Not too long ago, politics was deemed as something that readers or viewers weren’t terribly interested in following. This wasn’t a completely incorrect assumption on the part of media bosses fighting over each other to gather their version of votes in the form of readers and viewers. The long tail of turn-of-the-century political journalism in this country that segued into the first decade of the 21st century was still obsessing about caste break-ups, growth indicators, fuzzy-wuzzy political economics — the sort of stuff that journalists (rightly) thought was the warp and woof of Indian politics, but never accepting that a growing readership and viewership found this oh-so-boring and “1980s”.
Barring the coverage of “communal politics”, a special genre provided as a main course for the national media during the late 80s right up to the continuing aftermath of the 2002 Muslim genocide in Gujarat, any self-respecting journalist, let alone any self-respecting editor, would measure himself against his ability to rattle off the demographic distribution of Bhumihars, Yadavs or Muslims in Bihar or conduct a similar elocution regarding the Vokkaliga vs Lingayat battle in Karnataka. For most people, the only interesting and entertaining bits about political coverage during this period in which the “political animal” journalist roamed the earth was Lalu Prasad Yadav’s bon mots and some drama whenever elections came to town.
Over the last decade or so, political coverage in the media has taken on a different hue. It’s less a quasi-academic setup where journalists meet in press clubs to let it be known that they know this much and more about what’s really happening in the corridors of political power by exchanging sociological case studies. Nowadays, politics is much more about political parties and the individuals who represent them. There are two reasons for this shift.
One, readers and viewers are more genuinely interested in what’s happening in the name of politics around them. A younger generation, instead of shifting wholesale to following only Bollywood and cricket, have realised that politics can be as entertaining as Sallu bhai’s latest forays and Sachin’s latest mammoth knock. These two perceived worlds were always from the same universe of news and current affairs. It’s just that journalists and media managers never saw it, and therefore never peddled it like that.
The other reason for politics not continuing to be blah fodder for debating societies rather than for readers and viewers at large was that politicians were finally seen to be doing things that they had always been doing: participating in the “real world” of college administration, in the aftermath of law and order lapses such as the December 14 Delhi rape case, sports administration whether involving the BCCI or the Commonwealth Games, public policy… you know, matters of the polis pertaining to the city, the citizenry and citizenship.
Politics was no longer about preparing for elections and political journalism was no longer about things leading up to elections. Politics, like the novel, was about everything. And that was something not only important but it has become increasingly “sexy” for the information or opinion consumer.
Which is why Monday’s decision by the Central Information Commission to make (six) political parties come under the purview of the Right To Information (RTI) Act is so thrilling for the media. Or should be.
Deciding on the petition filed by the two RTI activists, Subhash Chandra Aggarwal and Anil Bairwal (Praise Be Unto Them) of the Association of Democratic Rights, the commission ruled that political parties fulfil the criteria of being public authorities — notably by being substantially financed by the Central government via tax exemptions, free airtime on the public sector Air India Radio and Doordarshan before elections, not to mention land allotments for their offices — and therefore should fall under the probity of the RTI.
Today, as every editor knows instinctively by now, there’s nothing that gets readers and viewers as excited these days as demanding answers from powerful political entities. Did anyone in the Congress raise any doubts about the 2G spectrum deals? When did the Delhi BJP first hear of what former Karnataka chief minister BS Yeddyurappa was up to and what did it first do about it? How much stake did key Congress politicians have in the defunct National Herald newspaper? Why are many letters and documents belonging to or written by the first prime minister of India still deemed as “private” and out of public purview by members of the Congress? What was the exact expenditure on the Ambedkar parks in Lucknow and Noida made by the Bahujan Samaj Party chief?
These are some of the questions that, to quote a wag on television, the nation may or may not want to know, but they all sure make for juicy, exciting news stories. Even left unanswered by those these questions are directed to, raising these political questions through the now perfectly reasonable and legitimate conduit of the RTI can be delightful reading/viewing for consumers.
Media offices may be plagued with phone calls from “friendly” politicians. But if there’s any entity that can use the latest development of political parties coming under the RTI Act, it’s the media. Journalists, by dint of being part of a business model that sells information and news, are far better protected than lone ranger RTI applicants who, as the records show, are regularly threatened. And what clinches the argument is that by providing nuts-and-bolts political news — the equivalent of “who slept with whom” celebrity news which is always a draw — the media will have its never-ending supply of political news during off-season (“no elections in the horizon” time).
It’s six political parties under the RTI today (the petitioners had specifically mentioned these six national parties). There’s no reason why other political parties won’t also be brought under the RTI. (The DMK, for instance, had its patriarch M Karunanidhi turn 90 on Monday, the same day as the CIC order, and was photographed being feted with a massive Rs 1,000-only garland. Don’t you think readers and viewers would like settling down to one paper or channel to know whose currency notes made for the key ingredients of the gigantic garland around Birthday Bob’s neck?)
Editors and journalists can have a ball once they start tapping this new source of political news, which they can make an integral part of their news-gathering and news-providing operations. Readers and viewers will relate to RTI-gathered information far more enthusiastically than (important but “non-newsy”) RTI-info on the NREGA or the Golden Quadrilateral or Adhaar or zzzzz…. Only a fool will let such an opportunity of practically unlimited, low-cost, high-visibility content provision pass.