Sunday Pioneer, June 30, 2013
By Swapan Dasgupta
By Swapan Dasgupta
The disaster in Uttarakhand was a national tragedy that resulted in loss of lives, human suffering and considerable damage to both private property and the public infrastructure. However, the partly natural and partly man-made catastrophe had a major collateral fallout in the world of politics.
There is, of course, the inevitable impact on the fortunes of Chief Minister Vijay Bahuguna who has been widely perceived to be lacking in purposefulness. But at the national level the impact may be more consequential: it has demolished the well-meaning, but naive, belief that the 2014 general election will be a clean fight involving the different formations and their projected leaders. Instead, the murkiness of the past week prompts the unfortunate conclusion that the Lok Sabha poll will be a no-holds-barred confrontation where the choices before voters will be distorted by vicious dirty tricks. Worse, the skullduggery will not be confined to the political parties for whom the stakes are naturally very high. There are clear indications that other institutions, not least the media, will also engage in sharp practices.
A clear foretaste of what is in the offing was provided by the furious controversy over the so-called Rambo act of Gujarat Chief Minister that involved the rescue and evacuation of a large numbers of Gujaratis (a community that are intrepid travellers) from the disaster zones. Predictably, this claim, first publicised by an English-language national daily, has been bock mocked and ridiculed. It has been suggested that Modi is a habitual "liar" (an unparliamentary expression that found its way into the editorial pages of a well-respected daily), that he has hired a US-based public relations agency whose other clients are to be found in the rogues gallery of politicians and that he is so utterly parochial that he divides India into Gujaratis and others.
At the political level, there is no doubt that this adverse publicity has not been to Modi's advantage. At this stage, he has no choice but to lick his wounds and prepare for the next round.
A post-mortem of this kerfuffle over India's political Rambo may, however, prove rather revealing. It would seem that the figure of 15,000 people rescued from the wrath of the Gods arose from a 'sexed-up' version of a normal journalistic report. I don't say it was deliberate or part of a diabolical conspiracy but the problem arose when a simple assertion that the Gujarat Government provided "relief" to 15,000 people was conveniently changed to "rescued" this number. The casual substitution of one word changed the meaning of a ground report and made Modi appear as needlessly boastful and prone to hype--attributes that don't go down too well in politics.
I understand that Modi brought this distortion to the attention of the publication but journalists being journalists don't like admitting their mistakes, especially if the offence involves colleagues up and down the line. So it was that when another newspaper, known for its consistent and pathological dislike of the Gujarat Chief Minister, attempted to examine the fantastic claim, the writer of the offending report pinned the entire blame on a lesser-known BJP functionary of Uttarakhand. Strangely in the original report this assertion wasn't attributed to him and he has subsequently denied making such a claim. That stands to reason. If Modi had indeed single-handedly rescued 15,000 people, why would the BJP in Uttarakhand have been so squeamish about claiming credit? Would this achievement have been given as an "exclusive" to just one publication or would it have been proudly proclaimed at a press conference?
These are questions that naturally arise, except that it doesn't occur to professionals who have a self-image of infallibility and who can't let go of a nice big stick to beat Modi with.
Whatever the real reasons, the creation of a counterfeit Rambo became the occasion for a flood of reports that broke the thin line between fact and fiction. A Hindi reporter having observed Modi put a shawl round an old woman and touch her feet, came to the imaginative conclusion that the frenzied rescue efforts of the Gujarat Chief Minister owed entirely to personal considerations: his old mother was among those stranded by the disaster. In the normal course, it wouldn't have taken much doing to find out if Modi's mother had indeed undertaken the pilgrimage from Ahmedabad. But when did facts ever deter a good story?
The larger point that emerges from the coverage of Modi in Uttarakhand is something that should not be lost sight of. In the coming days, as the battle for the hearts and minds of India intensifies, we are likely to see an epidemic of reports that target Modi. Of course, there will be the odd report that also highlights the fact that Rahul Gandhi has not made a single meaningful intervention on a subject of national importance and that he is invariably away on holiday when he is needed the most by his doting party. But these will be few in number. After all, the editors will tell you a man's private life is his private life.
There could be another less innocuous reason. In an intervention whose significance was perhaps not understood (not even by the otherwise hyper-active social media) the Managing Editor of Times of India penned an article that left the reader in no doubt that the UPA-2 Government is using a massive advertisement budget to browbeat the media into adopting an editorial line that is politically supportive of the regime. By implication this means that the more "difficult" sections of the media will not be beneficiaries of the government's largesse (paid for by taxpayers) if they choose to be recalcitrant. It is so reminiscent of the last days of the Rajiv Gandhi Government when the XP division of the Ministry of External Affairs was transformed into a special unit for managing the media.
In 1988-89, a large section of the media resisted these pressures while others capitulated and grovelled. The difference this time is that the financial stakes for the media, at a time when India's growth is barely 5 per cent, is much higher. A generous handout from the Bharat Nirman budget can make all the difference between survival and going under.
There is another factor. Rahul Gandhi may be both elusive and reclusive but the old Congress Establishment is known and all-pervasive. Decades of uninterrupted power has given the media a comfort level with the props of dynastic democracy. By contrast, Modi is the archetypal outsider whose connections with the ruling Establishment are tenuous. Moreover, the BJP has not been successful in building a counter-Establishment that has the intellectual capital and social self-confidence to take on those who believe they were born to rule.
The implications of this asymmetry are obvious: to prevail, Modi has to adopt very different strategies. He has to outflank the Delhi Establishment by sustained pressure from below, using the only weapon at his disposal--the public yearning for change. The campaign of calumny around the Uttarakhand tragedy was only the starter. The main course will be even more poisonous. (END