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Selecting the President
Speculating on the suitability of the Presidential candidates and arriving at their own “shortlist”, the media have crossed limits of ethical journalism. Should the media transcend their putative limit as commentators to become newsmakers, asks HARIHARAN VS.
Posted/Updated Saturday, May 05 11:16:24, 2012

In this era of coalition politics where the national parties do not have the requisite numbers in the collegium meant for electing the President and there is uncertainty over support from coalition partners, a new recipe is increasingly becoming popular for making the President of India- Drop a dozen names in the media; stir it with the conflicting views of the ruling alliance, the Opposition parties, and the intelligentsia; filter out the 7-8 which meet stiff resistance from all quarters; cook the remaining 4-5 in the whims of real senior leaders of parties; spice them up generously viz. he/she is apolitical, is from this/that caste, is from the hitherto unrepresented region, is this/that regional party’s favorite; finally serve the same in a platter to the ruling or the Opposition party so that it can discuss the names with ease with the alliance partners.

Why should media play this “facilitator” role? Why not allow the Congress and the BJP to talk to their allies and firm up their choices? Should the media transcend their putative limit as “commentators” to become “newsmakers”?

If, after the two national parties announce their candidates, the media comment on the merits or demerits of their choice, it is understandable; they are playing their role as commentators. A classic example is the series of articles written by Arun Shourie in 2007 against Ms. Pratibha Patil’s candidature. The earlier controversy, which attracted media attention, was in 1969 when Indira Gandhi exhorted party colleagues to vote for V V Giri instead of the party’s official candidate. So far, with just a few exceptions, it is the newsmakers who have been making the first move and the media have been following the same with their critique.

Of late, one notices undue activism in the media, especially the electronic media. They want to be part of everything- before it happens. “After-event analysis” is generally relegated to the columnists of newspapers. Not content with the secondary role of performing post-mortem, the columnists also have started using the new recipe referred to in the beginning of this article. Otherwise, how does one explain R Jagannathan’s speculative conclusion that the choice is just between Ansari and Antony or premature dismissal of Pranab Mukherjee as a contender, and Inder Malhotra’s conjectures on who the Samajwadi Party would support and how state-specific conflicts would hinder the regional parties from putting up a common candidate in his article ‘Playing Presidential Politics.’?

It may be argued by some that currently the media are just “speculating” which is well within the realm of good journalism. Speculating, after all, is more proactive than just commenting and less participative than news making.

Speculation is not just about guessing a few names; it has to be an intelligent guess supported by “innovative” logic, an informed guess based on inputs from “reliable” sources for the “discerning” public to be impressed. Thus, what is being peddled as speculation is, in fact, the wish-list of the journalist or the media house, arguments detailing the virtues of each of the names in the list, predictions on why the name will find favor with some of the regional parties, and finally a summary dismissal of the rest of the names.

Concomitant to the adoption of this approach are the following risks:
First, willy-nilly one plays into the hands of a political party. The unsolicited speculation resulting in a shortlist of likely favorites of regional parties makes the job that much easier for the national party. Imagine that the Congress wants to proffer a name to its regional ally without knowing that the same is a favorite of the latter or at least acceptable to it. What happens? The last decade of coalition politics has taught us that every agreement between coalition partners is based invariably on quid pro quo rather than on principles. If one were to go by this trend, the Congress would have yielded to some additional demands of the ally even though its nominee is acceptable to the coalition partner. This is the price it would have paid for lack of knowledge. It is here that the shortlist prepared by the media after several debates and interviews with various parties comes handy. Armed with the knowledge of the ally’s preferences and reservations,
Congress can bargain from a position of strength! Is it the job of journalists to strengthen the bargaining power of the Congress or any other political party? Is it not better for the journalists to expose the spineless surrender of a national party to the unreasonable demands of its regional ally rather than proactively arming the party with a shortlist and enabling it to avoid a surrender?

Second, the journalist who advocates the list gets attached, inadvertently though, to his list. Rejection of his list or a name from his list is not only an insult to his professional ego but also deprives him and his organisation of the prospect of boasting “we broke the story first”. Fear of losing such an opportunity gives a subtle imprimatur to the next step of lobbying. We saw during the Cabinet formation of UPA 2 in May, 2009 how individual journalists such as Barkha Dutt and Vir Sanghvi had outgrown their organisation, their personal whims induced them to cross the boundaries of ethical journalism with impunity which apart from severely impairing the image and reputation of their respective media houses dominated the reportage also. Though the media houses chose to stand by the journalists, the personal credibility of the journalists concerned and faith in the integrity of Indian media in general suffered a huge setback in the perception of the public.

Third, while analysing the ‘presidential maths’ and throwing various permutations and combinations aimed at solving the conundrum, the journalist, in effect, offers the strategy which each party should pursue- whether the Congress should make Pranab Mukherjee President or Prime Minister, whether the TMC should support the UPA candidate or the choice of SP-AIADMK-BJD combine; whether the BJP should put forward its nominee or simply support the candidate put forward by the combine of regional leaders; since Mulayam Singh Yadav supported Kalam’s candidature in the past, whether the Congress can trust him now or should it open negotiation channels with the BSP. Each of these strategies passes through the rigorous SWOT analysis of panelists in TV debates and columnists in newspapers, and the foolproof final product is offered to the political parties.

Finally, encroaching upon the space meant for political parties is not the media’s role and they should maintain a healthy distance from politics. After all, the constitutional recipe for electing the President is not only time-tested but also far better than the clumsy one of the media, which is likely to leave a bitter taste.

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