A tale of two shows

BY BIRAJ SWAIN| IN Media Practice | 31/01/2014
If there was one time that the Bhasa press schooled elite journalists of English news channels on how to tackle a presidential speech, then this was it!
BIRAJ SWAIN contrasts two NDTV shows

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to heaven, we were all going direct the other way - in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.

Charles DickensA Tale of Two Cities
English novelist (1812 - 1870) 

This timeless Dickensian paragraph would hold true for the fire and brimstone coverage by TV news channels of the President’s Republic Day eve speech and his disapproval of populist anarchy. While the same has come under intense scrutiny unleashing a game of Guess Who, it has almost been de rigueur to accept the legitimacy of the President making a political speech. A presidential speech giving something to talk about after a series of insipid and incipient speeches was just enough for a news peg for the over-present 24X7 news channels.

But Mr President’s other statements that “State is not a charity shop”, “the illegitimacy of questioning the sanctity of defence forces”, “opportunistic coalitions eroding the trust in governments and resource loot” haven’t received the desired attention till the January 27 prime time show of Ravish Kumar on NDTV India. If I am wrong, I would love to be guided to those shows.

Before we get to Ravish’s show, there was Left-Right-Centre hosted by Nidhi Razdan on the oh-so-propah NDTV 24X7 just an hour earlier at 8 pm.  The topic was “Arvind Kejriwal ready for a debate on Populist Anarchy” (Video here). What followed was an under-prepared anchor, an effete panel, scant analysis and a lot of words.

Starting with serial offender-cum-part time Law Minister Somath Bharti’s tweet (which I fully endorse still) on questioning the Presidential reference to anarchy and juxtaposing it with the 1984 and 2002 pogrom, the show opened with sound bites of many. Except for AB Bardhan of Communist Party of India, everyone played the guessing game of who the President was jibing at.

What followed as panel discussion was nothing less than the Republic of South Delhi/South Mumbai at its waffling, woolly best. The panellists were Captain Gopinath, who claimed to be not the official spokesperson of Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) (and hails from Bangalore but seems to be developing an ill-informed opinion on everything in Delhi), Prof Ashish Nandy and journalist Ashok Malik. The usual suspects Pinky Anand of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and Randeep Surjewala of the Congress were the omni-present mainstream national party representatives.

There was classic finger-pointing laced with the assumption that President was sacrosanct and so was his speech. Congress read AAP in the anarchy remark while BJP read Congress in the resource loot remark. And Ashok Malik underlined the irresponsibility of Arvind Kejriwal to go on protests with a mandate to govern. Since when have both of them been mutually exclusive?

But Gopinath was the brand ambassador of split personality syndrome. He derided AAP, even calling it indiscreet, reneging on the CM’s oath and delinquent. At the same time he waxed gloriously on Kejriwal’s guerrilla tactics. He really needs to make up his mind or stop hurting over the FDI-in-retail-rollback! Anchor Razdan topped it up with inane remarks,  an ahistorical perspective and a sole interest in a high decibel debate. One would blame it on the choice of panellists too.

Sans Prof Nandy, no one brought any analysis to the show. He talked of the importance of anarchy aka agitational politics in democracies, and cited Gandhiji’s own expressed anarchy and his mentors who were anarchists.

Now contrast that with the Prime Time show of Ravish Kumar which followed an hour later on NDTV India at 9pm. Starting with a research-backed opening statement, he listed all forms of wasteful charity ranging from pilgrimage for the elderly by the Madhya Pradesh government, laptop distribution by the Uttar Pradesh government, 2500 crore plus worth of statues by Gujarat and UP governments to the mangalstura and 60,000 cows distribution by Tamil Nadu government. Did the president say that the state is not a charity shop?

He took the President’s speech head on and questioned the illegitimacy of populist anarchy and reminded us of the centrality of Rail-Rokos and Parliamentary dharnas in democratic governance.

From the uber reverence and simplistic discussion of the presidential speech conducted by Ms Razdan and multiple other English and Hindi channels, to the critical engagement with the speech point-by-point by Ravish, the pendulum swung fully, in an hour and in another language format.

His choice of panellists was spot on. KC Tyagi of the Janata Dal (United ) with his fantastic research, the erudite Abhay Kumar Dubey from the Centre  for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS), Kamal Mitra Chenoy from AAP, Satyavrat Chaturvedi from Congress and Siddharth Nath Singh from BJP. Predictably enough, the two mainstream parties accepted the premise of the sanctity of the presidential speech and got into a slugfest on its direction and attribution, dragging AAP and regional parties into the mud-slinging.

But KC Tyagi with his historical perspective and fantastic research launched a take-down of the Presidential speech paragraph by paragraph. Some of his salient rebuttals:

  • On the government not being a charity shop: Earlier, when the President was the finance minister, he granted Rs 500,000 crore for big corporates.
  • On stable government: What is stable government? It is not mentioned in the constitution. The government must be pro-people. Stable government is slavery.
  • On corruption and wasted resources:  The misuse of resources is not just by AAP or regional parties. 

Talking of strengthening institutions, he reminded us of the UPA regimes’ own sterling contribution in eroding institutions like the Comptroller and Auditor General, Central Vigilance Commission, Central Bureau of Investigation et al, most of which happened when the President was himself part of the government. 

Abhay Dubey attributed the discomfort of the chatterati with anarchy to the political elite’s obsession with a two party system, presidential form of governance and underlined the dangers of an over-present, over-powerful President in an era of minority government and coalition politics. His take down was complete with questioning the locus of the President to rant about fractured mandates!  

And Kamal Mitra Chenoy educated us all of the constitutional debates when Dr Rajendra Prasad was pushing for more powers for the president and Dr BR Ambedkar and Pt Nehru’s successful push-back. He listed the diversity, the forms of manifested secularism which was way better than the Western European reductive secularism of banning hijabs, Judiast symbols and Christian crosses. 

And Ravish wrapped up the show challenging the presidential speech for running down dissent on defence forces and counter-posing that with the image of the Manipur Iron Lady Irom Sharmila and her indefinite fast in the invisible North-East under shadow of the draconian Armed Forces Special Powers Act. 

Compulsory viewing with multiple rewinds recommended! 

Treating presidential speeches with healthy scepticism and engaging with it critically was even more important considering the President has been a lifetime politician of the party longest in power and has some very dubious actions/decisions to his credit including his active participation in emergency as noted by the Shah Commission.  

In these times of Dickensinian comparative binaries, where we have more news, less ground-truth, more information, less analysis if there was one time that  the Bhasa press schooled English elite journalists on how to tackle a presidential speech, then this was it! Beyond the cacophony of English TV Journalism and its Usian-Bolt like sprinting to comment on the predicted lines, sans research, sans perspective, Ravish not only showed how such addresses need to be treated but how they can be taken down sans irreverence! And it is a shame that the panellists on Hindi debates like KC Tyagi and Abhay Dubey are rarely seen in the English panel discussions. In the era of Hinglish, it is time that such names became English news studio guests too. Who knows perhaps that will have a demonstration effect on the anchors and researchers upping their game? 

Time for school for some English star anchors... 

(Biraj Swain works on issues of poverty, public policy & citizen-state engagement in Horn East and Central Africa and South Asia. She is also a visiting professor at the UN University, Tokyo and Swedish University of Development and Agricultural Sciences, Uppsala. She is a self-confessed un-retrievable news addict. She can be reached at biraj_swain@hotmail.com)

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