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Wednesday, 21 December 2011

Congress’s mental Kremlin

This is not in defence of the media or pleading not to shoot the messenger. There is a case for that kind of an argument but not now. There is a strong perception in the minds of intelligent people in the Congress party, and the many good souls who sincerely support them, that the Anna Hazare agitation — many in the media call it a movement — got ballast because of the 24x7 television news channels giving it disproportionate screen time.

No doubt there is a complicated relationship between an event and its coverage. Saturation coverage of an event in the media moulds the event in many ways, strengthening it in some ways and weakening it in others, the effects are unintended consequences. The relationship of an event to its media coverage is to be compared to the puzzling phenomenon in quantum mechanics where the observer alters the position of the sub-atomic particle he or she is observing. It, however, is another story that some scholar with a French intellectual’s inclination for theorising should pursue in all epistemological seriousness.

The Congress’s complaint that the Hazare phenomenon is a media-generated revolution is overstating the power of the media even in media-saturated times like ours. After the Hazare issue, there is the growing belief that all the troubles that the Congress-led UPA2 government finds itself is in is due to malicious black magic of the media is gravely mistaken. For years now, the Congress displayed an imperious contempt for the media. Indira Gandhi had famously described the big newspapers as the voices of the jute barons and not of public opinion. She might have been quite right in her class analysis.

Trouble never stems from media. It is when a political party loses the confidence of people across the country that it slides in the eyes of the public.

The Congress’s woes are of its own making. The media did not urge, and even if it did, the government was not obliged to listen, to co-opt Hazare and his friends, out of fear and out of cunning into a joint drafting committee. The media did not urge prime minister Manmohan Singh or Congress president Sonia Gandhi to write letters to Hazare, pleading with him.

Similarly, the 2G spectrum allocation scam is not the media’s work. It was the intelligence agencies that were tapping lobbyist Nira Radia and industrialists like Ratan Tata, and what was gossipy stuff of their personal interaction led to other inconvenient truths. The courts were forced to take cognisance of the whole issue because of public interest litigation petitions. Then there was the Comptroller and Auditor General report on the 2G spectrum allocation and its exaggerated figure of potential loss.

The mishandling of the Commonwealth Games in Delhi in October 2010 was a public spectacle. The media did not have to unearth any story. They were out there.

The media does not make and unmake governments. It is a useful conspiracy theory. There are sections of the media that do unabashedly carry out a propaganda war. That is one thing we have to accept in a democratic society. It is one of the inevitable and necessary aspects of media that it should take partisan positions. The objective, neutral Olympian vision is one among many of these partisan positions. People are not swayed by what the media say. Most of the English language media have been against reservations for Other Backward Classes (OBCs) and they carried out an open campaign. The popular verdict in election went the other way.

One of the interesting lessons is from the 2004 Lok Sabha election. The media seemed to be blacking out the Congress, which had been out of power for eight years. The media was quite in favour of the ruling National Democratic Alliance. There was no anti-BJP sentiment in the air according to the media. In April 2004, Pranab Mukherjee and Kapil Sibal came for a media briefing and pleaded with the media to print and telecast what the party had to say.

When told that Mahatma Gandhi spoke directly to the people and that the Congress should do it again, Mukherjee said that in this age, media was very important. The Congress won that election because people wanted a change. The BJP, which was better than the Congress in its media-friendly attitude, believed the media and felt that it was coming back to power. The BJP and the media got the 2004 election wrong. This is just an example.

Once in power, the Congress forgot the need to keep its communication channels open. It locked itself up in its mental Kremlin. The group of ministers to deal with the media was an afterthought to deal with the political crisis created by the Hazare group. The problem with the Congress-led UPA government is that it is committing too many forced and unforced errors. It is not the fault of the media.


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