The message is increasingly becoming irrelevant. Now messengers are targets. Political parties will welcome any herald as long as the words brought are the ones that cheer. The political narrative of the General Elections has become a saga of ugly confrontation. Now leaders not only insist on choosing the messenger, they also dictate the message. Arvind Kejriwal, the progenitor of a novel politics of change, has set a precedent by announcing his intention to send all renitent media to jail. His anger may have been well placed. After all he is new to politics and has also been a media darling, unused to improbation. Most of us saw little wrong in his style or substance because he was fighting to engender a clean and transparent establishment. The press gave him maximum exposure before and after he joined politics. He and his party were cynosures of the media’s adoring eyes. Once Kejriwal stepped into active politics, each and every move came under the media’s unforgiving lens. As much as his questioning of pedestal pendragons were given prominence, queries raised about his party also got equal billing. The same yardsticks applied to probing his adversaries were used on his effervescently successful political outfit too.
But the gap between conduct of crusader Kejriwal and the rest of the political class seems be diminishing fast. As leaders acquire clout, acceptability and legitimacy, they start behaving like monarchs. They forget arrogance brings agony. Once Kejriwal became part of the system, his party adopted the same tactics as mainline parties of intimidating critics. His mission may be diametrically different, but his methods are the same as of his opponents. He perhaps believes that if other political outfits can dictate terms to the media, why can’t he with a clean track record. The media is now confronted with a situation in which the establishment has forged a coalition to defame, deter and decide its survival.
With the enormous growth of the media forcing it to adopt the perilous path of competitive journalism, parties have acquired the monopoly in deciding content of not only the electronic media but also of print. They now decide which anchor or club of reporters should be obliged. They also dictate kind of analysts to be invited for discussions. Should any channel exhibit defiance, they would spread the word that it should be boycotted. Moreover, parties have made it almost impossible for journalists to cover events unless the content provided by them is used without raising questions—a trend started by BJP’s PM candidate whose team understood the economic weakness of the Indian media. The BJP was the first to provide controlled feeds of rallies addressed by Modi to be telecast live for hours. For months, viewers were not informed that the ‘live’ footage was in reality provided by the party. When Rahul Gandhi learnt about the practice, a copycat Congress hired dedicated camera teams and asked the channels to carry footage the party provided. Even a regional leader like Mulayam Singh Yadav could persuade the electronic media to broadcast his rallies live using a captive system. But Kejriwal’s meetings received coverage without a penny being spent. Thus, by laying out their terms, political parties escaped the usual media scrutiny on their functioning.
Earlier, interviews of those who were herded to the rallies would be carried; empty spaces in the audience shown; and the focus would be on the hidden aspects of choreographed election events. Now the spotlight is only on the leader’s speech followed by a debate by a panel that includes collaborative columnists. Kejriwal perhaps has a point when he alleges that the media has become uncharitable to him because he is questioning the role of tycoons in the elections and the influence of big business on media coverage. For decades, the Indian media has been quite charitable towards India Inc. Barring a few exceptions, the media has abjured following corporate shenanigans and malpractices, in contrast to the vigour it brings to any dissection of the political system. But Kejriwal and supporters feel journalists have been partial towards select leaders; at the same time running a campaign against political parties.
Most newspapers and channels treat some leaders as sacrosanct compared to others even in the same party, and have unknowingly carried stories fed by them without questioning their intentions. According to media researchers, three individuals—Narendra Modi, Arvind Kejriwal and Rahul Gandhi—have been given over 60 per cent prime time coverage by channels and over 50 per cent space meant for political news in the print media. According to a TV analyst, for the past seven months, Modi directly or indirectly has grabbed over 600 hours of TV space, against over 450 hours by Kejriwal and less than 300 hours by Rahul. Interestingly, the media has given extensive coverage to AAP’s second-rung leaders and a few BJP satraps while ignoring stalwarts like Rajnath Singh, Sushma Swaraj and Nitin Gadkari. In spite of getting such extensive publicity, none of them have spared the media. If Kejriwal has now chosen it as his latest target, the media must also share the blame. The Indian media has survived many sinister attacks on its independence. It will overcome many more if it places less emphasis on bytes, speeches, selective opinion, collusive debates and promoting class leaders at the cost of grassroots leaders. The messenger, too, would then survive the might of any political nemesis if the message delivered is truthful, irrespective of colours and contours.
Follow him on Twitter @PrabhuChawla