By Swapan Dasgupta
There are a lot of people—or so I gather from a casual perusal of the social media—that believe General V.K. Singh was quite unfairly pilloried for his unfortunate ‘dog’ analogy. They are right, but only half right.
The past two years—dating back to the time Narendra Modi was announced as its prime ministerial candidate by the BJP back in September 2013—has seen a determined section of the media launch a crusade against the so-called ‘Hindu Right’. Initially, the campaign was centred—as the Supreme Court judgment in the Sanjeev Bhatt case has pointed out—on an attempt to target Modi on the 2002 riots, using the services of disgruntled officers, Congress functionaries and politicised NGOs. As the campaign progressed, the media switched tack and began a perception war to show that while Modi would help the BJP better its 2009 performance, he would never win. The leading lights of this campaign were media stalwarts—in fact the very people who are most active today in fuelling the culture wars.
I need hardly elaborate on the media’s conduct since May 2014. No stone has been left unturned to attack the government and tarnish Modi’s image. Initially it was done surreptitiously, under the cover of professionalism. However, now that the opposition has reached a critical mass—with the induction of writers, intellectuals, socialites, NGOs and, above all, the discovery of a new leader in the form of Nitish Kumar—even the pretence of neutrality has been discarded. The secularist bush telegraph having proclaimed a Mahagathbandan victory in Bihar—with Lalu Prasad Yadav under wraps—the cloak of professionalism has been discarded. It is now open season on the BJP—a process that will continue unabated till the general election of 2019. What Finance Minister Arun Jaitley described as “politics by other means” now involves making governance impossible for Modi, shifting focus from development and economic growth to old-style identity politics, and triggering a backlash of unfulfilled expectations.
As a strategy it is clever—possibly as clever as the CIA-inspired political backlash against the left-wing government of Salvador Allende in Chile in the early-1970s. Anyone studying the phenomenon in its totality will realise what the game plan of the emerging anti-Modi coalition is, and the paramount importance of the media in the entire operation. Certainly, as a former military man who has been trained in anticipating the enemy, General Singh should have known about it.
And yet, beginning from Culture Minister Mahesh Sharma and Haryana Chief Minister Manohar Lal Khattar to General Singh, BJP functionaries have basically competed with each other to provide ammunition to the party’s opponents, particularly the media. The reasons for their apparent boo-boos are multiple. First, speaking to the media involves skill sets that many politicians, accustomed to speaking with fellow politicians and ‘normal’ people, just don’t possess. Secondly, many politicians—like many in the media—live in echo chambers and are seemingly impervious to how their matter-of-fact utterances are likely to be interpreted, misinterpreted or even distorted in translation. Thirdly, there is still insufficient awareness, on the government side at least, that the media’s courtship of them isn’t necessarily a reflection of their importance in the political ecosystem. In recent times, the media chases ministers and MPs not because they feel obliged to understand what important functionaries feel or believe. Rushing after political functionaries with a camera or tape recorder has become akin to throwing a banana skin in their path and hoping they will slip. Politicians may feel that they are telling the people, through the media, about their good works. But they are in no position to determine the nature of the final product.
Recently, to take a random example, the Haryana Chief Minister gave a few interviews on the occasion of his first year in office. He must have spoken about his development works and other challenges facing the state. But what grabbed the media space were the questions on beef, where a contested translation made headlines. The victims of distortion—where they occur—might well engage in subsequent damage limitation, as Khattar did. But it is important to remember that the media does not believe in apologies or admissions of error. The tiny corrections in small print—or, in extreme cases, taking the offending article off the web editions or YouTube—doesn’t contain the damage because the controversy, by then, has reached every corner of the political world.
There are politicians who feel that the sins of the mainstream media, while worrying, are overwhelmed by the direct communication that social media enables. This is partly true. There is no doubt that the monopoly of the mainstream media over information and analysis has diminished, and is diminishing as Indians are more and more exposed to better net connectivity. However, there are two shortcomings of the social media. Firstly, the so-called opinion leaders and opinion makers still take their cue from the mainstream media. The influence of the mainstream media also follows a demographic curve: it is more marked among older people than the young. Secondly, for all its other attributes, social media suffers from its inability to establish a hierarchy of information. It fails to distinguish what is very important and what is less so. This matters in an age where there is a veritable information overload of what is happening internationally, nationally and locally. The hierarchy of news is still determined by the mainstream media: a reason why it still exercises considerable influence.
Some of the campaigning hyper-activity that is visible in the media today is almost entirely determined by the Bihar election. After November 8, the intensity of the campaign will depend on the outcome: a BJP defeat may propel the media to go for the kill and make the government dysfunctional. On its part, the government will have to evolve more effective communication strategies to focus popular attention on issues that really matter for India.
Sunday Pioneer, October 25, 2015