Pramod Kumar, BeyondHeadlines
It is indeed sad that the media, particularly the News TV, has again reinforced the notion that its only professional tenet is the relentless pursuit of the sensational and the insidious negativity. The coverage of the controversy regarding dilution of powers of the Election Commission and the unfortunate killing of two fishermen by the Italian Marines is the same old saga of subversive spin, hyper nationalism and blatant disregard of the facts. The anchors/editors have become too narcissistic to attend to their professional obligation of being a watch-dog for the people against all kinds of excesses, more so when the polity has become practically vision-less and succumbs easily to expediency. Their conceit and elasticity of movement from being mere messengers to arbiters of India`s fate every evening is astounding. The Election Commission has already been entrusted with a daunting task. The government of the day may or may not be entertaining “diabolical designs” to weaken it but the kind of “circus” on the TV screens for the last few nights will certainly render it so.
Our democratic process has, so far, served the country well notwithstanding its many flaws. One of our successes has been the Election Commission. The EC has earned rightly the gratitude of the people for conducting free and fair elections despite tremendous workload, demands, pulls and pressures. Its powers have been acknowledged, however grudgingly, by the political class, wholeheartedly by judiciary and other democracies. It has also often earned the ire of the governments of the day and of the politicians of all hues but that has never affected the EC.
Our democracy and the EC have devised a unique and effective instrument called Model Code of Conduct. The code prevents governments and ministers from making policy, financial announcements and undertaking fresh developmental work during the period in which MCC is in operation. It is not statutory as the name itself denotes but it has a power which is quite compelling. In the best of democratic process and practice, it is observed because of the respect for the near unanimous agreement and convention and has been honoured by all concerned. It is a pact between political parties and voters with the EC as the non-partisan umpire in order to provide a level playing field to all contestants in an election. It is hugely satisfying that the pact has and is serving our democracy well. Still, it remains a gentlemen`s pact where a breach has no legal sanction. However, because of the spread and frequencies of elections, the development work does get affected. Even presently, the annual budget has been delayed. This was also one of the reason i.e., disruption in developmental and official work Advani of BJP gave while proposing fixed tenures for Assemblies and Parliament.
Some of the Ministers of the government at the Centre have made statements which do undermine the honour and the authority of the EC. It is unacceptable. However, in order to provide a level playing field, EC withdraws the facilities which Ministers are entitled to during electioneering, but then EC does not treat them at par with other political leaders when they go out for canvassing. It is a double whammy for those Ministers who must take active part in electioneering. The two Ministers have been asked to desist from promising quota for backward classes belonging to the minorities which has led to a confrontation of sorts and this is not unusual if one goes by the electoral history. The quota has been objected to by the rival parties firstly as it appears to carry the weight of an official announcement even if it is in line with the manifesto and secondly as being based on religion because references have been made to Pasmanda Muslims. However, the quota on similar lines has been found constitutionally valid even by the Supreme Court. Also, an appeal for votes in the name of Ram Mandir (by BJP) and denigration of EC being servile to the ruling party (by Azam Khan of SP) have been overlooked. Will it be okay to appeal for votes in the name of re-building the destroyed Babri Masjid?
So there have been some friction between EC and Ministers of the ruling party and in walks Indian Express (of BECAUSE THE TRUTH INVOLVES US ALL fame) with a pilfered copy of a “secret” agenda of an impending meeting of Group of Ministers on corruption which also includes the topic of state funding of elections. The news report adds “Khurshid is reportedly a votary of giving statutory backing to the code advocating inclusion of the issue in the agenda for the GOM. Incidentally, at the last meeting of the group held on September 30, Pranab Mukherjee had opined that the model code was “one of the biggest excuses to stall development projects” and had accepted Khurshid`s request to “flag the issue” and include it in the agenda papers.” This is verbatim from the report that appeared in IE of 21.2.12. The Indian Express has repeated its story again today (22.2.12 – Mumbai edition meant for Goa) with the sly attempt to confuse the readers by printing a facsimile of “secret” agenda leaving out the date September 30 though it has retained reference to the date in the copy.
The report says that the question of statutory status for MCC among other subjects was under consideration on September 30 if not earlier. However Khrushid`s run-in with the EC which took place only in February has been reported as (to quote IE) “After its senior leaders defying EC strictures over the model code of conduct, the Congress-led UPA government has started working quietly on giving the code a statutory backing. If it is successful, complaints pertaining to code violations will go out of the purview of the EC”. The mischief is apparent. The agenda was prepared in September when there was neither an occasion nor a cause for any feud with the EC. A shining example of how a fact is first distorted and then turned into “the truth” suffused with speculative insinuations and conclusions. The report further insinuates that “a statutory backing MEANS the code violations would be covered by law and hence be tried in a court rather than being left to the discretion of the EC.”
The discretion of the EC prevails in model code of conduct then how is it that it would not prevail if the code is further strengthened and given statutory status has not been explained. It is pertinent to point out that once the electoral process begins, it is the discretion and powers of the EC which prevail all the time till the process is over. Our courts have scrupulously refrained from interfering in any electoral matter till the process is complete. We are a vibrant democracy and not a totalitarian country where four or five Ministers will confer in a secret conclave and dilute the powers of a Constitutional body like Election Commission. The Right to Information act has sufficiently empowered the people to frustrate such evil designs. But the innuendoes and the mischief was enough for almost all News Channels to pick up the IE story only to give it a starkly sinister tinge.
The reporter Sunil Prabhu of NDTV 24/7 was clearly uneasy with the spin that the anchor Sonia Singh, copying the redoubtable Arnab Goswami of TIMES NOW, was trying to give the “accessed” or stolen document. However, it was, along with the NEWSX and the Headlines Today, Arnab Goswami of TIMES NOW who, as is not uncommon with him, decided to give a free reign to his unseemly rhetoric, distortion, hectoring in painting a picture as vile as possible. Arnab, as made clear very often by him, is in communion with each and every citizen on all issues and thus was enviably placed to bash the perceived evil designs of the present government. He gathered an essentially amenable panel along with the presence of a token dissenter and went ballistic with his pre-determined views, conclusions and agenda. He dismissed with due contempt the suggestion that the idea of giving statutory status has not arisen out of the recent feuds even if the whole discussion was based on the agenda of September. He insisted with many flourishes and waving of the copy of said agenda that it is the Law Minister Khurshid who is responsible for the “pernicious” idea and it has been taken up only to settle scores with the EC.
He further dismissed the views of the eminent lawyers like KTS Tulsi and Soli Sorabjee that statutory status will only add to and not subtract from EC`s powers if the enforcement of code remains with the EC. Tulsi had further clarified that under the Constitution, no authority, not even the Judiciary, can interfere with any decision of EC, while the electoral process is on. Goswami did not stop at this only but tried to enlist the support of the opposition party BJP through Arun Jaitly to fight what he claimed was a sinister design of UPA and Congress. He forgot that the BJP too has had its run-ins with the EC. Remember the vicious full recall of the name of CEC, James Michael Lyngdoh, only to focus on his religion during elections in Gujarat after the Godhra riots. BJP even challenged the decision of postponing the Gujarat elections in Supreme Court and lost. It did not stop from casting aspersions on the integrity of another CEC, Navin Chawla, which led to the intra-EC slug-fest between Gopalaswamy and Chawla. And now the same Goswami was tilting at the windmills to save the nation from the proposed change of MCC to statutory status which he ordained will be catastrophic.
The whole episode has a sinister touch and all the brouhaha and exacerbation of distrust is the result of a reference about statutory status for MCC in a stolen official paper. Nobody knows whether any further progress has been made in this regard and what are the draft proposals if any agreement has been reached. But if you go by what the News TV is reporting, an earth shattering event has either already taken place or is about to take place and it will destroy the democratic process as we know it. The frenetic, sick imagination is at work only to garner a few additional trps and this has brought the nation to a halt.
It is apparent that the editors/anchors either willfully suppress the truth to sensationalize, manufacture perverse, cynical and miasmic perceptions or are incapable of doing any hard-work and finding out the facts about any contemplated action and its ramifications before taking up the same for tailored discussion in the studios. It is painful to listen to and go through their vicious and extremely unseemly insinuations and innuendos since it is verily a betrayal of the profession and treacherous disregard of the rights and freedom they enjoy as the “fourth pillar” of the Constitution. The most unfortunate aspect is that a determined, staid, fearless CEC like Qureshi too has begun to display the signs of paranoia. He allowed himself to fall in the trap of answering a hypothetical question about dilution of EC`s powers. Again, a former CEC, Krishnamoorthy, has taken upon himself to defend the EC, during his visits to different studios, without realizing that there is no draft proposal about the statutory status on table. He should be aware of the fact that the discussion he is taking part in and his advocacy of free and fair exchange of views, as befits a democratic country, is important. Yet no executive should be preempted from deciding its own course of action. The discussions are premature and the attention hungry anchors are indulging only in promoting disharmony. They are more interested in trps and their personal agendas than anything else.
It was more or less the same story in the case of killing of two fishermen of Kerala on high sea. Indeed, Goswami labeled it as “murder”. As if the Italy is a country from beyond the civilization and is thirsty for blood of Indians. The News TV ratcheted up spurious nationalism and has tried to bind the hands of the government and has made the job of finding a solution which will meet the ends of justice that much more difficult. The whole narrative was replete with either “diplomatic victory” when the Marines were brought to Kochi or wringing of hands at the deemed inability of our government to stand up to the diplomatic pressure. The unfortunate incident did not happen in Indian waters but in waters supposedly under India`s control and has many international implications. The piracy on seas is on the rise and tomorrow if Indians are involved in such unforeseen incidents in international waters, who will bear the responsibility? Let the courts and international authorities take a view in this matter, keeping in mind the prevalent conventions and past histories. The News TV has already stoked the disruptive emotions and the political parties have lost no time in agitating and calling for blood and summary trial of the Italians without realizing that any precipitous action may result in many international and diplomatic problems later on. It is absurd to label the Italian Marines as murderers and it does not bode well for our diplomatic efforts. TIMES NOW particularly has the tendency to go to the extremes which it did in the case of incidents involving Indians in Australia and again recently in case of an attack on Praveen Reddy in UK which again and as a reflex was termed as racial attack but turned out to be an attack perpetrated by his Indian friends. The Nidhis, Rahuls, Barkhas and Ashutoshs all want to ape Arnabs of News TV to commune with the people of India and aggravate their anxieties and misgivings whether a situation warrants it or not. Their phenomenal capacity for simulated outrage is indeed scary.
The News TV, invariably, puts out a picture of India which is at war with itself but this is not the whole truth. It must balance its reportage, discussions and above all it is time that anchors shed their arrogance and did some soul searching before parceling out blames indiscriminately. No proposal about the MCC is in public domain and yet so much time, so much bile, so much venom has been spent by all on as yet non-existent proposal. Is it what profession of journalism stands for? It is also apparent that media persons are averse to hard work and application of their formidably “destructive” intellect. In another controversy concerning NCTC, all anchors/editors are merely parroting the claims and accusations of its opponents. No effort has been made at all to find out whether accusations are justified? The issue has been in the public domain for the last two years at least and yet all are pretending as if an unpleasant surprise has been suddenly sprung.
(Pramod Kumar retired from Glaxo and now lives in Goa from where he keeps an eagle eye on Media and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect BH’s editorial policy.