Media on two years of the UPA

IN Media Practice | 31/05/2006
The common man was missing from the media analyses of the United Progressive Alliance government’s two-year record.




Dasu Krishnamoorty



The economic status of senior columnists and editors of mainstream media seems to condition their socio-economic perceptions, conspicuously visible in the aspects of Manmohan Singh’s two-year performance that they chose to analyse. What is strikingly obvious is that they glossed over what is strikingly obvious: the common man (no gender bias meant). That person who becomes the centre of media discourse at election time seems to have evaporated in the analyses they made of the UPA (United Progressive Alliance) government’s two-year record.


A random sample of commentaries the event attracted abjures all reference to the great mass of eternally overlooked sections inhabiting the urban periphery and the badlands of the countryside. Most of it was limited to an obsession with personalities, turning the spotlight on the persona of the prime minister and the indifferent vibes between him and Sonia Gandhi. The country’s foreign policy and intra-ministerial politicking also figured in a marginal way. But the common man, hero of Laxman’s pocket cartoon, has vanished beyond view. Like Thomas Friedman, most journalists see what they want to see and leave the ugly scenes of starvation and suicides to the likes of a Sainath.


This is in stark contrast to the retrospect major political parties, the Congress, the Left and the BJP made, throwing light on the accomplishments and failures of the government in improving the quality of life of the common man. Regardless of whether they keep the promises they make at the time of elections and at public meetings, they vied with each other in paying lip sympathy to the underclasses. With mind-blowing power to impact state policies, media persons do not seem to employ it in the cause of the underdog.


Two senior columnists of the Indian Express, Neerja Choudhury and Coomi Kapoor, painted a picture of the prime minister comparable to "the boy stood on the burning deck." The prime minister does not come off as the helmsman of a billion people. Neerja Choudhury believed that Manmohan Singh was too conscious of the presence of Sonia. Much more than it is necessary.  According to Coomi Kapoor, Sonia Gandhi deftly gathers all bouquets and leaves Manmohan to face the bricks. She said, "As surrogate prime minister for Gandhi, Singh is aware that partnership with the UPA chairperson rests on the understanding that he must shoulder the blame for all that is wrong in the government and she must walk away with all the credit."  I. K. Gujral, a former prime minister, sounded (Hindustan Times) too hamstrung by sensitivity to judge another prime minister’s performance.  

While the Telegraph carried on the Sonia-Singh refrain, Asian Age gave credit to the UPA for decisions like the national rural employment scheme but rubbished foreign policy as being too pusillanimous. Only Prem Shankar Jha (DNA) remembered poverty as an issue and drew attention to the failure of UPA initiatives to reverse the growth of inequality that the increasing marketization of the Indian economy has fostered. "In two years it has created no crop insurance scheme, no unemployment insurance scheme, and no meaningful old-age pension scheme for the unorganized poor." The Pioneer actually used the words ‘common man’ in its editorial. It said, "The common man`s economic needs were given the go-by and instead some vague, esoteric needs like "pluralism" and "social justice" were addressed, forgetting that unless there is parity in purchasing power, all other considerations are meaningless."

Two columnists of CNN-IBN appreciatingly commended, "Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has won praise for his work." However, they do not tell us what work it is that won him praise. Most of the focus was on the embarrassment ministers like Arjun Singh, Saifuddin Soz, H. R. Bharadwaj and Natwar Singh caused to the prime minister and also on the impression that he takes orders from 10 Janpath. There is a mention of economic reform, ironically highlighting airport privatization. The metropolitan blinkers many reporters wear do not let them see those millions that have a charmed existence in common minimum programmes but outside that languish, deprived and unnoticed.

An NDTV-Mode opinion poll asked respondents to choose between Dr Singh, Sonia Gandhi and Atal Behari Vajpayee. Seventy-one per cent of them favoured Sonia as the prime minister. So what? There would have been some sense in this poll if those polled had the power to choose a PM in the same way TV viewers choose the Indian Idol. The other issues that figured in the poll concerned the chances of UPA completing its term, reservations for OBCs, the government’s foreign policy and a cabinet berth for Rahul Gandhi. Where is development; where is basic infrastructure; and where is poverty? Are these factors irrelevant in ascertaining popular opinion?

The overall picture that emerged from these columns is that of Manmohan Singh, the puppet, and Sonia Gandhi, the puppeteer. But the media did not care to remember the background of the prime minister that had a direct bearing on the policies that he and his finance minister pursued in the last two years. Both Singh and his finance secretary Montek Singh Ahluwalia are former IMF/Bank bureaucrats and with deep faith in IMF/Bank economics. In 1991, Dr Singh helped P.V. Narasimha Rao sow the seeds of economic reform, a euphemism for economic vandalism.


There was no national debate on the reforms nor was the approval of Parliament obtained for the most fundamental change in the country`s economic direction and focus. For a loan of just $500 million, the duo delivered the country to the Bank on a platter, giving it access to the process of budget and trade policy formulations. Dr. Singh misled Parliament by placing only one of the five Bank documents before it, withholding the other four containing conditionalities which the government should honour after it received the first tranche of the structural adjustment loan.


The Left, which supplies oxygen to the UPA government, accused the government of pushing through policies which are in the interest of foreign finance capital and big business and of being tardy in taking up pro-people measures in the CMP that would benefit the working people. The crises that affected the farmers and the rural poor escaped the notice of the government. The Left also was critical of the rising price graph. The BJP spokesperson referred to how the common man groaned under the burden of rising prices of essential commodities and made all the noises expected of a party out of power.

In a pompously titled document called Report to the People, the UPA took credit for launching the national rural health mission and national urban renewal mission and passing the national employment guarantee legislation. These are schemes like similar schemes in the past, shining in government reports and shedding the shine in the course of implementation. In fact, the policies of last two years and the years of the BJP earlier ended up swelling the number of millionaires and billionaires in the country who swallow up all media time and space. Meanwhile, those sections we fondly remember as the wretched of the earth eternally wait to get into media reckoning. 

M. S. Swaminathan, Chairman of the National Commission on Farmers, is of the same view. He said in an article in the Hindu (23 May), "Unfortunately, more than 50 per cent of our population living in rural areas have no option except to remain silent onlookers of this new-found urban prosperity, conveyed night and day on television channels. This is the Indian enigma."



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