By Swapan Dasgupta
More than 85 per cent of Indians are consumers of the media in one form or another. Consequently, it is only to be expected that almost every citizen has definite views on the subject—the other being cricket.
Over the past few days, the media has come in for some quiet scrutiny on a delicate subject: the unfortunately illness of UPA chairperson Sonia Gandhi which was made public last Thursday. There is a context to this debate that is taking place in private conversations and on social networking sites.
For nearly a year, the media has been the subject of intense attention for its interventionist handling of the corruption scandals that have surfaced all over the country. There are those who have come to see the media as a robust watchdog of democracy for its role in both publicising the scams and, more important, demanding answers from the political class. The shrill debates and the insistence that “the nation demands answers” may have struck aesthetes as being a bit over the top. However, there are good reasons to believe that a citizenry which is far removed from day-to-day politics has been revelling at the sight of politicians being badgered and even bullied by anchors. Those who lack the power to kick the high and mighty in non-election seasons are taking perverse pleasure that someone else is doing it for them.
At the same time, the political class is dismayed at the growing clout of the media. There are fears that the political agenda is being set by anchors who are not accountable to anyone. There has been a sudden onrush of concern for the integrity of the legislatures and the right of elected MLAs and MPs to decide on crucial issues without media intimidation. If the 19th century leaders feared mobocracy, their 21st century Indian counterpart lives in dread of media-inspired hysteria.
The fear, it would seem, has been slightly overstated. Had the Indian media turned into clones of the now-defunct News of the World, the political class would have reason to be fearful of unregulated intrusiveness. However, as the case of Sonia Gandhi’s illness has vividly demonstrated, the media is inclined to swing between playing the tiger and acting the pussy cat.
In the West, the illness of the most important person in the government would have had every investigative team of every media house crossing the Atlantic to lay siege to all the hospitals in New York where the Congress president is allegedly housed as an ‘unlisted patient’. We would have had the spectacle of every “source” close to the Gandhi family being asked to speculate over the nature of the illness and the course of the treatment.
To some extent, concern over Sonia’s health can never remain a matter concerning the Gandhi family alone. The personal well-being of someone who is the acknowledged ‘leader’ of the Government—one who rules but does not rule—is a matter of public concern in all democracies. India isn’t either a Soviet Union where Yuri Andropov’s last illness remained a state secret or a North Korea where everything is classified information. A daily health bulletin issued by responsible doctors that satisfies legitimate public concern and, simultaneously, respects the family’s right to privacy is something that can legitimately be asked from the government or the Congress party.
The point to note is that when it comes to the ‘first family’, the media’s thirst for investigative journalism evaporates into handout journalism. This is despite the fact that the country has been routinely misled on many occasions. When Sonia failed to be present in the opening sessions of Parliament, it was put out (by unnamed sources) that she was suffering from ‘viral fever’—an explanation that was believable in the context of the epidemic doing the rounds of Delhi. When, last year, she abruptly cancelled her meeting with the visiting British Prime Minister it was again put out that the family had to rush overseas because Sonia’s mother wasn’t keeping too well.
No one ever claimed ownership of these doubtful explanations of the Gandhi family’s movements. For year after year, even as fawning courtiers celebrated Rahul Gandhi’s birthday, the birthday boy never happened to be in the country. Delhi resonated with idle speculation over where the birthday was actually celebrated. However, for the media the Congress General Secretary’s travel itinerary was never the subject of any inquiry. Even the Right to Information Act has failed to yield any information on the subjects—presumably because they have ‘security’ implications.
The Gandhi family has wrapped itself in so much needless secrecy that it has fuelled bizarre conspiracy theories—some of them tasteless. Some of these have been in circulation over the past few days. Congress leaders can decry such irresponsible chatter, especially when it concerns someone’s health, but it would be prudent to recognise that the root of misinformation is the information blackout.
It is everyone’s hope that Sonia has a speedy recovery and is able to resume normal life as soon as possible. If she needs a quiet period of recuperation, it is only right that she be spared the intrusive gaze of publicity. At the same time, her illness and absence has implications that have a bearing on the functioning of the government. In striking a balance between patient confidentiality and authentic information, there are enough good precedents to follow.
Sunday Pioneer, August 7, 2011