Political Pussyfooting

Kow-towing journalists. Lying politicians. And a pack of half-baked truths passed off as news.

ByDr. Ashoka Prasad
Political Pussyfooting
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“‎In politics as on a sickbed men toss from side to side in hope of lying more comfortably.”

– Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

Goethe always preferred to appellate himself as a writer and a thinker rather than the politician that many conceived him to be. He was one figure who has been credited with bringing into momentum the German Renaissance, and the great city Frankfurt regards him as its most distinguished citizen of all time. Some independent assessors have tended to place Goethe and the Swedish genius, Swedenborg, as the most intelligent human beings of all time. For the Indian literati he is a figure of fascination because he was the first European to translate Abhijnanshakuntalam by Kalidas into German. This particular quote, if my memory is not betraying me, comes from his masterpiece The Sorrows of Young Werther, a copy of which I had but foolishly lent to someone who did not bother to return it.

You may legitimately ask why this particular quotation at this moment and time! The political events of the last few weeks and their purport could not have escaped anyone. While these shenanigans are nothing new in the Indo-political arena, the egregiousness with which they have been presented have astounded even myself, an individual who has no hopes at all from the political class.

And while analysing this quote, I chanced to peruse through my antiquated and much used edition of the word ‘lying’. It states:


1. To speak falsely or utter untruth knowingly, as with intent to deceive.

2. To assume a horizontal or prostrate position for the purpose of resting.

And this made me wonder on the particular meaning that would be most appropriate here. While my natural instinct would be to pitch in for the second meaning,I somehow get the feeling that even the first meaning adumbrated would not be too off-the-mark in the Indian political context. Some might even consider it to be an even more accurate description.

Over the past few weeks, we have witnessed party spokesman after party spokesman attempt to convince all those who were watching the English channels that what they did was ethical, desirable and consistent with their state’s positions.They were pathetic.

The worst of all was the Samajwadi Party spokesperson Kamal Farooqi who waffled and waffled until the time it was just too irritating to watch him any longer and I simply walked out of the room. The truth as it stands is that Mulayam had attempted to link up with Mamata and they had jointly presented a list of 3 candidates. Soon afterwards Mulayam was invited to a tête-à-tête with the occupant of 10 Janpath and he began to remind me of the main figure in Anton Chekhov’s classic story, The Chameleon!

The Bahujan Samaj Party was at least consistent – whatever is expediently useful to Mayawati would go for the party even if brings about a national disaster. The BJP presented a picture of bewilderment that they tried to disguise as dignified posture and even an erudite person like Chandan Mitra could not conceal it. And the Congress (I) – well to hear them talk about national interest was a bit rich when one considers that it was their leader who imposed a figure like Pratibha Patil on the country, hardly in national interest.

But what made me really upset was the way these parties were allowed to get away with their mendacious display even when confronted with interrogators like Arnab Goswami. Who, although was quite prepared to place the contradicting facts in front of them, never actually got around to telling these politicians what they actually are – a bunch of compulsive liars.

I recall about 5 years ago, Stephen Sackur, a young journalist who anchors Hard Talk on BBC was interviewing Geert Wilders, the leader of the ultra-right party in the Netherlands. After challenging him on his stated positions, Sackur confronted him and said, “You have not convinced me one iota. You are a liar and a racist!”. Wilders spluttered, “How dare you say that!” But that was all he could do. He accepted the insult and continued with the interview.

I know Sam Donaldson one of the top anchors in the US once cornered Governor John Sununu in the same manner. The Canadian doyen of journalism made it a point to say that if the interviewee willfully attempted to mislead him, he would state so live on TV. Carl Bernstein was even more savage in his treatment of mendacity from the politicians.

Why can we not expect this standard from our own journalists? It got me thinking. And then the sad realisation came to me. The Fourth Estate has been corrupted almost to the same extent as the political sphere.

In our country, journalists unapologetically hanker after various privileges even if these compromise their professional obligation. A very senior civil servant once told me that most senior journalists are regularly feted by politicians and accorded privileges like subsidised government accommodation and plots of land that they are not entitled to. To plead that this does not compromise their standing is supremely unconvincing. Most senior journalists are regular guests at cocktail parties by senior politicians of all shades.

And the bonhomie between the journalists and industrialists is even more worrying as was evidenced when the Radia tapes came to light. I am prepared to accept after Barkha Dutt’s plea that she did not put in a word for Raja when the Cabinet was being constituted. But we are simply missing the point. What is obvious and has not been contested is that a senior business house was attempting to influence the government surreptitiously and she had ample evidence of that. Yet, she decided not to air this story.

And that is what makes me uneasy. When I notice that the presidential candidate who has given several interviews was not given the grilling a presidential candidate should have been. Pranab Mukherjee is known to charm the journalist community with his hospitality. Perhaps that is why they have not yet asked him to explain his role in the infamous Emergency, vis-a-vis the Shah Commission which has severely indicted him, his shabby attempt to hound Taslima out of this country and his alleged attempt to favour the Ambanis in their dispute with Bombay Dyeing. Pranab Mukherjee has quite a track record and the Fourth Estate would be doing the country a massive favour by questioning him about it – even if Pranab never invites them for fish curry and rice again.

What bothers me is that here we have a presidential candidate who has been indicted by an independent judicial commission headed by a former Chief Justice. When Indira came back to power in 1980, she ordered all the copies of the Shah Commission Report to be burned. Not a single copy exists in public libraries in India. I read that in the Australian National Library. Would it not be proper to obtain a copy of that report and place it before the people for them to make up their own minds? At least that is what would normally happen in mature democracies, which is what we claim we are.

I sincerely hope I am wrong about Pranab- but until the media does its job, doubts will always linger.

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