Media in Governance in India

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Analyzes how the media and bureaucracy have come together to scratch each others backs while governance declines

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Media in Governance in India

  1. 1. Trial by Mediacracy: New Age Mercantilism Barun Kumar Basu In his acclaimed 1970 book, Between Two Ages: Americas Role in the Technetronic Era,the Carter Administration‟s National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski prophetically wrote“In the technetronic society the trend seems to be toward aggregating the individual support ofmillions of unorganized citizens, who are easily within the reach of magnetic and attractivepersonalities, and effectively exploiting the latest communication techniques to manipulateemotions and control reason....Power will gravitate into the hands of those who controlinformation....Human beings become increasingly manipulable and malleable.” Indeed Indianshave become “manipulable and malleable.” How has this happened in India? 1991- the year of India‟s liberation from the ghost of socialism – set the privately ownedmedia against the monopoly of a colorless Doordarshan. Staffed by experienced men andwomen who did not have even the freedom to dress attractively or speak otherwise than robots,the state-owned media, in the next twenty years Doordarshan has struggled to barely stay afloat.Similarly, the print media that was frequently throttled by poor or elusive newsprint, power cutsto its presses, withdrawal of government advertisements, the absence of the Internet and theubiquitous state censors, presented a picture of 19th century journalism. Ajit Bhattacharjee,Moolgaokar, Chalapathi Rau, Frank Moraes, CR Irani, Khushwant Singh, Sham Lal and manyothers kept the print media‟s spirit alive, if by nothing else, by the power of their pen and thedepth of their understanding and investigation of current affairs. However, 1991 threw open thedoors to the digital era, removed curbs on imports of newsprint and materials and allowed theprivate media houses to open up a whole new world of the electronic media. Even as India‟selectronic news juggernaut rolled, it was plagued by complaints of irresponsible reporting, paidnews, high decibel marketing, low level of ethics in news-gathering, etc. Notwithstanding allthese severe limitations, governance by media has become the norm, rather than an exception. Intime, a “you scratch my back while I scratch yours” culture has pervaded the corridors of power.As politicians and media have used each other in mutually gainful manners, the biggest loser andcasualty are governance and the common citizen. Recent media reports suggested that the Union Defense Minister had clasped his head inhis hands when his army chief informed him that the latter had been offered a bribe of Rs. 14crore two years back in return for passing defective Tatra trucks for the army. The fact that thesetrucks were not indigenized even after 26 years and had performed sleaze-free for the same timelimitedly found its way on TV channels. Instead discussions now moved to obliquely suggestthat BEML was a „conduit‟ for sleaze money. Neither was the government‟s failure to indigenizethese trucks and opening defense supply networks to the domestic private sector discussed atlength nor was the reportedly poor performance of bullet-proof jackets and many other itemsmanufactured locally by our private sector highlighted to bring out the limitations of this sector.Instead the media launched a witch-hunt for the alleged money-launderers that soon degeneratedinto a civil-military face-off attributed to a weak-kneed Defense Minster who was awarded theunflattering sobriquet of St. Anthony. Now the army may not even have any more Tatra trucks tocarry their men and war materiel. 1
  2. 2. In an alarming turn of events, the Indian Express impliedly insinuated an attempted coupd’état by two military columns that advanced, without prior authorization, on the nationalcapital. While most derided this report and again spoke of a civil-military face-off, few debatedwhether this was a deliberate ploy to embarrass the embattled army chief or whether suchmaneuvers required prior clearance, whether live ammunition was used, etc. There being noclarity on any of these points, one may even surmise that disaffected elements in the army usedthis opportunity for a dress rehearsal of a larger possibility in future, a dangerous futureprobability. Likewise, irresponsible disclosure of India‟s alleged unpreparedness for war was leakedby a leading vernacular daily heightening the civil-military face-off. What was never discussedwas the fact of India‟s emergence as the largest single buyer of arms in the international market.If these were true, and China reportedly objected to it, then why were India‟s defense forces soill-prepared for war? Here too, media glare centered on civil-military politics by introducingvoluble retired army officers into every nationally televised debate. Neither is there anysystematic analysis of how war materiel shortage came to this pass and what emergent palliativemeasures should be taken considering our hostile and inherently unstable neighborhood. Thecapacity of India‟s private sector to fill such critical shortages, diversion of funds from obsoletePlan schemes to defense purchases, the system of provisioning and procurement, roads, bridgesand rail tracks to reach our borders, even lightweight combat fatigues for our soldiers, all havebeen drowned by the media in a growing