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January 16, 2020

It’s News To Her

Text by Shraddha Jahagirdar-Saxena. Photographed by Prithvi Pictures. Hair by Jasmeet Kaur; make-up by Ritika Gandhi; both at Make-up Designory India

In the current national scenario, the economic liberalisation of 1991 – that, to a large extent, shaped our dreams – seems to be a thing of the distant past. Sonia Singh, editorial director, NDTV and mother of three, who has been reporting on the country’s ups and downs for over 20 years, tactfully balances an objective big-picture outlook with her maternal sixth sense. During a Sunday afternoon in her home, she offers Verve an even-handed take on re evaluating history and preparing for what lies ahead…

The national socio-economic infrastructure is a major player in shaping citizens’ lives. And India, like the rest of the world, has been witness to the vicissitudes of the many political parties in power and their ideologies that affected — in varying degrees — the fates and fortunes of those they govern. In this context, the annual budgets and other significant fiscal reforms and acts touch us directly or indirectly — in the day-to-day running of our homes, our consumer choices, the three-, four-, five-year or the many long-term plans that we make as we try to chart out a life that makes sense for us. And it can rightly be said that the liberalisation of the country’s policies in 1991 — under the aegis of the then Prime Minister P. V. Narasimha Rao and his finance minister Dr Manmohan Singh — was the major financial development that set the economy on its upward trajectory. Although debates raged on for a while on whether it would be beneficial or sustainable, no one could deny, even then, that the consequent deregulation of markets and greater foreign investment helped create the route map for an economically independent India to follow and (hopefully) become a high-income country.

I’m keen to delve more into both the micro and macro level effects of the sea-change of ’91 and examine its legacy, so I air dash to New Delhi to have a focussed conversation with 49-year-old Sonia Singh, award-winning editorial director of NDTV. And, in light of the recent watershed moment in India’s political history, I reconnect with her after my return to Mumbai to get her updated views.

Due to her growing professional roles, she has been a close observer and commentator of the country’s development, and I catch up with her one Sunday morning in her South Delhi home — escaping the smog that the capital has been reeling under for months. I find that we have a lot in common; both working women in the media, we had topped our respective universities in English literature (in different decades, obviously). My parents urged me to pursue a higher education at the University of Oxford, but as I was, at that time, more of a home-bird, it was a move my dreams had not encompassed. Singh’s, however, did embrace a wider horizon than mine, and she confesses to having tried her luck there, but she did not get into the hallowed establishment. That disappointment didn’t hold her back though, and she went on to follow a career in India that has placed her at the forefront of the business of news — having dabbled in print journalism before diving into the small screen. And, like me, she is a working parent who takes a concerned mentoring stance in the development of her three daughters — Yaamini (16), Suhaani (12) and Raagini (9). Their relationship with their mother is infused with a warm camaraderie born of deep affection. I observe as Singh discusses further education with Yaamini, who is interested in going abroad in future years; homework with Suhaani who idolises Alia Bhatt and would love to try her hand at the movies; and cricket with Raagini whose favourite player is Virat Kohli.

The topic of role models leads me to bring up her book, Defining India: Through Their Eyes — it released in early 2019 and is a selection of her interactions with people who have influenced mindsets in modern India. Singh and I exchange notes on a range of subjects — some close to her heart, others that she has experienced in her professional capacity.

What’s your take on liberalisation?
If you analyse it humorously, if you laugh at it, this meant that you no longer hoped for an uncle who lived abroad and brought you Wrigley’s and Levi’s on his visits home. But speaking seriously, 1991 was a significant year. Both the distrust and the fascination of all things foreign and the outsider were levelled. It took some time, of course; it didn’t happen overnight.

Apart from the economic factor and the markets opening up, I think it, in a sense, liberalised our politics. It was a major change socially, politically and culturally. It transformed us in many ways. Our dreams took wings, and how! The world became a level playing field and that is wonderful.

Would you say that it also opened up the minds of people within India?
It’s interesting, because I think Indians have always been inherently tolerant. We are a nation with so many dialects, communities and cultures that have co-existed for so long, with some flashpoints. But, paradoxically, having brought in the economics of the West, the later years have seen us becoming more intolerant. Perhaps we need a fresh set of reforms that will implement social liberalisation. The best of those values must have a revival — values like equality, freedom for people to live, choose religions, choose partners or choose their eating habits.

Has this kind of acceptance increased in the last few decades?
I felt that at the time when I grew up, there was a great openness. People were willing to listen to different points of view. Today, with social media, I feel that with certain news channels, people cater to the news you want to hear. It becomes almost like an echo chamber. So as our dreams and aspirations are growing, we have to be careful that we don’t limit our own views of who are the people we like or think are people like us.

With the newfound open markets and increasing money power, was there a rise in the need to compete with the Joneses?
There was a certain democratisation of wealth which occurred soon after. That is all a part of the new India. So, the billionaires may not be just in Mumbai, Delhi or the big cities. We can find them in tier 2 cities as well.

