Over the last few months Kejriwal and his AAP have turned the spotlight on a number of fundamental issues: one of the most important of them, which has not received the scrutiny it deserves, is the attitude of the mainstream media-primarily the elitist, English language TV channels and print media- towards the Aam Aadmi party and some of its leaders. Their approach has progressed through the full range of journalistic hysteria- from contempt, scepticism, grudging acceptance, demanding, outrage, to outright condemnation ( the current phase). During this tortuous journey the media has also exposed the full range of its deficiencies, from elitist bias to ignorance, disconnect, arrogance and perhaps cupidity.
The media has never accepted Kejriwal. It initially dismissed him as a charlatan and fraud and even dug into his IRS past( without success) to find material(the study leave issue, dues to govt.) to discredit him. It deliberately created a rift between him and Anna Hazare by over-emphasising their different paths. It churned out opinion polls ( of toilet paper utility) that could only prejudice his electoral prospects. It grudgingly accepted his political and moral ascendance in Delhi after the elections but quickly recouped its forces, joined ranks with all other political parties and unleashed a blitzkrieg against him that continues unabated till today.
I am not talking of legitimate criticism and careful analysis, which is the reason the press exists, but of which we have seen little these last few months. I am talking of misinformation, misinterpretation, highlighting issues which support only a pre-conceived thesis and blacking out others, giving a slant to the reporting, shouting down contrary views, distorting the facts and making connections where none exist, regurgitating half digested news. ( To be fair to this section of the media, they have done this to others also-the shocking manner in which the OB vans and the anchors wormed their way into the Sunanda Pushkar case, like maggots, and laid bare before the nation all kinds of nonsensical theories- murder, ISI plot, Dubai connection, IPL connection( they showed Subramaniam Swamy making this charge on TV), Sashi Tharoor's culpability on charges of abetment to suicide,all without any verification- would make anyone want to throw up. Those anchors have all shut up now that all those bestial theories have been disproved, and ( without so much as a " sorry" to Mr. Tharoor) turned their undivided malevolent attention back to Kejriwal.
How fair has the media been in the following?
[*] Accusing Kejriwal initially of not forming the govt. in Delhi ( REASON-shirking his constitutional responsibility), and when he does form the govt., castigating him for doing so with Congress support ( REASON- contradicting his stated position). All channels ignored the obvious explanation given by the party- that they never asked for Congress support. What was Kejriwal supposed to do in the Assembly when the Congress voted in favour of his party-ask the Speaker to reject those votes, or expel the Congress MLAs, or go to Arnab Goswami for advice?
[*] Accusing Kejriwal of not keeping his election promises to the people when he does not announce any relief on Water and Power within a week of assuming office, and criticising him for being populist when he does announce such relief. And when the CMs of Haryana and Chhatisgarh ( and now even Maharashtra) make similar announcements, the same press only refers to it "en passant"!
[*] Constantly questioning Kejriwal on what concrete action he would take to make the Delhi police accountable to the people and govt. of Delhi.- and condemning him when he takes the first effective step( the dharna) to attain this. For the last twenty-one years each and every Chief Minister of Delhi took shelter behind the alibi of central control of the police rather than assume control and the responsibility for their actions that comes with it. Kejriwal accepted the challenge but is being condemned for it.
[*] Terming the dharna at Rail Bhawan as " anarchy" even though it was peaceful, did not seek to bring down any govt., or break any laws( except the ubiquitous Sec.144 which was never meant to be applied in the case of legitimate protest but has become the first resort of all govts to stifle them). The media has a very short and selective memory-if all protests are to be termed as anarchy then the Jai Prakash Narain movement would never have happened and we would still be under an Emergency.
