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.