I am fine with the manifestations of wealth but in our pursuit and acquisition of it, we should not be losing sight of our core values. In our display of materialism and exhibitionism, we have to consider the cost of what we are most likely to leave behind — the strength of Indian family values, our spiritual heritage. These are the things which we should hold on to.

How would you say governments have defined the goals of our country and the people?
Each government has a certain different defining aspect. The Congress, for better or worse, had liberalisation as theirs, as also MGNREGA (Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act). When we have had coalition governments, there was a ‘khichdi’ or confusion. I think it was perhaps the backlash of such confusion that made people give such a strong mandate to this government. And for the current government, it is their kind of a Hindu progressiveness or Hindu Vikas which is their theme. Currently the economy is in such a slump, so I don’t know about that. But a muscular nationalism has emerged as their defining motif.

We are facing the worst economic slowdown in a decade. What is the need of the hour?
I think the government urgently needs to focus on the economy; inflation is at a 71-month high, and all industrial figures are down. Issues like the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) and the National Register for Citizens (NRC) are dangerous diversions at this time.

India Shining was an electoral mantra that had captured our imagination. What, in a nutshell, should our policy-makers focus on?
For our policy makers, let’s just focus on a brilliant document from 70 years ago, the Constitution and its preamble ‘We the People of India, having solemnly resolved to constitute India into a Sovereign, Socialist, Secular, Democratic Republic….’

Personally speaking, what were the major events or fiscals that shaped your growing up years?
I grew up in the ’70s and ’80s — it was a volatile time politically. And I was fascinated by journalism. Time was my go-to magazine. I was 14 when the then prime minister Indira Gandhi was assassinated and the anti-Sikh riots took place. Most of us experienced mixed feelings. You first felt the impact of the death of the leader. There was genuine grief in people even though they had not known her or interacted with her. Then one witnessed the cruelty where, in many cases, neighbours turned against each other. We felt the impact of communalism.

Then when I was in St Stephen’s College, the Mandal issue was a raging one. The self-immolation happened at that time. It was the first time we saw the gap between urban India and the governance. Earlier you always felt that urban India had a larger say in matters of state and governance.

Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination was another major event that impacted our consciousness. Luckily, at that time, there was no backlash. In a sense it was our Camelot moment.

What were the defining factors of your generation’s collective aspirations?
We looked up to our freedom fighters like Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, Mahatma Gandhi and Sarojini Naidu. We were a generation or two removed from the freedom struggle but we were still influenced by them and their ideologies. In today’s generations, looking up to these icons is by and large non-existent, which is why in my book I have presented a new generation of icons. Internationally, Margaret Thatcher was one, even though I may not have agreed with all her policies.

And as far as our goals went, the IAS was a major one. Everyone wanted to be in the IFS — at that time you didn’t travel abroad so much, so the IFS was perceived as very glamorous. Journalism was seen as an airy-fairy kind of thing and television journalism was not considered at all.

What kind of paths did your decision to have a career in the news lead you down?
I was lucky. By accident, I was at the forefront when television took off in India. We had Doordarshan, and The World This Week had just begun. I was passionate about print journalism and wanted to join India Today. I gave an entrance test and was waiting to hear from them, when I got the job at NDTV as a lark. I worked for about a month transcribing tapes, and then I got a call from India Today. I told Prannoy (Roy) that I was leaving, and he told me that I would be back. He was right. Within two weeks I returned and never looked back. TV was exciting, and it has gone on to become an influencer of events around us. It has altered the way we perceive India. It has been fantastic to be a part of that.

I started out by working on the ticker, checking spellings. I still do that because I am a spelling Nazi. My roles and functions developed and grew along the way. I worked as a journalist who went out on beats. I have covered many stories — Kashmir, air crashes, politics, Parliament. But as I matured, I realised that I wanted to participate much more in the decision-making process.

I was one of the few women anchoring prime-time shows at that time. By and large it was always the men in beards and suits who were seen as the ones who had the gravitas to do the 9 o’clock show. I was happy to have broken that glass ceiling. Everyone knows the power of news is in the newsroom. As an editor you can look at news through a prism to which you hope you are bringing your editorial experience, and knowledge. I am happy when I win best editor-in-chief awards or when NDTV is applauded for its editorial values — this makes me much happier than a show I’ve done because I think that is a much more lasting stamp of the work that I have done.

Do you sense a different mindset in the newsroom in recent decades?
Television is a great level playing field. It has really democratised our newsrooms. Earlier, we were likely to have people who came only from certain backgrounds or certain colleges. And, of course, being English news, it meant that we would have people who spoke the language well. That has changed in the last 10 years. I’ve seen more young people coming from small towns who want to get into this world of English news. It’s almost as if accents don’t matter anymore as long as you can converse in the language and make yourself understood in it. So we have people reporting from across the country in all the different regional accents. That is nice as it gives you a sense of India and the spoken English in India. We no longer imitate colonial English; we have a very specific Indian English which is spoken differently in Mumbai, Delhi or in Chennai. These distinct flavours come out very well.