[*] Stigmatizing public participation in governance as " Vigilantism". The media-comfortable in their privileged status where any favour is just a phone call away- disapproves of public involvement in the monitoring of schools, hospitals, police stations even though they are fully aware of( and quite often expose) the deplorable conditions prevailing there. Law Minister Bharti is denounced as a Vigilante even before the Inquiry Commission has given its report. The murder of Arunachal's Nido this week and the thrashing of two other girls from the North-east in Kotla last week has thoroughly exposed the rot in the Delhi police, and vindicates Mr. Bharti's action in personally going to Khirkee village and demanding that the police take action. This is not vigilantism. Vigilantism is what MNS and SP goons are doing in UP and Bombay, but our TV channels let them off with brief mentions, reserving their vitriol for the AAP.
The double standards on display only add to this pathetic roll call of ineptitude. All parties come out with grand manifestos before elections but consign them to the dustbin on assuming power, and the media forgets about them too. But Kejriwal's 18 point manifesto was flung in his face from day one and he was castigated on an almost hourly basis for not implementing it. The Congress has done nothing about the scams for ten years but Kejriwal is expected to throw Sheila Dixit in jail within twenty four hours of assuming office! When Gadkari makes allegations about clandestine pay-offs to form the AAP govt. it is merely reported; when AAP's Madanlal alleges he was offered Rs. 20 crores to defect the media demands that he produce proof and file an FIR; every penny received by AAP is on their website but still questions are raised repeatedly on their legality, but have you seen any Primetime discussion on why Mallya refuses to pay his employees or the Banks while continuing with his Great Gatsby life-style? Or why SAHARA's Subroto Roy refuses to explain how he got the Rs. 20,000 crore for his deposit schemes? Or why India's most fearless journalist forgot to ask Rahul Gandhi about Robert Vadra's rags-to-riches miracle? Or about the Houdini-like manoeuvers that enabled his family to take ovet the assets of the National Herald? Has there been even a whisper on TV or the press about Madhu Kishwar's expose on the NDTV- Chidambram laundry list of Rs. 5000 crore?
The media has become an expert at manufacturing red herrings to divert the attention away from AAP's core issues/ intentions so as to serve their main purpose of discrediting the party. Khirki thus becomes a matter of Racism and Sexism, and not about drugs, prostitution and police corruption; Kejriwal's dharna is projected exclusively as a constitutional break-down and the issues relating to federalism, the right of a state govt. to exercise control over its police force, the attitude of an insensitive central govt- all these are disregarded. Misleading Headlines and Breaking News spots predict the imminent fall of the AAP govt. and party, a few defamation cases against Kejriwal by affected politicos is projected as the law closing in on him, an attempt at having a genuine janata durbar is tom-tommed as an administrative failure of cataclysmic proportions. Speakers on panel discussions who support the AAP position are either shouted down, intimidated, lectured to or simply have the mike taken away! Only domesticated panelists whose toe-the-media-line biases are well known are chosen to appear at the mid-night hour ( one of them inadvertently gave the game away recently by mentioning( live) that he gets paid Rs. 5000 for every appearance!). There was no contradiction from the fearless anchor who quickly changed the subject!
What is the explanation for the patently partisan and adverserial( to the AAP) posture adopted by the media, for its 24x7 condemnation of Kejriwal and his party, for its perpetual fault-finding autopsy of every word and act of this fledgeling entity which should at least be given some grace period to flap its wings before expecting it to soar into the firmament? Having given the matter some thought, I see three main reasons to explain the media's curious behaviour.
First, a total disconnect with the pulse of the people. Editors and anchors who divide their time between padded air-conditioned studios and the drawing/dining rooms of the rich and infamous, whose ears are fixed on their smartphones rather than on the ground, who move only in their own circle from which they also choose their panelists and pollsters, have lost touch with reality. They have yet to realise that Kejriwal's mass appeal does not stem from reduction of power or water tariffs or from the promise of regularising contract workers- it stems from his visceral denunciation of corruption and elitism, from his projection of abject simplicity, from an idiom that is not conventionally political. The more the channels concentrate on the non-issues, the more irrelevant they become to the people and the more they are perceived to be part of the effete superstructure that the people want to demolish.
