Saturday, July 03, 2010

A Long Ride on a Wagon of Words

Byline by M J Akbar: A long ride on a wagon of words

News is the subtlest form of advertising. Perhaps we should be generous to journalism and qualify that: news can become the most subtle form of advertising, particularly when it comes dressed in quotation marks. The subtlety becomes more oblique when the quotation is used for collateral advantage, through a coy positioning adjacent to the Big Story.

There was a classic instance on the day the Union Government decided to decontrol fuel prices. The news appeared in print on Saturday 26 June. [It coincided, incidentally, with the 35th anniversary of a long-forgotten event called the Emergency. In those foolish old days governments needed mass censorship; in these more sophisticated times a careful, selective feed is more productive.] On the same morning appeared a story sourced to the meteorological office that the monsoons were in splendid health, that Delhi would be drenched by 1 July, and by September we would in fact have rains in excess of normal, climbing to 102%, four points higher than the earlier forecast of 98%.

On 1 July, with the Delhi sun still baked in Sahara, we read another story from the same Met saying that, er, the monsoons had stalled, on 18 June, along a flat line that began in south Gujarat and did not show any upward mobility till east Bihar. The agricultural heartland of north India, from west Bihar through UP, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, north Gujarat, Haryana and Punjab, was still as dry as a throat in a desert, and if rains did not appear by 4 July crop damage would begin. For all I know, you might be sitting in Noah’s ark within a week’s time, but that is not the point. The point is that on 25 June, when the Met planted the lie, it knew for a week that the monsoons had weakened. But it fabricated a projection only so that ministers, spokesmen and government economists, and those in queue to join the group, could go on television to reassure Indians that the inflationary effect of the fuel float would be offset by a good monsoon.

Does this work? After all, claims cannot change facts. Amul will not stop a rise in the price of milk to help out a Government at the cost of its balance sheet. And yet there is some purchase in cushioning the blow at the point of impact, since it deflects memory at least partially towards a positive hope.

A second blow might still ache, but it does not startle. Examine the media and public reaction to the massacre of 72 CRPF men at Dantewada and the recent killing of 27 jawans from the same force by the same Maoists in the same area. The first time, Home Minister P. Chidambaram was forced to offer a mock-resignation. The second, there was not even a half-resignation on offer, nor was one demanded, although, in terms of strict accountability, the second was a far greater lapse. Surprise was no longer an excuse. Instead, the Home Minister escaped on a rope of words.

He told state Governments that the CRPF should, in future, be sent only on specific objectives rather than “routine” jobs like road-clearing, which could be done by the state police. Is there anything more specific than clearing a road in a conflict where IEDs and mines are potent Maoist weapons? What Chidambaram was suggesting was that the state police should be sent where the potential of casualties was higher. Why? Is the life of a Chhattisgarh policeman less valuable than that of a CRPF jawan?

The real answer is politics. If state policemen die, the responsibility ends up with the local Chief Minister. If Central forces die, Chidambaram has to take the blame. On his visit to Bengal Chidambaram was happy to taunt Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharya with the thought that the buck stopped at the latter’s desk. That is the sort of equation he prefers. Let the buck stop in the states, and the applause, whenever it rises, ring through his office in Delhi. This is perfectly normal in democracy, by the way.

We customers of democracy buy words without enquiry about their value. This encourages those in power to embroider words with whatever we will be fooled by: sometimes pepper to enhance the taste, sometimes frippery to brighten the look, sometimes nothing more substantial than packaging. When you reach home, tear up the glittering paper, and open the box you find lots of straw under which is hidden a shrivelled raw mango instead of the array of Alfonsos you were promised in the marketplace of politics. Since there is no one else to blame for the transaction, you make pickle out of that mango and console yourself with the illusion that it is sustenance.

Lay out the sequence, measure the consequence, and then check whether you have been taken for a short ride or a long journey on this wagon of words. A station will eventually turn up. It is called a polling booth.

10 comments:

Delhi Goon said...

