TNM takes a look at how and why the two Dravidian parties have over the years relegated this demand - a key feature of ensuring transparency in democracy - to the wayside.

Tamil Nadu MLAs sitting before laptops in the state AssemblyFacebook/Udhayanidhi Stalin
news Politics Wednesday, September 08, 2021 - 17:25

It was one of the poll promises made by the DMK ahead of the 2021 Assembly Elections. But four months after coming to power, and weeks into the Budget session, which began on August 13, the ruling party is yet to begin live telecasting of Assembly proceedings. Although a long-standing demand since the ‘90s, Tamil Nadu is the only state in south India where Assembly proceedings are not telecast live. A source in the Tamil Nadu government, however, says Chief Minister Stalin will fulfil the promise. “We will definitely do something as promised by the high command. It will definitely be executed but it will take some time to execute,” says the source.  

TNM takes a look at how and why the two Dravidian parties have over the years relegated this demand - a key feature of ensuring transparency in democracy - to the wayside. 

It was in 1996 after the emergence of private satellite television channels in India that the demand for live telecast of Assembly proceedings was first placed. S Peter Alphonse, a former Congress MLA, first raised the demand for live telecast of Assembly proceedings before the then AIADMK government led by J Jayalalithaa. With the Tamil Nadu Assembly having a turbulent past, being witness to violence and pandemonium, the idea was for citizens to know what happened in the House as it happened. “When a particular incident happens inside the Assembly, and especially when some of the remarks are expunged (removed by the Speaker), and there were altercations between members and all, different stories are given to the media. Every party has a story to say according to their own thinking. So what happened inside the House, the voter or citizen has a right to know. A live telecast will be able to convey what happened in the Assembly proceedings,” Peter Alphonse tells TNM.  

Controlling the narrative 

While no one party will be able to necessarily control the political narrative in the Assembly, a live telecast would also also make public contributions made by individual legislators in raising demands or placing before the House the needs of his/her constituents. “Democracy depends on transparency and the Legislative Assembly is the basis through which power flows, and such an important center for democratic functioning should be transparent to the public. That was my request to the Assembly Speaker at that point of time,” says the Congress leader, adding that a live telecast would also enhance the quality of the debate and better the participation of members, and therefore increase the productivity of the Assembly. 

Although Peter Alphonse’s demand was rejected, over the years, the Tamil Nadu Assembly has relayed live the Governor’s address and the state Finance Minister’s Budget speech. For the rest of the Assembly sessions, the ruling party of the day tightly controls the flow of information from the House. “Television news media are only given edited clips from the Assembly that the government selects. Even if you ask for a particular video clip of a controversy that took place in the Assembly, the ruling party -whether DMK or AIADMK - would provide only what visuals it deems fit,” says a senior television journalist, who wished to remain anonymous.   

Pointing to Jayalalithaa’s style of functioning, Peter Alphonse says that it served her and her party’s interests to not have the Assembly sessions telecast live. “At times, she herself knew that if what is happening inside the Assembly is telecast live, it would give a negative impression about her and her party. But at the same time she enjoyed the benefits of having the edited clips being given to the media,” he says. The former three-time MLA recalls, “Inside the Assembly, she would often bully the opposition, silencing them. At other times, legislators would use bad language and threaten the opposition benches. I myself have faced this. Even ministers would raise their voice, hands, make obscene remarks and all. So all those things she might have thought if it was telecast live would have given the wrong impression of her party. So that was the reason she had avoided it.” 

As for why the DMK under M Karunanidhi did not telecast the proceedings, KN Arun, a veteran journalist who covered the state Assembly for many years, says the animosity and volatility between the Dravidian majors may have been a reason. “Tamil Nadu politics was different when Jayalalithaa and Karunanidhi were alive. And it was because of AIADMK’s attitude at the time that was confrontationalist. That could be one of the reasons why Karunanidhi didn’t want to do that,” he says.  

Another source tells TNM that Karunanidhi too was worried that telecasting live may not augur well for the party. At one point, though he wanted the live telecast, there were discussions within the top leadership of the party that the telecast rights should be given to Sun TV. But with friction between the Maran family that owns Sun TV and the rest of Karunanidhi family, the plan was deferred.

Lack of political will 

But Arun explains that it was also a lack of political will on the part of the two Dravidian parties. “It could have been done at any point of time, they could have allowed Doordarshan to do it and private news channels could have taken the feed from there, but then the issue was that DMK and AIADMK had their own channels. So that was where the problem lay - whether to give it to DD or a private channel should do it. Amomg private channels, who will do it? If the government changes you can’t afford to have a new set up, and a new TV channel doing it. I think the reasons were more political, and not technical at all. If they can telecast the Budget presentation live, and they used to do it, why not the other proceedings? No one wanted to do it. There was a total lack of political will,” Arun argues.   

In 2012, D Jagadheeswaran, who was then the Tamil Nadu president of the Lok Satta party, moved the Madras High Court seeking a direction to the then Jayalalithaa government to ensure live telecast of the Assembly proceedings. He tells TNM that they were forced to go to court after their representations to the Speaker and the government went unanswered. “When the petition came up for hearing, the Advocate General told the court you can’t allow it because it is the privilege of the Speaker. But the court allowed it and asked for a detailed reply from the government,” recalls Jagadheeswaran. He said they cited neighbouring states where live telecast is allowed. “We quoted examples of Kerala, where there is live telecast of Assembly proceedings and of the CM office. Even in Andhra, through DD they are telecasting the proceedings. Karnataka allows private channels to telecast it live. Tamil Nadu is the only place where they don't allow live telecast,” observes the activist. 

Jagadheeswaran says DMDK Chief Vijayakant had also expressed interest to join their case. Vijayakant had even offered to telecast House proceedings live on his channel Captain TV after the Tamil Nadu government informed the High Court that it had no money to set it up. “They wanted a state of the art facility, similar to Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha. But the Budget speech was already live, so the government had the infrastructure. It only needs the approval of the Speaker and the government. The government told the court it was trying to build the infra. We had said, if you don't have the infra, we can do a live webcast even. The government said no, we will have to spend now. They didn't want to do it so they were making up new stories,” says Jagadheeswaran.  

He also recalls that in the Assembly when the issue was raised by the opposition, the then AIADMK government told legislators that the matter is subjudice. “But in court, they would say it's the privilege of the Speaker,” he says. 

Although Jagadheeswaran’s case is in theory still pending before the court, it died a slow death with the government showing little interest. The activist says he had in 2015 met MK Stalin, who had then expressed support for the move, and promised to implement it if the DMK came to power. “I was expecting DMK to bring it as soon as they came back to power, but unfortunately it isn't happening even now,” he says.  

With the demise of Jayalalithaa and Karunanidhi, the politics of Tamil Nadu has also changed. And with the DMK in a majority, Arun says it would be politically prudent for the ruling party to see through with its poll promise soon. “I think this will be a good move to do it. And going by the Assembly proceedings so far, other than the walk out, there has been nothing untoward so far.  The Assembly hasn’t witnessed that kind of violence or the kind of drama like what we used to have.”   

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