Second, sheer ignorance of both history and current developments across the world. If you have already made up your mind before the show starts, and if you profess to be an expert on seven subjects in seven days, there is very little your research team can do for you. By continuing to insist that Kejriwal is the Great Anarch the elitist media is negating all the struggles in the past that make us the great democracy we are. In the process the media has also blinded itself to the contextual relevance of Kejriwal's movement. The emergence of the AAP has to be seen as part of a global churning against big government, corruption, the feeling that " the modern state often seems designed to look after itself rather than the citizens it is supposed to serve" ( the Economist, January 4th 2014), against 19th century Chicago style politicians, against an elite prospering at the expense of the working classes. The last ten years has seen political parties with the same DNA as the AAP, what are being called " insurgent parties", asserting themselves across the globe- the UKIP( United Kingdom Independence Party) in the UK, the Tea Party rump of the Republican Party in the USA, The Progress Party of Norway, the Front National ( FN) of the inimitable Marie Le Pen in France, The Freedom Party in the Netherlands, the Five Star Movement in Italy. Once considered fringe groups they too were demonised by the media and the establishment, but they have come to stay: they have broad appeal, command sizeable vote percentages, influence the formation of governments, and sleepless govts. are learning their lessons the hard way-either they adapt to the policy demands of these newcomers or they vacate more and more space for them. Lessons, dear Mr. Goswami-Sardesai-Rahul Kanwal and Ms. Dutt and Ghosh, are not derived from vacuous panel discussions but from studying what is happening in the world around you. You may consider Kejriwal a freak but most of the developed world is taking people like him very seriously.
Third, and most important, one is beginning to suspect that there might be more than meets the eye in this sustained campaign to discredit Kejriwal and AAP. One has to weigh seriously Shazia Ilmi's charge that big corporates, who are desperate for Modi to become PM, are behind the media campaign. The Congress, equally petrified of this unpredictable party would certainly not hesitate to call in favours from a media with which it has always has a cosy relationship. The DAVP budget is a handy persuader ( as the AG audit of the advertising spend of the Chhatisgarh govt. makes amply clear). And let us not forget that loose change of Rs. 500 crores which the Congress party has set aside for its election campaign! I may be wrong, or perhaps senility is catching up with me, but I do seem to feel that our media has raised the decibel pitch against Kejriwal rather noticeably ever since news about this bankroll became public. Quite often the loudest bidder is also the highest bidder! Ever since the Radia tapes exposures the credibility and integrity of our mainstream media have been under a cumulonimbus cloud. And we are well aware of the fact that almost all prime channels and publications are owned or controlled by business houses or leading politicians. Aditya Thakur's article in the Hillpost gives some of the details: Prannoy( NDTV) Roy's wife is the sister of Brinda Karat of the CPM, TIMES NOW belongs to Bennet and Coleman, NEWS24 is controlled by Rajeev(IPL) Shukla a Congress Minister,PTC is owned by Sukhbir Badal, INDIA NEWS is owned by Karthikeya Sharma son of Congress leader Venod Sharma, THE PIONEER is ably steered by BJP MP Chandan Mitra , the HINDU is owned by the Kasturi family which has overt CPM sympathies, The INDIAN EXPRESS supports the Congress while its twin the NEW INDIAN EXPRESS is an avowed NDA sympathiser, the HINDUSTAN TIMES is the undisputed turf of Shobhana Bhartiya, a former Congress MP and daughter of KK Birla, the TIMES OF INDIA can no longer lay any claim to fair reporting ever since it started the reprehensible practice of accepting equity from companies( instead of payment) for their advertising: you may not lick the hand that feeds you, but you'll certainly bite the hand that doesn't.
These then are the forces that are ranged against Arvind Kejriwal, forces that will not even allow him thirty days to prove himself. In the electronic din created by them even the sounds of genuine criticism ( which the AAP will no doubt welcome) are drowned out. We expect no better from our political parties which live in a world of dog eat dog. But we expect better from our Fourth Estate in these momentous times when change is palpably in the air. Let them not forget the words of John F Kennedy: " Those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable."