Of anger and amnesia

THE LAST Indian politician to send journalists to jail, most notably (but not solely) Kuldip Nayar of Ramnath Goenka’s Indian Express, was Indira Gandhi. Her reason was an emergency she imposed upon India in 1975 to preserve her power.

By M.j. Akbar (BYLINE)

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Published: Tue 18 Mar 2014, 10:52 PM

Last updated: Tue 7 Apr 2015, 9:39 PM

In the subsequent 1977 general elections, Indian voters showed precisely what they thought of such dictatorship when they threw Congress out of power. This went a long way to protect press freedom from potential censors. Politicians of every hue realised that some pillars of democracy are inviolate. After nearly four decades we have a politician, Arvind Kejriwal, who has promised to send Indian journalists to jail in large numbers once he comes to power because they have been purchased. He has extended the courtesy of doing so only after an inquiry, but left no doubt about his judgment, or the virulence of his punishment. He has since denied making such remarks, despite video proof that he did.

Kejriwal could be suffering from that selective amnesia that comes with growing paranoia. He has forgotten that wonderful winter afternoon last December when he was sworn in as chief minister of Delhi to a crescendo of hosannas on television and acres of praise on newsprint. The journalists are the same. The owners of media companies are the same. Perhaps what has changed is that the inner Kejriwal is coming on display.

The switch began to get apparent when the Delhi CM’s office became too small for Kejriwal’s ambitions. He continues to nurture the illusion that just as he became an accidental CM with Congress support, he can become a miracle PM with Congress help in May. And so he has taken on the job that Rahul Gandhi has so conspicuously been unable to accomplish, to tarnish the reputation of Narendra Modi. Robert Vadra has disappeared from his radar; and a bureaucrat who protected Vadra has become his candidate in Haryana.

Kejriwal clearly did not bargain for media scrutiny. Journalists reported dissension within his party with the same eagerness they show for his competitors. There were stories on NGO funding and allegations against his senior associates, which must have been irritating for a party campaigning on probity. He was surely also frustrated by the depth of Modi’s support. Modi offers something in a national election that Kejriwal cannot, a stable government which can nurture an ill economy back into health.

Elections demand composure under pressure. Anger is provocative, not least because it disconcerts the voter. An angry leader is easily tempted by the desire to shoot the messenger, but that is crime without purpose. It solves nothing, and you only injure your own credibility. Here is a thought for Arvind Kejriwal: If Indian media could be fully purchased, no government would have any problems. It is also bizarre to believe that Indian media could actually unite for or against any individual or on any issue.

This is not to suggest that media bathe in holy water every morning. The chief election commissioner V.S. Sampath has just written to editors noting that the “commission has taken some well considered steps to deal with the menace of ‘paid news’ in elections”. All journalists or owners of media companies are not angels. Some do take rewards to fudge the line between reporting and advertising. But the reporting of Gujarat’s economy by a nationwide cross-section of media and academia, is not “paid news”. And it has been going on from long before this election season.

Kejriwal should read the full text of Sampath’s letter to editors. In the first paragraph Sampath recalls “with gratitude the exemplary role played by Indian media in reinforcing our electoral democracy, and more specifically in lending critical support to Election Commission in delivery of credible elections each time”. This is the balance, which makes the search for deviation legitimate. Indian media has the support of Indians because they have done their job, without too much fuss, most of the time. This really is as good as it gets in this contentious business called democracy.

Such accusations occur elsewhere too. The Economist reports that the American state of Ohio has passed an election law that makes dissemination of falsehood about a candidate “designed to promote” his election or defeat, a crime. But that does not assume all American journalists are guilty. It only seeks action against those making false allegations and those printing them.

Just in case Kejriwal has not noticed, Kuldip Nayar continues to write — and very critically of Narendra Modi when so inclined.

M.J. Akbar is a senior Indian journalist

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