Anita Bhadel, 37, a first time legislator in the Rajasthan state assembly, was pleasantly surprised when her fellow legislators welcomed her into the House during the monsoon session in 2009 and asked her to distribute ladoos as she had been featured in Rajasthan Patrika’s Sadan ke Sitare (Stars of the House) segment.
Patrika, as it is referred to commonly, is Rajasthan’s largest selling daily newspaper. And since 2009, it has been routinely tracking the performance of legislators in the state assembly and declaring the three best daily performers in the next day’s edition. Sometimes, the paper would even leave a couple of allotted slots blank if there were no notable contributors. Today, Sadan ke Sitare has gained wide currency among the legislators.
“There is genuine desire among all legislators to be seen by the people as one of the stars, and legislators have started working hard on their performance in the House, either by asking the right questions, or answering properly or even providing a valuable suggestion,” says Bhadel, who belongs to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
Now, it is an informal convention for the featured member to distribute sweets. For the legislators, it is a matter of pride if someone from their ‘row’ is featured. But these are unusual scenes in a country where the electorate is cynical about its representatives being corrupt and unresponsive. So how did Patrika come to wield such influence?
The answer lies in the methodical approach with which Patrika and its journalists forced the representatives to pay attention. Sadan ke Sitare is just one of the many innovations undertaken by the paper to ensure stricter accountability from the local politicians.
“Patrika’s efforts are truly innovative and allow the public to evaluate the work of politicians on a day to day basis, not at the end of five years. Over time, I expect such efforts to not only further democratise the Indian polity, but also raise the maturity levels,” says V.S. Vyas, member of the Prime Minister’s Economic Advisory Council and Professor Emeritus at the Institute of Development Studies, Jaipur. The Idea
In the run up to the 2008 assembly elections, Patrika’s management decided to put in place an innovative campaign called ‘Jago Janmat’. Leading the charge was 72-year-old Kul Bhushan Kothari, who had previously been a professor at IIM-A and senior advisor to UNICEF’s Evaluation division in New York.
“The central idea was to improve public awareness about our representatives and through that route build public pressure for better governance,” says Kothari, who works as an advisor to Patrika’s management.
For this, he consulted many local and national level civil rights activists like Nikhil Dey of MKSS (Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan), Samuel Paul of Public Affairs Centre and N. Bhaskara Rao of the Centre for Media Studies. Together, they devised a methodology to evaluate future legislators based on their performance not just in the assembly, but also in their constituency and in general public interactions.
Kothari had always been intrigued by how societies viewed their politicians. His Master’s thesis at the University of Kentucky focussed on the way Time magazine treated non-American politicians, especially Indians, who featured on its cover between 1930 and 1960. Later, he played a pivotal role in helping UNICEF compare different countries — on various parameters such as health and education for women and children — based on a composite ranking. “I always felt that such rankings had a huge connect with the masses. They are easy to understand and very effective for bringing about policy changes,” he says. To Awaken the Electorate
To begin with, Patrika used its network of reporters to get most of the candidates for the 2008 election to sign a ‘Commitment Letter’. The letter required them to accept responsibility to promote initiatives like the Millennium Development Goals. Each candidate was also required to fill in some specific goals that he or she would promise to accomplish, if elected. In all, 700 such letters were signed for the 200 assembly seats.
Patrika also tracked and published the speeches of many important leaders. The editors highlighted and remarked on crucial parts of a speech to help readers place it in perspective.
Once the new assembly was in session, Patrika deputed five senior reporters to track the behaviour of legislators. This is when Sadan ke Sitare started. The biggest bang happened when the paper used all the information since the run up to the elections to come out with the first ever ranking of state legislators in August 2009, to mark the end of the first six months of the new assembly.
To rank the legislators, the paper constituted a panel of experts, comprising independent and reputed members of the society as well as Patrika representatives who had been tracking the legislators’ performance. The panel assessed the performance of each legislator based on 10 aspects. The result was stunning, according to Siddhartha Kothari, director in Patrika’s management and one of the owners.
“The ranking gave us an instant connect with the public. We were convinced that this was the way forward for Patrika if it wants to increase its reach and influence as a newspaper,” says Siddhartha.
In the following months, Patrika conducted a readership poll to understand what the public thought of its ranking and the results confirmed that the paper had managed to connect with the people and their views.
Insiders say that though there was some opposition initially to allocate substantial amount of space to such activities — since it occasionally came in place of some advertisements — the owners of Patrika, Gulab Kothari and his sons Nihar and Siddhartha, stuck to their decisions.
“In our view, readers’ interest is supreme and achieving connection with the readers is the most sustainable way of achieving growth for a newspaper,” says Siddhartha. Starting this August 15, Patrika will kick off its first ever mid-term evaluation of the legislators. The Impact
But has such an effort changed anything in Rajasthan’s state politics?
One can wonder whether the advent of 24 hour news channels has made national politics cleaner. If not, does it mean that a more independent and strong media was ineffective?
Kul Bhushan Kothari says no. “You must understand that the larger goal is to improve public awareness by disseminating information on a regular basis. This will take time. It would require repeated hammering.”
But the rankings and the continuous coverage have effected substantial changes already. First is the public responsiveness of legislators. This could be seen both in terms of how well they want to perform when the assembly is in session as well as their accountability to their local constituency.
Om Joshi, a 44-year-old Congress legislator from Jodhpur, believes Patrika’s effort has gone a long way in deepening democracy. He says that in the 2008 elections, the Rajasthan assembly had a record 108 (out of 200) first time legislators and Patrika’s efforts helped guide the new members. Now members read up a lot on legislation since they want to ask intelligent questions in the House.
“There is now competition among the members to rise up in the rankings. A higher rank distinguishes an MLA, raises his prestige and the morale of his workers. Moreover, legislators who hail from remote areas are now being heard on a regular basis,” says Joshi.
Another impact has been the quality of journalism. Patrika reporters are required to approach the local legislator for important stories in their constituencies. “The key difference is in the existence of the framework within which we report. Everything is filed away neatly and it has made our reportage sharper,” says Ashutosh Sharma, news editor of Patrika.
Almost five months ago, Manish Godha, Patrika’s senior reporter, broke a story about some legislators not spending their designated funds towards their promised goals like building hospitals. The next day, 10 legislators allocated their designated funds for the hospitals. “It was because we had a system in place to track their every move, that the legislators responded so quickly,” says Godha. A Brave Effort
At the very least, it is clear that Patrika’s efforts are not being wasted. Readers, legislators and journalists from rival publications admire the initiative. “But not everyone can do this. In Rajasthan, only Patrika had the capacity and the credibility to undertake such an exercise,” says a senior editor from a rival publication.
“For any such exercise to succeed, you need someone with a redoubtable integrity like [Kul Bhushan] Kothari to champion the cause,” says Samuel Paul, who pioneered the citizen report cards on public services for Bangalore in 1994. It may not be easy to quantify the impact of Patrika’s efforts, yet one needs to understand that this is not an impact exercise. It is a valiant attempt to raise public awareness and build pressure on our representatives for better governance and it is likely to bear more fruit if one persists with it.
(This story appears in the 26 August, 2011 issue of Forbes India. You can buy our tablet version from Magzter.com. To visit our Archives, click here.)