FREE PRESS? THINK AFRESH

“Freedom is not worth having if it does not connote freedom to err”, Mahatma Gandhi, quoted in the Dictionary of Thoughts, originally compiled by Tryon Edwards, D.D.

The Press in India has proven that it is free; because, in the context of Elections-2003 and 2004, it has established that it has the freedom to err.

However, it has erred so much, and so menacingly willfully, that the question that hunts us now, is: what should be our creed- freedom of the Press or freedom of the People?

We are to think afresh in view of our experience with the Free Press during the most important events in the life of our democracy: the elections to the Assemblies in 2003 and to the Lok sabha with synchronized Assembly polls in 2004. First the first.

ELECTION-2003

Voting for Legislative Assemblies in the States of Chhatisgarh, Madhya Pradesh, Rajsthan and Delhi concluded on December 01,03. It exposed lurking of a new threat to Indian democracy from the electronic media, specifically the private TV channels. They vulgarized voters’ freethinking with motivated propaganda. It is difficult to quantify the money that fueled this mischief against our democracy; but this much can be said with certainty, that the role, played by TV channels to carry the BJP canvas, could never have been generated by detached professionalism.

Gallup polls had given absolute majority to Congress in three States, i.e. Chhatisgarh, Rajsthan and Delhi and a relative majority to BJP in Madhya Pradesh. The Lok Sabha elections not being far away, BJP was deeply disturbed.

What the party of the rich and unscrupulous could have done, it did. It planted its candidates in constituencies but drafted its electioneering to revolve around one single person each in every State whom it projected as its chiefministerial candidate such as Mr. Dillip Singh Judeo, Ms. Uma Bharati, Ms. Basundhara Raje, and Mr. Madanlal Khurana in Chhatisgarh, MadhyaPradesh. Rajsthan and Delhi respectively. The mischief is that they were not pitted against the Congress Party, but against the incumbent chief ministers of Congress, notwithstanding separate constituencies. The electronic media was the eager medium of this foul play. It televised parodies in a design to ridicule the congress leaders and also live interviews with leading questions well planned to brainwash the public in BJP favor.

The private TV channels made a farce of people’s right to information and their motivated noise was so overpowering that the voters’ right to be informed of election manifestos lost importance and no issue other than what the media projected to cultivate support for BJP could gain any significance. The Prime minister and his colleagues campaigned for their party but that remained person-centric, not issue-centric. The electronic media did not allow any relevant issue to grow.

The Prime Minister did not allow Mr. Vajpayee to canvas for BJP. Rather Vajpayee used his Prime-Ministerial position in the campaign. Electioneering became a battle between the Prime Minister of India and the Chief Ministers of four of the Congress-ruled States. And, as Prime Minister, he fed the people with unverifiable statistics in order only to denigrate the congress chief ministers in the eyes of the people of their respective states. As for example, he used his position as Prime minister to tell the people of Rajsthan that the central government grants worth Rs.700 crores could not be used by the State as a result of which the people had to suffer. Had Mr. Vajpayee of the BJP told this, the public might have refused to believe, but it was the Prime Minister of the Country! The media did not react. It ignored its inherent duty to educate the public.

The Prime Minister was compelled to drop Judeo from his cabinet as he was caught in flagrante delicto when a foreign agent was greasing his palms. But instead of asking appropriate authorities to initiate penal actions against him, the PM put him under his umbrage and made the people of Chhatisgarh understand that he continues to be his close associate notwithstanding the oustal. When, immediately after the voting, the CBI could take Judeo to task, can there be any doubt that the central investigative body was not allowed to act during the period of electioneering as it was unable to antagonize the PM? Was it not the duty of the media to expose the roll of Vajpayee in this case? But it did not keep mum. It heightened its propaganda in support of Judeo as the saver of Hndu religion from Christians with tactful fingers pointed at Sonia Gandhi’s religion by birth.

It was natural on part of BJP to confuse people with misinformation, as informed opinion could never go in its favour. It is an existing danger to Indian democracy because it stands for and aims at transforming our democracy to plutocracy. It can be politically fought out. But it will be very difficult to overcome the new danger that showed its ugly might against our democracy during the time when electioneering was going on and on the day of voting. This is electronic media, precisely, the TV channels.

