It outsources opposition’s job to the media and taunts it for failing to do it. A political party must do its job first. And, for heaven’s sake, display some hunger and hard work, not lazy entitlement.
At the release of P. Chidambaram’s latest collection of essays, Speaking Truth to Power, the first question was, curiously, an indictment of the media. Why is it doing nothing to “oppose” the BJP government? Why has it prostrated itself before the BJP? Is it because of fear, or greed, or both?
There may be some truth to all these, but the larger reality is different: can the Congress outsource its job of opposing the government to the media? Congress leaders criticise the media often enough for “doing nothing”. The most notable was Rahul Gandhi himself taunting journalists during the Gujarat campaign. On 16 November, he asked a reporter: “You ask me so many questions and I answer you properly…Why don’t you ask the PM about the Rafale deal? He changed the whole deal for the benefit of one businessman. Why don’t you ask questions about Amit Shah’s son?”
So here is a question for the Congress: How does a major political force in opposition, with notions of returning to power as early as 16 months from now (in May 2019), expect the media to play its role of opposition? Meanwhile, many of its own leaders, who will then line up to constitute this future cabinet of their dreams, live on an extended sabbatical, or focus on their businesses.
We the media have many flaws, although all of us can’t be characterised by a couple of commando-comic channels. Besides these, I do not know of many major—or new—organisations that will hold back a story because of fear. Pressures on the media are a reality, and nobody knows that better than NDTV, which is broadcasting this discussion on Chidambaram’s book release. I am one hundred per cent sure, however, that none of this makes the channel hold back on any great, adversarial story its reporters might bring.
So, let’s state the first principles first. The thought that the media is letting down the opposition. The media has to question the government for sure. But it isn’t expected to do the opposition’s job for it.
In some ways, usually, it is the other way around. Opposition leaders mine data and information (often through Parliament and its committees where they have access), or from their own networks, especially if they have been in power, or through the unions as Left MPs (notably Gurudas Dasgupta) often do, and bring these to the media. I have edited a newspaper during long spells of BJP/NDA and Congress rule. I can say with certainty—and specific examples—that the BJP made an enormously better party in opposition than Congress. Sharp, hard-working, fleet-footed, focused, and most importantly, humble. Always bringing journalists the one gift they really value: a story, or at least a tip-off. Unlike the Congress, which is oozing entitlement, bumbling, bitching about its own, selfish, lazy, and most arrogant.
Or you can find milder descriptions for an idea as touchingly imperious as to ask why is the media not doing its (read: opposition’s) job? Somebody bring out the violin please, and tug at all our hearts a little more.
When Vajpayee was in power, the paper I edited broke the biggest scams: NHAI engineer Satyendra Dubey’s murder in Bihar, the “plot” scam (a long series of exposes on how the government was giving plots of institutional land to Sangh Parivar affiliates), an endless series on usual suspects of corporate India flunking their loan payments to government banks, many with political connections and so on. The one thing that characterised these was the half-heartedness with which the Congress responded.
Several Congress leaders called to say “be kind to this borrower” or the other, some said “boss, so-and-so is my client, yaar, jaane do”, some also attributed their friends’ bad fortune in business to NDA policies. Another story, on tribal and minority Gujaratis being denied MGNREGA wages (a story denied by the Narendra Modi government in Gujarat), brought an entirely unexpected reply from the Congress leadership: let it be, our MP and leaders from that constituency say things aren’t so bad.
How much dedication did the Congress party show to the fight for justice of the Gujarat 2002 victims? It “outsourced” it fully to activists—Teesta Setalvad, Tehelka, Ashish Khetan and so on. The media and the civil society all did their job.
For the record, The Indian Express, which I then edited, won the first of its three International Press Institute (IPI) awards for its coverage of the Gujarat riots. But the Congress? Forget outsourcing its role as the opposition to the media, it also outsourced its politics in Gujarat to a fried-in-desi ghee RSS man, Shankersinh Vaghela. Its own leaders were, meanwhile, running their own “peacetime” lives, some notables happily cutting deals for their own businesses with the government, a fact Sonia Gandhi had noted with anger and pain.
The BJP? Within days of losing resoundingly in 2009, it was on battle stations, with a new plan. Corruption was chosen as the weapon of the UPA’s mass destruction. Within a year, we heard the name of Anna Hazare. An outreach was made to civil society activists and even UPA’s own key civil servants in key positions. Jantar Mantar and then Ramlila Maidan were filled with swayamsevaks. The result was a most spectacular turning of tables.
There is much wrong with the media today. But it can’t be such a concern for the Congress. It has to do its own job first—finding facts and issues to oppose the government of the day, rebuild its platform and party organisation and, for heaven’s sake, display some selflessness, ambition, not entitlement.
I do not know of a recent case where a hard-working, committed Congressman gifted with some intellect approached anybody in the media saying: “Hey, we found this out, this will truly embarrass this government. Will you be able to run it?”
The message is more like, “Please don’t bother me, I am on sabbatical, with my books, my legal practice and my businesses. Of course, keep my number for when I return to power.”