Very curious. When Barack Obama suspended his campaign for re-election to supervise relief for victims of a terrible hurricane on the East Coast, there was applause even from his opponents. Republican strategists later suggested that this intervention provided the momentum that ensured an Obama victory. But when Narendra Modi stepped into Uttarakhand, very hurriedly followed by Rahul Gandhi, voices rose in protest and some columnists brandished a long pen to call them ambulance chasers.
Obama wanted votes. So do Modi and Rahul Gandhi. What is so terribly wrong about persuading voters that you can govern by proving you can deal with a crisis? What is so venal about politicians wanting to indulge in politics? There is a very welcome downside to this: if you leap into the fray without knowing how to jump, the negative backlash will be ferocious. Accountability is every democracy’s insurance policy against incompetence.
A few elements in media, quite unable to resist pomposity, slipped into stupidity — fortunately they were marginal. The news website for Hotmail, owned by Microsoft, framed a “Yes or No” poll in cringe-inducing terms that bashed the whole community of Indian politicians. It offered a choice between “Yes, it is natural for selfish politicians to take credit” and “No. Politicians must not stoop to such low levels”.
May I suggest a similar poll about Microsoft? “Yes. Microsoft is a multinational which would never dare to describe an American politician as selfish because he or she tried to help citizens during a natural calamity”. And: “No. Pompous amateurs like us must never reduce webspace media into a heckling circus with the IQ level of a garrulous judge on a reality show”.
What did we expect those in charge of governments to do? Go off on holiday while their citizens were in danger? Did some pundits carp because Modi, always a favourite lightning rod, got the idea first? Would they have queued up to applaud if some other Chief Minister had led the way? There is no adequate answer to such questions because the truth is often hidden in the subconscious.
What did we expect those in charge of governments to do? Go off on holiday while their citizens were in danger?
Rahul Gandhi, to his credit, understood what some journalists did not, that the people’s view would not be swayed by media pulpit oratory, but by the quality of relief work in affected areas. He may have even tested this proposition with a quick opinion poll, which is now almost obligatory in any serious campaign process. People are not silly. They do not blame politicians for an act of nature. But neither do they forgive governments that are unable to respond to the administrative challenge which comes in the wake of such a tragedy. If the Congress is in trouble in Uttarakhand it is not because Gujarat or Punjab officials rushed to fill their portion of the vacuum, but because the state government was missing from action.
There has always been space for tension in the wide territory over which the paths of media and politics criss-cross. This is perfectly normal, and should even be encouraged. What is fascinating is the constantly evolving dynamic of this relationship.
Politicians have always got upset at honest journalism: which, primarily, is placing in the public domain information that those in power would prefer to keep concealed. Exposure hurts their prospects of re-election. Uttarakhand, like any crisis, offered an opportunity to expose. The highest circles of UPA, for instance, must have squirmed at the news item that relief trucks organised by Congress and flagged off by Mrs Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi were stranded because drivers were not given sufficient money for fuel. This is the kind of story that travels well through public chatter.
In an innovative reversal, journalists are now beginning to lay down rules on how politicians should do their job. We are not talking corruption here, but the rather more vague “moral ambience” of decision-making. Both politicians and journalists once set standards for themselves; we now seem intent on setting standards for each other. Judgement is so much easier than introspection.
We shall see how this plays out, particularly with an election season underway. Tensions will peak as politicians seek to rise in the estimate of voters, and journalists try to puncture them. With so much at stake, it is almost inevitable that “facts” will sometimes be twisted for partisan ends, and that “truth” will be manipulated to defame opponents. This is going to be a particularly tough election, because power is neither gained nor surrendered easily.
Fortunately, the Supreme Court of both professions is the citizen. Wherever ego might lead a journalist, or an exaggerated sense of power take a politician, the true measure of worth is determined by the court of public opinion.
There is no journalism without an audience. There is no political office without a voter. This is the balance that keeps our system sane.