The phrase ‘tyranny of distance’ was first used by writer Robert Hughes in his epic book Fatal Shore on the history of Australia, a country seemingly burdened by its geographical isolation. This columnist has used it in the past to try and explain skewed news priorities where a minor fire in Delhi’s Connaught Place becomes breaking news while a blast in the heart of Imphal becomes a peripheral news item. Sadly, even in this age of satellite television and OB vans, the distance between the news capital of the country and the rest of India seems to be widening. An immediate beneficiary and, ironically, victim too of this grim news reality has been Arvind Kejriwal and his Aam Aadmi Party.
A few weeks ago, I was in Kolkata, struggling to get to a meeting because the roads were choked with thousands of Mamata Banerjee supporters. The West Bengal chief minister was kicking off her Lok Sabha election campaign and all roads literally led to the Brigade Grounds. Bengali hyperbole would suggest that 25 lakh people were at the rally; whatever the final number, it was, by all accounts, a massive show of strength. That evening, no major ‘national’ news channel, including CNN-IBN, had a prime time debate on Mamata’s political aspirations. Instead, Kejriwal’s decision to take on the power discoms dominated the discourse. Next day, the Delhi chief minister’s list of “corrupt” politicians again featured prominently.
In Andhra Pradesh, an equally big story was brewing. The Andhra Pradesh assembly had just rejected the Bill promising statehood to Telangana after a debate that lasted several days. What should have been an obvious lead story was again relegated to just another news headline. Most channels preferred to focus on, what else, Delhi’s man of the moment.
Although one doesn’t have empirical data yet, it would be fair to suggest on pure anecdotal evidence that Kejriwal has dominated the airwaves in 2014. When he completed a month in power, almost every channel had a detailed assessment of his first 30 days. We all seemed to conveniently forget that Delhi was just one of the five states that went to assembly elections in December.
Yes, Kejriwal and his AAP have a novelty factor on their side: their politics are changing the traditional rules of the game. He has caught the national imagination by the sheer audacity of his campaign: how many Indian politicians would call their main rivals “corrupt’ by name, sleep on the pavement in the bitter cold or resign when a Bill is not tabled? For an angry, rebellious India, Kejriwal is a ‘revolutionary’ figure. For a media that thrives on drama, conflict and controversy, he is manna from heaven. Television in particular likes leaders who shoot from the hip, and Kejriwal, in that sense, is made for prime time TRP-driven television.
The question is, how much of AAP is too much? Let’s be clear: Kejriwal was the chief minister of a state which has just seven Lok Sabha seats. A Mamata heads a state with 42, a Jayalalithaa with 39: should they not be analysed with even greater vigour than a Kejriwal? Today, every move that the AAP leader makes is subject to a rigorous examination. We celebrate the AAP leader’s simple living philosophy; but what of a Manik Sarkar in Tripura or a Manohar Parikkar in Goa who also observe a certain austerity in personal habits? Or are these states simply too small or far off from Delhi to register on the national news map?
This constant media scrutiny of Kejriwal has turned out to be a double edged sword. Yes, it gave him an instant national profile in a crowded political marketplace, but it has also eventually overwhelmed his government. We raised a din when AAP rejected FDI in retail, but a similar decision by the Rajasthan government attracted scant notice. A law minister’s midnight raid in Delhi led to a prolonged national debate but the violence at toll plazas by the MNS in Maharashtra became an inside story in the ‘national’ media. Questioning the Lieutenant Governor on the Jan Lokpal Bill was labelled ‘anarchic’ even as pepper spray being used in the Lok Sabha was seen as a typical ugly parliamentary slugfest.
While it is true that the oxygen of publicity in television studios gave Kejriwal and his movement enormous sustenance, can we simply dismiss AAP as a media creation? The fact is, the idea of a popular movement that questions a political culture based on cronyism and corruption was always going to resonate with those who were angry with the khaas aadmi “don’t you know who I am” sense of VIP entitlement. Critics like Kiran Bedi are perhaps mistaken to suggest that AAP would die if the cameras were switched off. The power of television is an ally for a media-savvy leader like Kejriwal (as indeed, it is for a natural orator like Narendra Modi), but the idea of a political party that questions the “system” will still be attractive even without the flashlights.
AAP’s long-term future will not be decided by television. It will be decided by the willingness to place content above form and to act on a coherent vision not continual impulsiveness. Kejriwal at the moment takes pride in being told he is a man in a hurry. But he must realise from the experience of previous anti-establishment heroes that there are no short cuts to power. The TV noise will move onto the next big story one day; only a focused agenda for governance will outlast the gaze of the camera.
Post-script: Since AAP was born out of the womb of the Jan Lokpal movement, I have often wondered: would Anna Hazare and Kejriwal have been as successful if the fast had been staged in distant Ralegaon Siddhi and not at the Ramlila maidan in the heart of the Capital?
Rajdeep Sardesai is editor-in-chief, IBN 18 network
The views expressed by the author are personal