cacophony of irrelevant debate. No one discussed howand why the Defense Ministry, audit, vigilance and investigation were also partly responsible forthe absence of decision-making in such a critical area of national defense. Trial by the twin fires of media and anti-corruption agencies have caused the HomeMinistry to expend only 21% of its Plan funds for modernization of police forces in 2011-12when a third of the nation is under Maoist control. The media has become the happy huntingground for bureaucrats in their endeavor to paint politicians in adverse light. The unseemlymanner in which the battle over our army chief‟s age was waged by the Defense Ministry and thechief himself is another instance that could have been easily resolved amicably had both theDefense Ministry and the army chief not indulged their slugfest in the media. Similarly, themedia inference of the Home Minister‟s complicity with the jailed former Telecom Minister inallowing sale of 2G spectrum at throwaway prices interfered with the ongoing judicial process.What is never considered in the 2G debates are the facts of BSNL and MTNL‟s impendinginsolvency and the increasing likelihood of divestment of government holding in them beingbought over by the four major private telecom providers in India, new operators having beenlegally knocked out of the fray for new spectrum licenses. The current service providers‟ licensesare running out in a few weeks but the government may be unable to re-auction 2G spectrum bythen. The media does not answer if cellular networks will go off the air or hike their rates by asmuch as 30%, defeating the very purpose for which telecom policies were framed by successivegovernments. In a like manner, media debates on coal blocks for power generation black outdiscussions on the viability of such projects if coal prices were higher than imported ones,quality of domestic coal and economic mining, the affordability of power that would beproduced in these plants, the effectiveness of state power regulators in determining tariffs, etc.Instead a cacophony of inane discussions, solely for high TRP ratings, that never center oncritical issues of governance hogs the limelight. 2
  3. 3. Yet it is perhaps unfair to hold the media alone responsible. Senior bureaucrats haveconsciously been selectively leaking privileged information at critical times in the media debate.Highly visible press conferences at which official findings in reports are selectively presentedcreate an adversarial relation between the government and its agencies. This is when conductrules of the government perhaps do not permit such publicity at the drop of a hat. The media isonly too willing to play favorites as India Today’s recent list of ten most „powerful‟ topbureaucrats in India, including the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, shows. In its failure todistinguish between collective achievement and individual projection, India Today created animpression that all the organizations behind these super achievers were moribund - a grossfiction. Neither did the report highlight the failings of these achievers nor did it state how IndiaToday arrived at their rankings based upon selective and evidently opaque criteria, unlesssensationalism was the sole objective, which it indeed was. Bureaucrats are therefore governingthrough sound bytes to a willing media only eager to savor the fruits of their new found reflectedauthority. Evidently, institutions and governance are subordinate to self in a ship of state thatleaks from the top. This is when the nation is yet to see the ultimate impact of theirachievements, other than post-retirement MP/MLAship. The traditional anonymity of abureaucrat and collective responsibility of the Union Cabinet, all envisaged in India‟sConstitution, subordinate rules and regulations, have been willfully subverted by an inferior Godof cheap personal publicity by top bureaucrats, oblivious of the steadily deteriorating plight ofthe common man. India‟s march to the status of a nation of salesmen, bureaucrats and media,sacrifices good governance at the altar of self-seeking. In the end, obfuscation of issues in the national media by willing and selectiveparticipation of bureaucrats creates sensational news but blacks out relevant information. This, inturn, causes people to believe in horror stories about government that are not entirely groundedin fact. Biased perspectives are wrought upon government by the same set of bureaucrats andpoliticians who use the media to settle their scores against their opponents and peers. A weak andhelpless central government can only stand by and hope that all will eventually turn around andgood sense would prevail. Unfortunately, the common citizen remains the biggest casualty ofturf wars aided and abetted by a media eagerly counting its pennies from TRP ratings. Imperialprojection of self, rather than issues of governance, assumes priority. Needless to add, thecommon man continues living with high prices, uncertain water and energy supply, limitedquality higher education opportunities, lack of housing and social security, even better-payingjobs. What greater travesty of truth and justice is there, as Professor Brzezinski pointed out?The author is a former Ambassador of India. The edited version of this article waspublished in The Statesman on 22nd Apr, 2012 and is available online athttp://thestatesman.net/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=408224:special-article&catid=38:editorial&from_page=search 3

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