always described yourself as a political activist…
I still do!



So when you became the Information & Broadcasting Minister, and you were the Tourism Minister before that, how difficult was it to separate the activist from the Minister?
Naturally, it requires segregating areas where activism would give me maximum results from areas where I have to conform to the normal rules and regulations and procedures, which are very important for any government in office. Having said this, the activist in me came in and I said no way, we are not going to let digitisation fail. I made myself a member of the teams of all my officers. If they were going to areas where there were populations in clusters, areas where economically vulnerable people lived, I would have inputs about how they were reacting to digitisation. I would also be part of the higher echelons of bureaucracy, which would be dealing with chief secretaries of governments, which would have hesitation about the time-frame. They wanted it extended, but the activist in me pushed them to go a little bit further.

Maybe as a bureaucrat or a non-activist politician, I would have said ‘OK, let’s postpone again’. But I was trying to make that subtle difference. I just gave the example of digitisation, but this happened in many ways. I had prepared a little agenda. Firstly, it is a very sensitive Ministry. I was very clear in my mind that people would like to see less of me and more of what can be done to improve I&B as a sector, which is growing at a faster rate than most other sectors in the country. The other forte of India is 1,000-plus films a year. The feedback from the festivals was so good that I would feel that I had myself been to Cannes and Venice and Toronto. So, when I dealt and interacted with people who were looking after the National Film Development Corporation and the Films Division, I felt that our marketing was just too poor. I wanted to upgrade the film festivals, our participation in them, improve the marketing of Indian films. When that mindset of activism comes across, your team also realises that there is no going back, and there is no wishy-washy affair here. You do it once it is decided. I told them, let’s work. Also, everybody can fearlessly give me his or her opinion. I encourage that because I didn't know everything.


Are you happy with the progress of digitisation so far?
Most people thought digitisation was just something I had said and we would never implement it, because there were so many perceived pitfalls. When we got the Bill passed by Parliament, no one objected to it. Those who had a few apprehensions voiced them for us to keep in mind. So once it was unanimously passed in Parliament, the moral pressure on the Ministry was a lot, because then there were no excuses.


The broadcasters have their own points of view, so do the MSOs, the independent MSOs, and the local cable operators and above all the viewers. I said it very loud and clear that the viewer is priority number one. For me, priority number 2 was the LCO, because he is the person who really started it all – dug the trenches, put the cables, heard the abusive phone calls when your television was not working. I didn’t want him to be too badly off. Of course, initially I realised after studying the whole thing that he would have to forgo some of his unexplained income from untabulated subscribers in his area, but I wanted to make the changeover as comfortable as possible for him, give him the confidence that he was not going to be out of a job.

The MSOs wanted some increase in FDI so that they could get some resources for the heavy machinery. The broadcasters were going to have a win-win thing, carriage fee was hopefully less and TRPS would be more controlled. So, each one had a defined role. The broadcasters had to come on board and do the publicity for digitisation. Why would somebody want a set-top box, when he is happy seeing 20-odd channels? He doesn’t go into who pays what carriage fee or anything like that. So they did the broad publicity. The MSOs came on board. The Ministry played the role of a facilitator.


Digitisation is going forward, though two state governments –Tamil Nadu and West Bengal – probably want more time.


But Chennai and Kolkata seem to be problem areas…
That’s true. The matter went to court and they didn’t issue a stay order because everybody does realise that this is the way forward. For all the stakeholders, including the viewer, it is a win-win situation. It might take time, there might be hiccups, but there is no other way if you are looking at the growth of the broadcast sector. We thought we wouldn’t be able to make it happen by the end of October, and I thought one extension was called for.

The phenomenon of paid news has created quite an uproar recently. What is your view of the media and paid news?
Paid news as a phenomenon has grown and people are unhappy with it. I am convinced that it hits at the roots of our democratic framework. First, it used to be about smaller newspapers, who during election time asked candidates to make a special provision for what they wanted written. I could understand that on the pretext of manifesto, one would have to pay for a page. It is done all the time, but then it is very clearly marked as advertisement. But it has become so bad that some journalists come and tell me – and they must have told my predecessors – that they do not get paid. The managements tell them to go and get stories, and get their money out of that and expect them to bring some cash back to the headquarters.


You have been voted IMPACT Person of the Year, 2012 by the industry. In our industry, this is probably the biggest recognition as it comes from knowledgeable and informed people such as media-owners, editors, CEOs of media and creative agencies and advertisers. What would you say to that?
It’s a bit overwhelming actually. I didn’t expect it. Duration of three-and-a-half years is already one of the longest tenures of an I&B Minister, and I tried something in every sector. I didn’t realise that I would even be nominated for this because as a Minister you know people are writing editorials close up. You don’t expect an award; you are lucky if you get away with your reputation intact. But I was very happy when I was asked to join the party. If you are giving me this award or I am being voted for, most people will find it very difficult to believe that I didn’t wangle it. Nobody really gets this kind of an award after having been I&B Minister. You get brickbats and snide remarks...But you really made my political career memorable with this award.

The full interview has been published in the latest issue of IMPACT

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