Pandering to Pranab
The News Broadcasters Association of India has a Code of Conduct which states: “Broadcasters shall, in particular, ensure that they do not select news for the purpose of either promoting or hindering either side of any controversial public issue.”
The Presidential election is over. The votes have been counted and very soon a new President of India would be sworn in. Can we honestly claim that the media coverage during these elections was impartial and in keeping with the principles of journalistic ethics and adumbrated in the rulings I have mentioned?
For starters, does anyone seriously believe that Purno Sangma was given the same space as Pranab Mukherjee? I followed the elections with the average curiosity of a concerned citizen by subjecting my remote control to fanatical overuse switching from one channel to another. I would stand corrected but only one channel interviewed Sangma for over 15 minutes. The other channels were quite content to allow him customary bytes.
Pranab on the other hand was given extensive coverage by all the major channels. Readers of this column would be aware of my views on how the anchors conducted themselves in those interviews. All the respected anchors seemed too bent on presenting a hagiographic account of him. The most watched and probably the most aggressive interviewer viz Arnab Goswami even went to the extent of paraphrasing a question – When you become the president; and you would note I am not saying if you become the president but when. Ignorants such as myself also came to know that Arnab’s uncle was a close friend of Pranab’s. The other anchors were no better. One of the readers of this column left a comment that these journalists were just vying to gain entry to the Presidential entourage during his foreign jaunts.
Here it is also worthwhile adding that the print media did no better. I read four national newspapers and even a cursory reading made the bias towards Pranab blatantly obvious.
I think it is important for me to emphasise here that I am not a Purno Sangma fan. From whatever little I know about him and from the way he appears on the telly, he comes across as a genial character and I am not aware of any corruption charges against him. But his political somersaults do worry me!
Contrast this to what I happen to know about Pranab through the extensive coverage he received during these elections. I happen to know that he works 16 hours a day. He graciously informed us that it was his familiarity with Sir Robert Peel’s speeches that endeared him to Indira Gandhi who persuaded him to move over from Bangla Congress to Congress (I). We happen to know that he is an ardent Kali puja performer, is passionate about his Bengali food and has a wife who is a dancer as is his daughter. We also happen to know that he has authorised the construction of a palatial house to which he hopes to retire after completion of his political innings. And that he has a son who is now a legislator.
It is more that obvious that the media was bent upon promoting his candidature. The only exception I think was the Sunday Guardian which brought out long columns penned by Ram Jethmalani on why he believes Pranab should not be the President. Here are the links:
I was also heartened to note this small piece in Kuldip Nayar’s recently released book, Beyond the Lines:
Austerity to Opulence – Pranab Mukherjee
I recall his phone call to the Statesman when I was resident editor, requesting me to have tea at his house. He held no government office then. We three, including his wife, sat on the floor and sipped tea…. They had very little furniture and no servant…. His wife was a struggling dancer seeking to gain recognition. When he requested me to give her publicity, I realised why he had invited me. I met the same Mukherjee some years later during Emergency. His house exuded opulence…the sitting room was cluttered with stylish furniture, plush carpets and sparkling silver. He was then commerce minister.
No newspaper or channel to the best of my knowledge quizzed Pranab on the issues that were and are now in public domain. Some weeks ago I had written a column expressing my unease over Pranab’s role during the Emergency, his conduct before the Shah Commission, his hounding of Taslima Nasreen and his partisanship towards the Ambanis in the Bombay Dyeing dispute, and implored the journalists to scrutinise the presidential favourite. That did not happen – even when Jethmalani and Nayar came out with unsettling facts.
Contrast this to the treatment that was meted out to Purno Sangma.
While he was never given as much TV time or newspaper space as Pranab, whatever little exposure he received was spent defending the multiple volte-faces that have punctuated his career (conveniently forgetting that Pranab’s career has had similar volte faces). One classic example of partisanship was when Pranab was asked to comment on Sangma’s appeal for a conscience vote. He dismissed it by stating that there was never a tradition for conscience vote during the presidential elections. Clearly his memory needed to be jogged; his own mentor Indira Gandhi had openly asked the MPs to resort to conscience vote in the 1969 presidential elections. The statement remained unchallenged. As did the corollary to this – Pranab claimed that the MPs always voted listening to their inner voices. The sheer absurdity of the statement is mindboggling and I doubt that Sangma would have been able to get away with that egregious misrepresentation of what happens in the portals of the Parliament!
