Opinion Op Ed 30 Aug 2019 Ex-FM’s arrest ...
The writer is a senior journalist and commentator based in New Delhi

Ex-FM’s arrest: Who decides where cameras focus?

Published Aug 30, 2019, 7:36 am IST
Updated Aug 30, 2019, 7:36 am IST
A requirement of the present ruling setup is not just the control of the media, but its “comprehensive” control.
Former finance and home minister P. Chidambaram
 Former finance and home minister P. Chidambaram

It may not be a fanciful rumour at all that Bollywood directors, with supporting staff in tow, have been surveying and photographing former finance and home minister P. Chidambaram’s Jor Bagh bungalow in the heart of Lutyens’ Delhi, either as a location or a model for a set. Scriptwriters are now under pressure to complete the dramatic yarn in double quick time. The political trajectory of the script will become clear as daylight if Anupam Kher is billed to play Mr Chidambaram. But, wait a minute, all of this could well be nonsense that can only be traced to the usual, unreliable sources.

It was not a simple arrest. That would have required barely two constables. It was mounted as a TV extravaganza for the entire nation — and beyond — so that they would be in awe of the power of the State. It requires mastery of the electronic media for perfect choreography on such a scale. Consider the contrast of Sonia Gandhi making a weak, tepid intervention. “Rajiv Gandhi also won with a two-thirds majority,” she said, but he did not indulge in “actions like this”, or words to that effect. It would, nevertheless, be uncharitable to consider scripts on the rise and fall of the Gandhis.

 

Mr Chidambaram’s arrest has come as a shock to the party, which has only one of its wings operating coherently — it’s legal team, particularly the Kapil Sibal-Abhishek “Manu” Singhvi duo. Let the party now prepare itself for more tantalising television.

Open rebellion in Madhya Pradesh is on the cards, where Jyotiraditya Scindia may change sides as a conscientious objector along with a number of MLAs. Should that happen, Rajasthan can’t be far behind. Bhupinder Singh Hooda’s rebellion in Haryana will unnerve the Gandhi family that much more because Robert Vadra owes a few to him.

My crystal ball tells me that the BJP’s relentless hunt for states is designed to accumulate a sufficient number of states to make a bid towards major constitutional changes. The BJP likes milestones. Who knows in 2022, the 75th anniversary of Independence, the nation may wake upto a presidential form of government. The climax, of course, will be reached in 2025, the centenary of the RSS, by which time the Ram Mandir may have been built, as the crowning glory, preparatory to the declaration of a “Hindu Rashtra”. At this point, my reverie is broken by a whisper: “Your fantasy has not taken into account the plummeting economy, the common people, the diversity of India.”

Well, it is these democratic roadblocks that the power of the electronic media may help to remove. The 2019 election results are a classic example. The economy, on which so much breast-beating is taking place today, was just as bad prior to the elections. In the interest of electoral victory, the cameras were not allowed to pry into that story. A requirement of the present ruling setup is not just the control of the media, but its “comprehensive” control.

It is generally not recognised that the mushroom growth of the electronic media is a gift of the neo-liberal economic policies set in motion in 1991 by then finance minister Manmohan Singh. It was in admiration of these economic policies that Mrs Sonia Gandhi made him Prime Minister. Mr Chidambaram was the finance minister in this sequence.

When the Babari Masjid was demolished in December 1992, the event was covered only by Doordarshan and a VHS weekly magazine called Newstrack. The new economic policies proceeded to spawn a culture of consumerism which clamoured for more advertisement space. Then followed the mushroom growth of TV channels. The competition for TRP ratings conditioned all programmes – the four “Cs” — Cinema, Cricket, Crime and Communalism emerged as the favourites. It was communalism that the politicians latched on to, and with rich dividends.

Meanwhile, accelerated globalisation was reinforcing trends in India. For instance, the post-9/11 Islamophobia amplified by the global media coincided almost exactly with the explosion of communalism in India. When Narendra Modi arrived in Ahmedabad in October 2001 to replace Keshubhai Patel as chief minister, he was not even a member of the Assembly. That is when the world’s (and India’s) attention was riveted on the occupation of Afghanistan. Islamophobia was in the air globally, reinforcing the saffron wave in India. Mr Modi was in luck.

Televised fireworks on an unprecedented scale in Afghanistan, which targeted Osama bin Laden, must have gone some distance in muffling the world’s reaction at the horrors of Godhra and the 2002 Gujarat riots. An already unbridled Western media broke loose in Afghanistan. I shall never forget Geraldo Rivera of Fox News flourishing a revolver in front of the camera: “I shall shoot Osama dead if I see him.” This was the new tone of the “free media” at its best command performance. Can you see traces of this intemperance in the copycat Indian media?

The Chidambaram drama draws inspiration from another genre of the Western media. Colour revolutions, the Syrian uprising and, most recently, the continuing protests in Hong Long. Let us consider Hong Kong, for example.

To stop criminals from becoming fugitives elsewhere, the Hong Kong administration proposed an Extradition Bill, extradition to the Chinese mainland, that is. Groups in Hong Kong saw this as an encroachment on their special status (echoes of Kashmir?).

Violent protests led to the withdrawal of the bill, but the protests, that started in March, would not end. It was generally speculated that the Western agencies were stoking them. A photograph appeared in local newspapers of leader of the protests, Joshua Wong, discussing strategy with Julie Eadeh of the US consulate in a Hong Kong hotel. This tended to confirm foreign interference. But quite brazenly, the protests continued.

The point is this — that supposing scores of Western journalists had not descended on the territory with their multiple camera units, would the protests have continued? Meanwhile, cameras have been switched off from the Yellow Vest protesters, a fixture in France and elsewhere in Europe for nearly a year.
The moot point is this — who decides where the cameras have to focus? The television channels or the establishments?

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