Prior to the day of voting, all the Congress chief ministers were in higher position than the BJP aspirants in public rating. But except Delhi, Congress suffered in the rest three States. It happened, because, the educated and alert people of the National Capital State could withstand the brainwashing campaigns taken up by TV channels whereas the uninformed or misinformed citizenry of remote provinces succumbed to it.

Election-2003 established that our democracy is not only facing danger from the agents of plutocracy, but also from the modern medium of brainwashing: the electronic media.

The freedom to abuse press freedom has encouraged the media in India to proceed to establish an empire of its own.

ELECTION 2004

In this empire every member thereof is free to grab as much money as it can in corresponding proportion to its ability to mislead Indian citizenry through misinformation or disinformation. Willingness to serve plutocracy at the cost of democracy would be considered as its fundamental duty on which shall depend its fundamental right to grab money. The media has established during election-2004 that it is willing and eager to serve plutocracy. Hence the atmosphere is ready for the Media Empire to bloom. We may call it as rise of mediacracy in India.

This new threat to our democracy commences from Vajpayee’s use of media as his main weapon in the war of ballots.

Having gained confidence that he can brainwash the people and win elections by using his pack of Goebbels in the media, following the unexpected victory in assembly elections-2003, Vajpayee decided to seek a fresh mandate for himself ahead of schedule and before the main rival Congress overcomes the shock of unexpected defeat in three assemblies. To quote Coomi Kapoor, “the BJP’s supreme confidence surfaced its sweeping victories in the assembly elections in M.P., Chattisgarh and Rajsthan”. It means, serious observers are of equal opinion that, in subconscious, Vajpayeeji had lost hope of returning to power, as he knew that he had not given good governance. He regained confidence “only after” the bought over media fetched success for BJP in three states.

He can use again the pet Goebbels in the media, dazzle people by wanton propaganda and net them into his ballot box, he thought.

Within no time, precisely on December 10, barely a week after the elections-2003, the National Highways Authority of India took up erection of gantry signboards all over the country on national highways highlighting Vajpayee as the only one who dreams for India and under whose stewardship alone, India is shining. From the income of tollgates where every vehicle user is being fleeced in the name of highway development, as much as Rs.50 crores were pumped in to the gantries for unprecedented propaganda in favour of Vajpayee and only Vajpayee.

Goebbels in the media

After erection of these gantries within record time and in matchless speed, Vajpayee picked up private TV channels, electro-media journalists and those who matter in the world of print media and on buying them, coined the slogan, “India Shining”. Satisfied with this clandestine arrangement, he called upon the NDA to agree to a fresh election, prevailed upon his cabinet to make a resolution in this regard and advised the President to dissolve the Lok Sabha in order to call for constitution of a new House.

What occurred thereafter is a matter of shame for them in the media who have not come to believe that they are not the conscience keepers of society. They saw themselves sidetracked. They saw the vested-interest hooligans take over the voice of media.

In the name of freedom of press, the private TV channels started eclipsing voters’ mind by concocted opinion polls suggesting an absolute majority victory for Vajpayee and NDA. The prominent newspapers and national journals did not lag behind. From taxpayers’ money, these supposed to be faithful watchdogs of the people of India, took away 450 crores of rupees, officially, to propagate for Vajpayee and his team in the guise of “Bharat Udaya” and/or “India shining”.

The TV channels did not stop at that. They tried their best to convince the people that despite rise of support, the Congress cannot win. A survey conducted by India Today indicated that a large majority of the voters make up their minds on political issues on the basis of what information they gather from media. This was highlighted with a motive to convince innocent voters that as media predicts the victory of Vajpayee, majority of them will consequently make up their minds in his favor.

The media was bought over for Rs.450 crores drained out from public exchequer. Equal or more sum of money they grabbed from clandestine sources. Pet and puppet journalist displayed their intellectual acrobatics in the nuddiest manner possible, to ensure an NDA victory. But, like gentlemen look askance at prostitutes, Indian voters maintained a distance. Shekhar Gupta of Indian Express, in a signed article on May 08, two days before the last phase of elections confessed, “But this was not the whole truth. In reality, the battle was fought between the media with NDA in its lap at one side and the people of India at the other. It was a Press versus the people situation”.

The Press was desperately canvassing for Vajpayee, the people were determinedly refusing to accept.

