The Mayawati bashing was unprofessional

BY Anand Kumar| IN Media Practice | 25/03/2010
True professionals stick to facts, avoid contemptuous language and let viewers and readers draw intelligent conclusions.
Experience and seniority cannot erase upper caste bias among media professionals, says ANAND KUMAR.

Once again, Mayawati’s candidness evoked a nationwide uproar, not merely a debate. All the news channels and newspapers were trying to expose the ‘scandal’ behind the act of BSP workers garlanding their leader with currency notes on the occasion of the silver jubilee celebrations coinciding with the BSP founder Kanshi Ram’s birth anniversary on March 15, 2010. Parliament was stormed by political parties who took a holier than thou stand on ‘corruption’ being perpetrated by Mayawati and her party. The renowned Yogi, Baba Ramdev was taking vows to eradicate such evil ‘Ravans’ from the Indian political scene. He even declared he would enter active politics and floated his own political party. The entire middle class, as usual, was enraged at the ‘vulgar display’ of wealth by ‘corrupt, ‘dishonest’ and uncouth Mayawati.

All the news channels presumed that it was an act of corruption that was being flaunted openly by Mayawati with scant respect for law and morality. They declared that the garland of currency notes was made from money raised forcibly or through corrupt means and not from donations of her supporters as Mayawati and her Ministers and supporters claimed. They kept daring her to disclose the source of the money but gave her hardly any time to do so. Instead they continued to propagate their own belief that it was ill gotten money without citing any proof to substantiate the charge. Each reporter or channel had its own estimate of the amount of cash woven into the garland and the figures quoted ranged from Rs. 2 crores to 51 crores when Mayawati’s supporters kept claiming that it was worth Rs 21 lakhs. None of the channels would accept their word, but neither did they give any reasons to dispute their claim.

Senior Congress leader Digvijay Singh even tried to evolve a formula for calculation of the exact amount and declared it worth Rs.22.50 crores. Mulayam Singh claimed in the Lok Sabha that it was worth Rs.51 crores. Many live debates were organized among leaders of the political parties and other intellectuals sometimes even without any one from the BSP to reply or offer any defence. All the political opponents of Mayawati saw a great opportunity in the episode and pontificated on moral standards that should be maintained by a political leader.

News channels at some point suddenly realized that other leaders have also been weighed in gold, silver and currency. They may try to use that as a fig leaf of objectivity but, unluckily for them, it is this late realization and the manner in which they handled it, that revealed their bias. They started adding that information to the stories but more like an addendum or fine print, without using it to focus on the larger issue of the conduct of our politicians in general and their supporters’ brazen display of financial support. It was clear, they were not interested in the issue, only in Mayawati baiting.  It all went on feverishly till next day Mayawati came out and wore another garland made from currency notes offered by her supporters. That acted as a shock treatment and the frenzy began to subside. And the debate lost focus. But to not lose an opportunity to bash Mayawati, which most of the Indian middle and upper classes relish, debates continue on anything against Mayawati and Dalits.

Here it is not being asserted that Mayawati is a very clean, flawless and ideal politician. But reason demands that she should be judged objectively and fairly. Why is she always subjected to ridicule and contempt? Is it because she is a lower caste woman that the media and the middle classes have reserved all their scorn for her?  Why are other politicians never targeted in the same fashion?  Is this a democratic tradition?  Here are certain aspects of the debates and reports that reflect subjectivity full of prejudices,  being taken up one by one.

First, it was presumed that the garland was made of ‘dirty’ money, that is, ill gotten cash. Then it was said that by wearing a garland of cash Mayawati was taking a bribe openly. From politicians to the press and TV news channels (Star News, IBN7, CNN-IBN, NDTV India, NDTV24x7, Aaj Tak and Zee News) and from intellectuals to common people, everyone immediately concluded that this was the highest example of corruption Mayawati had indulged in before the public. Some speculated on the amount the garland represented, some on this form of presenting cash and others on the brazenness of Mayawati accepting it on a public platform.  Those who objected to the form cited guidelines of the RBI against stitching currency notes into a garland and declared it an act of treason. Those who stressed on taking money in public preached moral standards and maintenance of the dignity of the office.

Do these comments stand the test of objectivity? No. There is no limit set by any law on the amount of donations that can be taken by a political party or any other social organization provided its source is not illegal. To examine the legality of an act is the concern of law courts. How can the media take it upon itself to declare that it was a bribe or the money taken had been raised through extortions? As regards the form of felicitation, Mayawati is not the first, nor the only one, to be garlanded with currency notes. The country has a long tradition of wearing garlands of cash. Moreover what is wrong in giving donations in an artistic or creative manner? As to the preachers of public morality who kept saying that she was accepting the ‘bribe’ openly, they seemed to imply that taking bribes secretly is all right.  Perhaps they do it secretly! How hypocritical?   Are they feeling threatened by Mayawati’s transparency?

