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‘Culture cop’ exits with reform feather in cap

New Delhi, Jan. 30: In her bungalow on a quiet lane off Lutyens’ Delhi’s Safdarjung Road, Sushma Swaraj occasionally meets journalists on the media “beat” on weekends for selective, one-to-one interviews. It is her home and she is more relaxed —the generously oiled hair is still held back in a tight bun, the thick streak of vermillion where the hair parts is still fluorescent but she gives up the saree for a salwar kameez. The other significant concession she makes to informality is that she dispenses with Anshu Prakash, officer on special duty with her and her Man Friday in the ministry.

Swaraj is usually in her elements on these occasions, cracking jokes, inquiring politely about her interviewer and talking till the questions run out.

Quite in contrast to the epithet that accompanied her to the information and broadcasting ministry — that she is “Taliban in a saree” — Swaraj comes across as being at pains to shed her anti-liberal image.

Today, as she takes leave of her ministry, it is with amazement that realisation dawns that in her third and last stint as information and broadcasting minister, the lady who might have been culture-cop has overseen some of the most dramatic liberalisation and opened up the media sector like none before her.

“When I took over as minister in September 2000,” she said, “there was not a single television channel uplinking from India. Now there are 77 and everyday there are fresh applications.” It might have been that technology and the demands of a news-hungry market would have seen that happen anyway; it might have been that industry with money to spend might have circumvented the law without breaking it anyway. Fact is, Sushma Swaraj leaves the ministry fully able to claim that this was her doing.

Her policies have cut across media. Late last year, she bit into political hot potato and permitted foreign direct investment in the print media. Subsequently, she pushed through the conditional access system — that will permit television viewers to pick and choose channels — which was deemed as an impossibility in Indian conditions. The policy on FM Radio has been liberalised, too. She goaded the Planning Commission into according industry status to entertainment and now claims that the encouragement has allowed film exports to leap from Rs 200 crore to Rs 900 crore. It is during her tenure that a full board of the Prasar Bharati has been constituted, allowing the government to claim that Doordarshan and AIR are indeed autonomous.

“I leave I&B with a sense of deep satisfaction,” she said this afternoon at a farewell meet. “When I took over in September 2000, the ministry was in sick bay as it were, a case fit for the BIFR. Now it is doing well and all the media units have responded. This used to be the propaganda arm of the government. Now it is a pro-active facilitator.”

Despite the visible difference in the information and broadcasting ministry’s role, Swaraj’s stint is pock-marked by half-finished jobs. She liberalised the direct-to-home (DTH) policy two years ago, but there are no takers so far. Only two applications — from STAR and ASC Enterprises — have come in and they are pending with the home ministry.

The Conditional Access Bill has been notified for the four metros but the glitches are far from being sorted out and broadcasters barely disguise allegations that CAS is loaded against them in favour of cable operators. Even after the Cabinet overturned the policy on FDI in print, it took her ministry at least two months to formulate the new rules. Her brief to the Cabinet on allowing foreign news channels to uplink is still pending clearance and only a handful of private FM operators have actually started radioing their programmes. She has salvaged from the files a Rs 45-crore project to build a National Press Centre — its foundation stone has been laid twice — but it is still to get all clearances.

Also, the culture-cop image has not been got rid off. Swaraj did have her run-ins over content — with liquor advertisers and, now, over the AIDS awareness drive where she has resented the reference to condoms. She leaves the ministry with a time-bomb of a content-regulator ticking away — she said today the Broadcasting Regulatory Authority Bill was all but ready to be placed in the budget session.

When she took over as the information and broadcasting minister, it was rumoured that she had been offered another ministry but she refused to be sworn in till she got the portfolio of her choice. This time, she says, she will take over health and parliamentary affairs because “there is a lot of work needed to be done there. I have resuscitated I&B and now it is time to move on”.

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