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Are you a little tired? How independent media speaks truth to power: When Newslaundry interviewed ‘Kerala’s sweetheart’

If Nidhi Suresh can ask such fearless and probing questions to a tiny opposition party (BJP in Kerala), I was excited to imagine what she will do before a cabinet minister in the ruling government.

Kerala’s sweetheart as she is known is contesting from this constituency,” says Nidhi Suresh of Newslaundry, as her car makes its way through scenic Mattanur. The apparent goal? To interview KK Shailaja, the world-famous health minister of Kerala. As I watched the Youtube video, I tried to steal glimpses of god’s own country, unspoiled by the spread of BJP. Folks, the future is narrow roads, broken pavements and shiny political posters. As a kid, I remember reading 2021: A Kerala Odyssey.

Anyways. I first became aware of Nidhi Suresh yesterday, when I came across hundreds of people on social media praising her journalism. Due to her polite yet determined line of questioning, BJP’s 88-year-old debutant politician E Sreedharan had been forced into an unsightly retreat during an interview. Now, the BJP currently has just 1 seat in Kerala’s 140 member assembly, the only time it has ever won a seat in the state. Opinion polls suggest the BJP could capture up to 3 or even 4 seats this time. If Nidhi Suresh can ask such fearless and probing questions to a tiny opposition party, I was excited to imagine what she will do before a cabinet minister in the ruling government.

Both powerful women did not disappoint. If Nidhi set new standards for independent media, the minister did the same for political honesty and transparency. I would encourage everyone to watch the full thing, which is on Youtube here. To begin with, KK Shailaja’s husband positioned himself between the minister and the interviewer, leaned backwards and made himself comfortable. This meant that both Nidhi and KK Shailaja had to sit up, with the interviewer having to stretch out her arm to get the mike close enough to the minister’s face. Witness this, folks. This is what things will look like in the future when patriarchy has finally been consigned to the dustbin.

Screenshot from the Newslaundry video

I will now summarize and paraphrase their questions and answers a little, just to keep things short and give you the highlights. Also, because I am sort of rude, I will insert a couple of my own observations here and there about the flow of their conversation. For the full context and the full conversation, you can always refer to the video on Youtube here.

Nidhi: Shailaja Teacher, I want to start by asking you; do you feel like a rockstar?

(My comments: Fantastic question Nidhi, right off the bat. Now we can find out if Shailaja is one of those arrogant rockstars who always goes around telling everyone that they are a rockstar.)

K K Shailaja: I never felt like that. Some are saying like that, but we are working always … I have a very good team with me … Thousands and thousands of workers are actual heroes.

(My comments: That answer could have gone wrong in so many ways, but she handled it well. Her inherent humility did the trick for her.)

Nidhi: … You had to fight Covid … you hold the position of Health Minister and now you are contesting as an MLA … are you a little tired by any chance?

(My comments: She is a politician holding a cabinet portfolio, actually doing the job that fits the description of that portfolio and now also contesting an election! Of course, she is tired. The question is: can Nidhi get her to admit to this unprecedented burden?)

K K Shailaja: I have to rise early … start my work at 8:30 am … it will end at 9 o’clock, 9:30 etc… and after that also we have so many meetings… we can sleep after 12:30…

(My comments: That’s our beloved ‘Teacher’ for you. Just putting the facts before us and letting us decide.)

Nidhi : Were you surprised when party fielded you from Mattanur or was it surprise only for media?

K K Shailaja: I don’t know why media surprised … Mattanur is my place.

(My comments: Any young people watching, please take notes. This is how a seasoned journalist teases out the inside scoops. Also, appreciate how KK Shailaja is open and transparent about the inner workings of her party)

Nidhi : Something else I want to address is the political killings in Kannur….

(My comments: Brace yourselves, folks, because this is going to get heated. Just watch how Nidhi speaks the truth to power. As blameless as KK Shailaja is, as part of the ruling government, I believe she must answer on the killings of RSS workers in her state. Anyway, I am sorry to interrupt. Let Nidhi continue with her question)

Nidhi (contd) : Will you be looking at how to curb political killings at least in this constituency?

(My comments: My pulse is racing. Will she say “yes” or “no”? If she says “no,” this could be a massive embarrassment for the CPM. Not easy for the folks in power to face an expert journalist such as this.)

K K Shailaja: We are against political killings…

(My comments: Phew! That was close. But I know Nidhi will press her further; I just know she will)

Nidhi : … You have grown up in politics… Are political killings a new phenomenon, or was it also there when you were a student?

K K Shailaja : It is not a new thing …

(My comments: The questions are getting tougher by the minute. But KK Shailaja is calm and collected as always as she proceeds to give us the scholarly context on the history of political killings in Kerala. Perhaps that is why they call her ‘Teacher.’)

Nidhi: One thing I want to ask is in Mattanur in 2018, there was a young Congress worker Shoaib who was killed by 4 CPM members … initially the CPM denied but later expelled 4 people from the party. … His father has said that nobody from CPM has yet visited them or offered any condolence….

(My comments: Thank you Nidhi for asking this question. Be it the murder of Congress worker Shoaib or the murder of RSS workers, the ruling government in Kerala must answer)

KK Shailaja: We are not against any family … at that time, the situation was like that, their enmity and …. but Shoaib’s incident is not the only thing, there are so many things like that…. Any death or any kinds of killings are not correct.. And I am not going deep into the incident…

(My comments: This was the toughest part and KK Shailaja handled it with grace and humility. Fate is fate. We all have no control over the ‘situation,’ least of all the ruling government.)

Nidhi : Coming to your Covid related work … you have received a lot of international awards …

I will not go into the rest of the conversation. I am sure Nidhi is trying hard to ask tough questions on this. But with all those awards that ‘Teacher’ got, what is there to even ask?

The conversation went on for a while after that. Nidhi asked more questions about being a woman politician, about male attitudes, both to her and her husband. She ended by asking what message the minister would like to give to young people.

Now that was really inspiring. I think you would now have a much better understanding of why we need independent media that can speak truth to power.

Let me leave you with an exercise. You have four sentences below. Three of these are taken from Orwell’s famous dystopian novel Nineteen Eighty Four. The remaining one is taken from the slogan of one of India’s most independent and fearless news organizations. Can you spot which one it is?

(1) War is peace

(2) Freedom is slavery

(3) Ignorance is strength

(4) Pay to keep news free

Your time starts now. Shailaja Teacher is watching you…

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Abhishek Banerjee
Abhishek Banerjee is a math lover who may or may not be an Associate Professor at IISc Bangalore. He is the author of Operation Johar - A Love Story, a novel on the pain of left wing terror in Jharkhand, available on Amazon here.  

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