Once the candidates had been announced, even though it was clear that Pranab enjoyed an advantage, I feel it was incumbent upon the media to give Sangma as much space as Pranab to enable him to explain his position. While someone starting with a disadvantage of that magnitude has not been known to turn tables in India as a result of rigorous campaigning, I have seen that happen in the US on a number of occasions, most recently when Bill Clinton defeated George Bush Sr. starting his campaign with a 12 point disadvantage in the polls. Some might argue that there is no tradition of debates in the presidential contests in India but my reading of the Constitution does not lead me to believe that there is any constitutional bar to it and perhaps the journalists could have initiated a debate on whether we need one. I believe that we do. Legislators in India by and large follow the script that is handed to them by the party high commands. But debates of this nature would serve to make every candidate take a position on various issues and that would make the representatives – if they indeed truly represent the people – take notice.
I am able to recall Indian presidential contests since 1967 when the educationalist Vice President Zakir Hussain contested against the Chief Justice Koka Subba Rao. Zakir Hussain was the overwhelming favourite having been nominated by the ruling Congress, but Koka Subba Rao’s merits and qualities received wide newspaper coverage (there was hardly any TV in India in those days). While there was no presidential debate we all knew about the excellent credentials of both the candidates. How Zakir Hussain after obtaining a doctorate from Berlin had a distinguished career at the AMU, how he had set up the Jamia Milia, and his excellent record as the Governor of Bihar. Equally we also came to know how Koka Subba Rao rose from poverty to become a police sub-inspector to finance his law studies, then became a munsif, sub-judge, sessions judge and a high court judge before being raised to the apex court and the landmark judgments. We also came to know that he holds the record in India for the longest judicial career. Zakir Hussain expectedly won, but the media had done its job.
1969 elections were an aberration where the then Speaker Neelam Sanjeeva Reddy was nominated by Indira Gandhi as her party’s candidate and then she went about sabotaging his candidature by promoting another dummy candidate VV Giri who had held a few ministerial and gubernatorial positions without adding any distinction to any of them. The newspapers had gone into a frenzy contrasting the two candidates forgetting that there was another candidate set up by the opposition parties viz CD Deshmukh whose credentials were far better than the other two.
1974 elections were a foregone conclusion. Indira enjoyed a two-thirds majority and made sure that someone beholden to her was pushed to the Rashtrapati Bhawan. Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed was a non-entity despite having served as an Advocate General in Assam. We all had a taste of his constitutional expertise when he signed the Emergency proclamation. The opposition did set up a token candidate viz Tridib Chaudhry of the Revolutionary Socialist Party and some newspapers like The Statesman did point out how Chaudhry’s record of public service was better than Fakhruddin’s. Even that paper did not doubt the latter’s victory.
1977 brought about a consensus candidate. Sanjeeva Reddy who had been deviously denied the position was elected unopposed.
Perhaps it was the 1982 elections which made me wonder whether a presidential debate was necessary. The person Zail Singh defeated viz Justice Hans Raj Khanna is widely regarded as the best jurist India has ever produced. His loss to someone like Singh was a glaring example of a system not working. But the press in particular The Statesman, The Indian Express and The Hindu did a stellar job in bringing to light the absurdity of Khanna’s loss to Zail Singh.
I was not in the country for the next few elections but did witness Pratibha Patil being elected. Again the press and the TV did a good job expounding on the controversial baggage she was bringing. It is interesting that one of her staunchest supporters in the media viz Vinod Mehta is now ambivalent about his support in 2007. I heard it being said that at least Pranab was going to be better that Pratibha Patil, but that comment only serves to me sadder.
I have to draw the inference that the Indian media has failed to live up to its obligations to ensure fairness through impartiality. And I am tempted to wonder whether we actually want or even deserve a truly free Fourth Estate. Gone are the days when BG Verghese could take on Indira and be sacked by his proprietors who were close to her. Gone are the days when Kuldip Nayar was prepared to spend time in Tihar Jail. Gone are the days when a young 28-year-old Chitra Subramaniam could bring down a corrupt government despite extraneous pressures.