Sir, I read with interest your well wriiten article. Really drove home the point that state sponsored propaganda must be taken with a fistful of salt.

They say 'the pen is mightier than the sword'. Depending on who wields it, this pen can be lethal - the fourth state or the government machinery.

Kishan said...

Looking at the events of past few years I have come to believe in a cosmic reality that is directing the events in ways inexplicable to us mortals. There is unprecedented inflation but no one is willing to protest. Anniversary of 25th June 1975 Emergency comes and goes quietly, a minister swindles more than half a lakh crores belonging to the aam aadmi and no protests take place, so on and so foth.

Ram said...

Bravo-so Akbarji the solution in your words lies only in General elections which is again a big tamasha and again will throw up another bunch of politicians who are same or more corrupt then the predecessors.

AS all of us know there is no shortcut to achieving even some thing like a so called ideal situation and require hard work, dedication and honesty which Indian political, bureaucratic and business elite does not have the stomach to endure. Despite different development models and merits USA, German and Chinese leaderships have much to teach in nation building to our corrupt, opportunistic and nepotistic elite. What is the point if Bharat has mote than 1.5 Lakh millionaires when even poorest people are fiorced to give bribes for small Government formalities like birth or death certificate!If it is possible to make zero tolerance for corruption in our country we will progress rapidly in single generation-but when even highest judiciary is bribed like in Bhopal gas tragedy cause and so called feet of clay like Fali Nariman is exposed what can one say!
INDIAN LAW IS AN ASS FOR POOR AND MIDDLE CLASS BUT THOROUGHBRED FOR INDIAN FILSMSTARS AND ELITE.
Remedy lies in education, education and more education of our illiterate masses so that they at least know when thay are cheated and wil at least think ion terms oa an alternative instead of voting for caste, and religion for leaders who are only interested in their own personal and family's success. The Best example is Nehru-Gandhi dynasty,Abdullah dynasty, karunanidi dynasty who have given bad name to family politics in India. It is amazing how the most learned intellectuals like PM Manmohan Singh and Pranab Mukherjee- the oldest and wisest can get away with defending and Popular media defends like India Today buy calling this corrupt and nepotistic Bharatiya culture by name of COALITION DHARMA.

Any what can you expect of Indian political leadership when it deputes FOUR HUNDRED Uttarakhand State policeman to guard Cricket Captain Dhoni's marriage function BUT it cannot protect Indian people from terrorists from Pakistan? Indian Government will never learn it lesson and always shirk its responsibility in matters of governance and national security!


Warm Regards

Ram
Singapore

智超智超 said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Jon said...

There used to be time when pen influenced the masses...but it is no longer so

I was pained by Deora's comments saying the effect of fuel price on inflation was marginal...

Jon said...

There used to be time when pen influenced the masses...but it is no longer so

I was pained by Deora's comments saying the effect of fuel price on inflation was marginal...

BRS said...

"A station will eventually turn up. It is called a polling booth."

With similar thought firmly in my mind, I have been compulsorily voting in all elections so far - local, regional and national. Most people in my circle of friends have given up and don't bother to vote. With rapidly increasing corruption and decreasing accountability, I introspect and wonder how long I will continue to vote.

poor-me/പാവം-ഞാന്‍ said...

In recent past for us terrorism was some thing related to Islamic one.But we failed to see the growth of Maoists..now they have grown up to such level that we cannot neglect them and they are st reaching their hands towards our neck..we have to stop the blame game and act now ..just now only..

rahul said...

I can really travel with your words, a kind of logic bubble that you established was arduous to understand, but once i entered into it, i get acquainted with manipulations of reality by media, how a kind of camouflage political environment we are living in, thanks a lot for illuminating me.

rahul said...

I can really travel with your words, a kind of logic bubble that you established was arduous to understand, but once i entered into it, i get acquainted with manipulations of reality by media, how a kind of camouflage political environment we are living in, thanks a lot for illuminating me.