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Not a fine balance

india Updated: Dec 03, 2011 23:31 IST
Karan Thapar
Karan Thapar
Hindustan Times
Karan Thapar

Is the media’s dismissive, if not contemptuous, attitude towards politicians responsible for the spate of violence they seem to be facing? Perhaps it’s an obvious question and for many its answer is pretty clear too. But it’s one thing to suspect you know and quite another to accept, admit and acknowledge. For old hacks like me, that can sometimes stick in the throat.

Today, however, I want to be upfront. Although some journalists don’t agree I can’t help feel the answer is yes. To simply pin the blame on a general deterioration in the standards of public discourse or on a wider intolerance and prejudice in society is insufficient. No doubt they’re part of the explanation but they can’t be all of it.

After all, can we really overlook the widespread and continuous demonisation of politicians in our media? From as far back as the 90s, Outlook has claimed politicians are ranked alongside prostitutes. For a whole decade TV discussions have ridiculed and laughed at them. We’ve scoffed at their accents, their manners, their clothes and their politics. Now, even the word neta has become derisory.

So if, today, shoes are thrown at politicians or if bystanders slap ministers, can we deny that the background in which this is happening includes — maybe its dominated by — the media’s contempt for politicians? Frankly, I don’t see how we can.

But is this any different to the tomatoes or rotten eggs that are often hurled at politicians in the West? As an expression of frustration or anger, it clearly can’t be. Civil society in many, perhaps most, countries tends to be aggrieved with its politicians. In that sense India is no different to Britain, France or America.

But when it comes to the attitude of the press, there is a big and telling difference. Their media doesn’t encourage or exaggerate the general disregard for politicians. Ours does. Even when they are critical they aren’t contemptuous. We become dismissive when we ought to be disapproving. Often it may only be a matter of tone and balance but that’s not a small or insignificant thing.

However, after this mea culpa there is a second and equally compelling truth that, this time, our politicians must accept. Their behaviour in Parliament also fuels anger against them. Indeed, there is a sense in which some of the blame for the regrettable way they are treated lies with them.

Let me put it like this. It’s not infrequently that the opposition in the West strongly and angrily disagrees with their government’s actions or pronouncements but they don’t resort to disrupting parliament or holding up debate and discussion. Why, then, does this unfailingly happen here?

At a time of crisis the debate in the House of Commons can be re-assuring and even unifying. In contrast, the Lok Sabha begins with pandemonium before it’s swiftly adjourned. I sat riveted when the Commons debated the phone-hacking scandal and the summer riots. I’m usually horrified and demoralised when I watch the Lok Sabha.

Yet it wasn’t always like this. Our Parliament has known glorious days. And the Anna debate proves our MPs can still scale the heights. Or was that the exception that proves the rule?

No matter how you look at it, the conclusion is the same. If our politics is to change — both in substance and image — our politicians, as much as our press, must accept and correct their faults. Neither party can get away from that!

The views expressed by the author are personal