In the past two years, several layers of Maharashtra’s politics and its law enforcement officials and their methodologies have been unravelling on live TV — and the audiences are lapping it up.

Collage of photos of Manish Bhanushali and Aryan Khan; Nawab Malik; Shah Rukh Khan; and Sameer Wankhede.
Voices Opinion Thursday, November 11, 2021 - 16:22

‘Picture abhi baaki hai,’ ‘Interval ke baad batayenge,’ – no these are not teasers for your favourite Hindi film or web series. These are tweets and sound bytes of Maharashtra’s Mahavikas Aghadi politicians, asking the public to wait for the latest set of allegations (or revelations, depending on your perspective) in the Sameer Wankhede-Aryan Khan drug bust saga. The October 2 arrest of Bollywood superstar Shah Rukh Khan’s son Aryan Khan has led to a series of legal and political developments in Maharashtra, that are being binge-watched by TV news viewers and Twitterati, almost like a thriller web series.

The man at the centre of it all is surprisingly neither Shah Rukh Khan, nor his now out on bail son Aryan; it’s Maharashtra minister and spokesperson of the Nationalist Congress Party Nawab Malik, whose son-in-law Sameer Khan was recently released on bail in a narcotics case. Malik’s press conference on the identity of Kiran Gosavi and Manish Bhanushali, panch or spot witnesses in the case, turned the story around from one of Bollywood debauchery to that of legal processes and political face-offs. Through it all, Malik and his supporters have maintained a Twitter presence, teasing press conferences and revelations and quoting couplets. The BJP too has responded with memes and allegations.

Malik has been holding early morning press conferences almost every day for the past month. “The support of the masses is needed to bring out such issues, and if I brought out everything on the first day itself, it wouldn’t have built enough pressure on the administration and authorities to act. Also, this is Mumbai and Bollywood is involved here, so things get a bit filmy,” laughs Malik, who has seen a sharp increase in his Twitter following over the past month. 

In the past two years, several layers of Maharashtra’s politics and its law enforcement officials and their methodologies have been unravelling as events like the Mahavikas Aghadi formation or cases like Sushant Singh Rajput’s death and the Antillia bomb scare played out in real time. The Narcotics Bureau Headquarters in Mumbai, the Headquarters of the Nationalist Congress, which holds the Home Ministry portfolio in the state, and the Enforcement Directorate Regional Head Office in Mumbai, are within a stone’s throw of each other, and have of late become regular haunts of field reporters in the city.

A day after Sameer Wankhede won the Union Home Minister’s medal for excellence earlier this year, close to 100 journalists swarmed the small conference room at the NCB headquarters, not just for a press conference, but also to mark their presence in front of the man of the moment and to congratulate him. Wankhede was being compared to Mumbai’s famed supercops like the late Himashu Rai or Rakesh Maria, in terms of the myth-making around him. He also enjoyed the loyal admiration of a group of beat reporters who would play up the agency’s version including WhatsApp chats and speculation about the extravagant lifestyle of the accused, especially those connected to Bollywood. Crime reporters in Mumbai are no strangers to plants, many of which have bolstered chargesheets and also personas of the officials who headed those investigations. It was a tried and tested formula.

Nawab Malik meanwhile used the same tactics in his press conferences by releasing documents, raising questions on the credibility of the officer and questioning the alleged flamboyant lifestyle of the Wankhedes.

“Television news tends to look for a hero and a villain in each story, to make it more accessible to the average viewer. For some time now, Sameer Wankhede had been the hero of the story,” says senior broadcast journalist and author Jitendra Dixit., who feels that the celebrity angle in the drug bust story meant that public interest was guaranteed in the case. But what kept it sustained is the dramatis personae, each of whom didn’t budge. “Had Nawab Malik kept making allegations and no one responded, this may have died down. But every day, someone new was coming forward to give a sound byte. Usually, officers and bureaucrats who are under a cloud keep silent, but Wankhede’s family was also responding to each allegation. This kept the story going and it has been the topic of conversation in Maharashtra wherever you go.”

The entire saga has also raised questions over the role of the media. Indeed, many of the reporters who were present the night of Aryan’s arrest had noticed Gosavi and Bhanushali and wondered if they were NCB officers on deputation from elsewhere. A few had tried shoving a mic at Gosavi who kept hurrying in and out of the NCB office — but to no avail. The off-camera explanation by the NCB that it was a panch witness who had taken a by-then-viral selfie with Aryan Khan, went unquestioned.

“This should have been the job of a journalist. Nawab Malik is presenting facts and documents which a journalist should have obtained by RTI or other means. If Aryan was not found in possession, then what was the case about? Malik seems to be linking the dots here and not journalists. In today’s era of breaking news, attention spans are short, Malik has adapted to the breaking news culture by giving out small bursts of information and sustaining interest by saying things like Break ke Baad,” notes independent journalist Neeta Kolhatkar.

Leader of opposition Devendra Fadnavis, who has been raising questions on what the BJP calls Mahavikas Aghadi’s attempts to derail the drug probe, feels the reduction of politics to some kind of a reality show playing out on television screens dilutes the politics in the state. “I think politics is a serious business and issues like drugs are more serious, but the way they are being handled and politicised is not in the interest of our society,” he says.

The BJP has also questioned why journalists seem to be reporting every allegation by the Mahavikas Aghadi against the investigation. The irony of this is not lost on Mumbai’s field reporters, who have in the past years been forced to take sides. “In the past four-five years, be it politicians or law enforcement officials, they only speak to and entertain questions of reporters who put out their version unquestioningly. Reporters who don’t follow the script are barred from asking questions in press conferences, blocked by officials or politicians on WhatsApp, or removed from official groups of the agencies or parties. On top of this, they also have to toe the line taken by their paper or channel. Reporting a straight story has become increasingly difficult in the city,” says a senior journalist who wishes to remain anonymous.

The severity of the pandemic in Maharashtra has ensured a large, captive audience glued to their TV sets and mobiles. Politicians in Maharashtra seem to be using the publicity tactics of the web shows and films the audiences watch to capture their mindspace, and the public as of now seems to be lapping it up. With Mumbai’s most wanted Dawood also now featuring in the turn of events, one can only quote Mir Taqi Mir – Aage aage dekhiye hota hai kya. (Watch what happens as things move ahead.)

Kajal Iyer has worked for more than 15 years in broadcast media. She writes on all things Mumbai and loves listening to a good legal argument in court. Views expressed are the author's own. 

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