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Updated: May 25, 2014 22:29 IST

A challenge to media

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A.S. Panneerselvan
The Hindu
A.S. Panneerselvan

The election results are emphatic. There are no grey areas in the way in which the people of the largest democracy have expressed themselves. There were no ambiguities. India witnesses yet another change in regime: a change in which there will be no real and vocal opposition in Parliament. This is not a new situation. Indians had bestowed their hope on a single party in an overwhelming manner even in the mid-80s when Rajiv Gandhi came to power. It was N.T. Rama Rao’s Telugu Desam which occupied the position of the second largest party in the Lok Sabha with 30 seats. There was no official Leader of the Opposition.

What does an overwhelming verdict for a single political formation mean in a democracy? Democracy works only when there is a credible opposition. The act of dissent is central in a democracy. This is the time for the media and for journalists to remember Albert Einstein’s words: “blind belief in authority is the greatest enemy of truth.” One leader who showed us the way to act as a responsible opposition was Mahatma Gandhi. While the sub-continent was euphoric over independence, it was Gandhi who brought in a sense of balance.

In his Frontline essay, ‘The Opposition and the Left’, to mark 50 years of Indian Independence, veteran leader E.M.S. Namboodiripad recollected the role of Gandhi during the formative years of this nation. He wrote: “it is characteristic of Mahatma Gandhi that his was the first voice of dissent in post-Independence India: he refused to join the festivities on August 15, 1947. Again, in January 1948 he declared openly that he was not satisfied with the type of independence that India had won. It will not be an exaggeration to say that the Father of the Nation, almost alone, acted as the first Leader of the Opposition in Congress-ruled India. What was the root of his dissatisfaction? Was it that India was cut in twain, forming two enemy states out of a formerly united India?”

Role of media

The role of the media is to be a watchdog and not a cheerleader. There is a need to maintain the dividing lines of authority across institutions — Legislature, Executive, Judiciary and the media. The autonomous functioning of each institution strengthens democratic norms and it is important not to permit one institution to steamroll the other. The full import of the meaning of some words needs to be comprehended and acted upon. Words and phrases like ‘national duty’, ‘patriotism’ and ‘the need of the hour’ need close scrutiny.

Former American President Theodore Roosevelt has given us some insights in dealing with these big words. He said: “Patriotism means to stand by the country. It does not mean to stand by the president or any other public official, save exactly to the degree in which he himself stands by the country. It is patriotic to support him insofar as he efficiently serves the country. It is unpatriotic not to oppose him to the exact extent that by inefficiency or otherwise he fails in his duty to stand by the country. In either event, it is unpatriotic not to tell the truth, whether about the president or anyone else.”

The challenges in front of the new Prime Minister have been brought out more clearly by Seshadri Chari, National Convener, Foreign Affairs Policy Cell of the Bharatiya Janata Party. He wrote: “Modi will step into the PMO and may find little time to celebrate. The Prime Minister and his Cabinet have to tackle precipitous price rise and mounting food subsidy, clear the rotting food stock and yet feed the drought-stricken, prepare for an uncertain monsoon, rein in the fiscal deficit, spur industrial growth — and much more. Besides, they need to do all these things even before the ink of the oath-taking ceremony dries. The oath-taking itself promises to be no less dramatic… Rightly or wrongly, he has come to acquire an image and persona that thrills many but also deters certain others. As Prime Minister now, it is to be expected that he puts the politician behind and lets the statesman rise.”

The task before the media is to closely watch what the composition of the new Cabinet is going to be, what the priorities of the government will be, how they plan to conduct Parliament sessions where numbers are heavily lopsided, how new policies are formulated and how efficiently they are implemented. The role the media is going to don in the days to come is to act as a mirror to reflect reality and a window to look at new possibilities. Let’s not forget its contribution in bringing out the limitations of Rajiv Gandhi’s government in the 1980s as well as the various acts of omission and commissions of UPA-1 and UPA-2.

The task of speaking the truth, holding people in power accountable, making the political process transparent, retaining space for meaningful dialogue and not creating a false consensus are some of the difficult and yet unavoidable demands in front of every journalist and media organisation. An effective media has the potential to bring out the statesman from a politician.

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