Gupta was aware of this. Hence he wrote, “What more proof one needs to see that the media was bought over by the ‘feel-good’ merchants and the media owners were misusing freedom of press to make ‘noise’ to prod people to vote for those merchants?”

So, the freedom of press was freely abused by the ‘Press’ itself to cultivate support for Vajpayee in whom the people had already lost confidence.

The first phase voting having indicated people’s aversion to Vajpayee, the media made an orchestrated propaganda that even though the support for Congress had shown a rise it was too slight to unseat the NDA. But the second phase of polling also indicated a clear decline in support for Vajpayee. Then all on a sudden the media went berserk and tried madly to maneuver a mass apprehension that economy of the country shall collapse unless people support the Vajpayee team. The base of this was the manipulated crash in share market. This is the trick mediacracy can play as and when it so decides.

More than a month after the occurrence, Kuldip Nayar has dealt with the mischief. In an article, well consideredly titled ‘Marketing the coalition’, he has demanded for a “specific inquiry into the second exit poll held on April 26”. It would be proper to quote the following portion of his article for proper appreciation of the situation. He has written, “The share market crashed and the Sensex came tumbling down by 213 points. The estimated loss was around Rs.50,000 crore. The fall had never been so steep since the 9/11 attack. SEBI has all the records of who sold their shares and who bought them. I wish, this information would be made public. My hunch is that some pattern will be discernible – a pattern which will expose the machinations behind the crash”.

That there is a streak of doubt in the mind of a top-ranking journalist of India like Mr. Nayar on electronic media’s possible involvement in the share market crash that had sent shock waves into the electors’ mind at that crucial juncture of the general elections, is enough indication of the mischief a ‘Free Press’ is suspected to have placed during the elections.

With the end of the election and on change of government in the center, one was expecting that the media mischief would end. But that is far from reality.

The same mediamen who were to admit that “this voter will not vote on the idea of ‘feelgood’, unless he is really feeling better than before”, have started saying that NDA failed because it failed to dismiss Narendra Modi from chiefministership of Gujrat . The design is clear. People’s aversion to privatization must not be projected. It must not be admitted that Vajpayee’s rule was better for the private profiteers, but not better for the people than before.

Advani admitted that the ‘feel-good’ factor has failed them. Many in BJP hierarchy too.

Arun Shourie, Vajpayee’s disinvestment minister felt very badly bruised. The private profiteers for whom Shourie was working also felt bad.

Then mediacracy awoke. An argument by Sekhar Gupta can be cited as an example of the conspiracy mediacracy is cooking up. “If this (defeat of NDA) is a case of the poor of India speaking out against the NDA and its economics, how come the poorest of all Indians, the Oriyas, have voted back the BJP and its most loyal ally, the Biju Janata Dal?”

It cannot be said that Gupta does not know the answer to his question. If NDA is voted back in Orissa, it is because, as he has said, being the poorest, the people of the State are the least informed. And the political ticks thrives there, where people are not informed. So Gupta knows the answer.

But the pattern of argument he advanced was not aimed at strengthening democracy; but was organized to serve the design of plutocracy. So he said, it is Modi, not shourie, who can be held responsible for NDA defeat.

Vajpayee did not agree. Supporting Modi, he said to his party’s parliamentary wing on June 01, that the defeat has no link with violence. It implied that, if not Modi, then the pro-profiteer policy of BJP was responsible for the defeat.

Mediacracy, defending the private profiteers, did not sit idle.

Shourie was any how to be defended. The result: the same Vajpayee has now agreed that the Gujurat violence was a major cause of his defeat. And, Shourie, initially kept out of consideration for a Rajya Sabha seat, has now got a nomination from U.P.

So media has now developed a sort of mediacracy in India. Our democracy is threatened by this mediacracy.

EPILOGUE

Is it desirable then to have a free press? This is a serious question at the moment.

“To have freedom”, Rahel had underlined, “is only to have that which is absolutely necessary to enable us to be what we ought to be, and to possess what we ought to possess”.

If we are serious to keep our democracy alive, we ought to determine as to what maximum extent the press can be allowed freedom. In the climate now prevalent in India where the rich and the privileged are for nothing but their own comforts and prosperity, and where administration is subservient to the rich and the privileged, and the ‘Press’ is infested with unscrupulousness, any encouragement to mediacracy will bring doom to our democracy.