The media truly blew the issue out of all proportion.  There have been cases of leaders being weighed in gold, silver and coins. No one ever made such a hue and cry. Then, why do so in Mayawati’s case? It is an open secret that all political parties get huge amounts of funds from various sources including industrialists. The president of one of the major political parties was caught on camera accepting bribes in a sting operation. The president of another political party advocated the case of a leading industrialist on the issue of pricing of gas in the Parliament which is highly unconventional and raised many doubts.  Now, to come to the media, it has been accepted by them that they are catering to the needs of the politicians and others by planting stories. Such people have no right to preach morality. 

Some specific comments made during TV debates were very striking. One was made by the BJP spokesperson Ravi Shankar Prasad on NDTV and other channels. When asked why Mayawati was being singled out, he said that with a stated agenda for development of dalits she should not be indulging in such activities. Well, firstly, every political party has a stated agenda for development of dalits! He should have been asked whether his party has given up the agenda of the development of dalits but the media certainly cannot be accused of thinking on its feet.  Secondly, it implies that if one does not have the stated agenda for development of dalits one can indulge in corruption! Further, he went on to complain that Mayawati paid Rs.14 crore as income tax. Did he mean that paying taxes is crime? If he is hinting at the accumulation of wealth by Mayawati it is the job of government agencies to verify its legality not his.

Another striking comment was made by the Congress spokesperson Jayanti Natarajan on IBN7. She was trying to shout down the BSP MLA from Rampur(UP) and said "UP was handed over to Mayawati not for this….." Does that not reflect arrogant and feudal mindset of the Congress.  Natarajan seems to have clearly forgotten that she is sitting in a democratic country or perhaps she was simply blinded by the arrogance of power which the Congress has begun to display frequently these days. Who handed over UP to Mayawati, Madam? We all were under the impression she had been elected by the people of that state. We did not hear anyone from the media pointing out this minor fact to her.

Only recently, another spokesperson of the Congress used abusive language for a senior minister from an allied party (in the UPA). In this debate Natarajan was well advised by the young BSP MLA that UP had not been ‘handed over to Mayawati’ and was democratically elected by the people and that the Congress was booted out from UP. The channel let her go. No hullaballoo on a statement that insults the people and the Constitution. Such hullaballoos are raised and loose comments are made by politicians and the media only when they talk of dalit leaders.

Not just political leaders, but TV anchors and reporters and commentators keep making derogatory remarks against dalit leaders. Vinod Dua, NDTV’s very senior journalist in his show •Vinod Dua Live- has many times said that all the statues being erected by Mayawati should be bundled up and sent to a storage space like the statues of Britishers in India were consigned to the coronation garden in Delhi. Had he been talking only of Mayawati’s statues it would have been tolerable. But these statues include that of Dr. Ambedkar and other highly respected dalit leaders. This  is how they treat dalit icons!

In another debate on NDTV ( The Big Fight) one of the panelists, Suhel Seth, was making anti democratic and anti people statements without being restrained by the anchor of the prgramme Vikram Chandra, and he was being applauded by the audience in the programme. He asserted that people like Laloo Yadav, Mayawati and some others like them have no place in politics, they should not be in power and it is sad for Indian democracy that they are there. He went on in his elitist snooty vein and tried to humiliate the co panelists • Vivek Kumar, a dalit professor and Nazmi, BSP MLA from Rampur (UP) • by making personal comments on their capabilities. The anchor did not object and the middle class audience as usual applauded him. In the first place such a person who has no understanding of our complicated social structure should not have been invited to speak on such sensitive issues. 

This shows that experience and seniority cannot erase upper caste bias among media professionals. In fact we can ask if they are true professionals at all. True professionals stick to facts, avoid contemptuous language and let viewers and readers draw intelligent conclusions. 

Baba Ramdev is suddenly feeling concerned for the poor dalits who are being exploited by Mayawati. His heart aches for them. But one is yet to see any poor person in his yoga camps and ashrams. He never thought of floating a political party when the country witnessed several major scams involving astronomical sums. He too has vowed to eliminate ‘Ravans’ from the Indian political system now that Mayawati was being bashed in the media. Traditionally he belongs to the community of Shambuk and not of Ram. He should not forget that the agricultural caste he belongs to was a ‘Shudra’ though a touchable caste. How far his dream of eliminating Ravans is realised and who all qualify as ‘Ravans’ for him is yet to be seen.

Apart from the prejudice against dalits in general and Mayawati in particular one still wonders what sparked this particular controversy. Why this hoopla was created to spoil Mayawati’s silver jubilee celebrations? Was it jealousy against the grandeur? Was it the threat perceived by the numbers and strength of the people at the rally? Or was it another case of a story planted by powerful parties? Was it part of a ‘package’ that channels offer to people seeking publicity, another paid news that one hears so much about nowadays?

 

The author is a Delhi-based social activist.

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