Has there also been a kind of social awakening in India — something that has facilitated upward social mobility?
What I feel nice about is the fact that the whole inter-caste equations have begun to change and attitudes are beginning to be more progressive, even though in some areas issues of caste and community still hold you back. It is sad that we still see these horrendous honour killings. I call them ‘dishonour killings’. These may be the cruel backlash of more and more young people meeting and choosing their own partners. It’s almost like two tectonic plates — of two generations — are clashing.

I have had an inter-caste marriage. I am a Punjabi girl from New Delhi and my husband is a Rajput from Uttar Pradesh. In our home, there is no question of me being able to tell my daughters who they’ll marry. I think generations down, things are going to improve further — men and women will take the lead and stand up and tell their parents that they are going to do what they want to do and marry the man or woman of their dreams.

Do you see this happening in smaller towns and villages too?
A boy from Padrauna, a small place near Gorakhpur in UP, has gone to NASA — he didn’t choose to come to Mumbai or Delhi but his ambitions soared high and he managed to achieve his dream.

I have heard many more stories. Like the one about a girl from a very small town in North India. She had left her husband, moved in with her partner, a woman, unafraid and confident of going for what she wanted to do. She apparently told her mother that the court had given her the freedom to do so.

Yet another lovely trend that I admire is how young dancers from all over India have set up hip-hop and rap groups. They have amazing back stories. So, in a sense, Gully Boy represented all that. Could you ever have imagined that rap would be a professional choice here earlier on? But the kids have had the gumption to make that a career choice and are making money from it.

Generation Z needs to hold on to a bit of positivity. Where is the silver lining for them today?
They are India’s future and it’s wonderful to see them braving all odds to fight for a secular, united India. I think our generation had that kind of drive too — I don’t think the generations are so different in terms of their passion — it is the way they express it, and the goals themselves that have changed.

Who do you think are the people guiding their minds?
The Dalai Lama, who is also a personal icon for me. I did a show with him and young people, and I saw the effect he had on them — they were moved to tears just listening to him. Despite his age he reaches out to young people in a way which is very special. Malala Yousafzai has been a beacon of hope and inspiration. Sachin Tendulkar also means a lot to younger generations. And politically, our prime minister is a cult figure to many. I haven’t seen a political leader evoke such emotion — either way.

However, many of the icons today are media created. They have of course done good work, but they tend to be people who are in the headlines. There are many others like Aruna Roy and Kailash Satyarthi who have done brilliant work but are away from the public glare.

What are the values that you, as a modern-day mother, have tried to instil in your children?
I like to tell them what Ella’s mother told her in Cinderella — ‘Have courage, and be kind’. We sometimes forget about these values in our pursuit of success. I don’t think that what college you get into will define how happy you are. I went to St Stephen’s, wanted to go to Oxford but couldn’t get in. I was still very happy though. I don’t think you should define happiness by what test or examination you pass. And if we were all kinder to people, the world would be a happier place.

A lot has transformed in India recently. Apart from the recent CAA, we have seen the transformations after the Section 377 ruling and the #MeToo movement. Do the girls share their thoughts on issues like these at home?
We are very open to free discussions at home. Raagini and Suhaani are still too young to understand the meaning of these issues. Yaamini is older, but #MeToo in the Indian context hadn’t gone beyond being celebrity-linked. So it didn’t hit home too much. We have talked about Section 377, and in schools too there is much more openness about that now. The younger generation is, in itself, much more accepting, but I of course worry about how much they know and what they do.

What would you say is the flipside of ambition overriding everything else?
I honestly feel that overriding ambition, whether it’s for men or women, can be perilous. For instance, in the world of news, you are driven by the fear that you are as good as your latest scoop or the show that you are anchoring. I think happiness gets lost out on the way. For example, women feel that getting married or having children may be considered a drawback in succeeding at work. But, you realise the importance of having a family when you are older. I don’t mean family in the conventional sense, but in the support group that you have, people who have your back. I have seen people fall at the altar of their ambition. It cannot be career first or family first; you just have to balance both so that one does not take precedence over the other. If you always put your family first, nobody will put up with it at work — and the vice versa is true as well.

Earlier we would work hard and patiently wait for our rewards. Today, instant gratification is the expectation. Do you find the same change in your line of work?
It would all depend on the individual’s desire to fulfil that particular dream. I have seen this attitude in television — we have had models coming in and wanting to be news anchors. And when they are only about the way they look, their desire makes no sense at all. Very few people say that I will earn my spurs and then go on to be the face of the channel. So, this is a scary trend, for the business of news is not about glamour at all — it is about a lot of hard work. It is more than a profession. It is a vocation. You must have the passion to want to wait for stories, follow up on them. You definitely cannot become an instant anchor. But all said and done, it is the most exhilarating job in the world.

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