Sunday, May 27, 2012

Media creates its own realities

By Swapan Dasgupta

Perceptions are always difficult to shake off, even when confronted with a new set of realities.

The UPA Government’s ‘policy paralysis’ is on the whole both real and perceived. However, even if the regime suddenly acquired fresh energy and began acting purposefully, it would be some time before the perception of drift was wiped out from the public imagination. This is particularly so where media shapes the tone and tenor of the chattering class discourse.
Mercifully for Sonia Gandhi and Manmohan Singh, it is not merely the Government that is at the receiving end of what market analysts call ‘sentiment’. For the past three years, even as the reputation of the UPA has taken a battering, the BJP has also been pilloried for failing to set its own house in order. The transformation of the ‘party with a difference’ into a ‘party with differences’ may be a caricature, but it has also become conventional wisdom.
Given the fact that the media thrives on stereotypes, caricatures and uninformed superficialities, it was not very surprising that the bite brigade that descended on Mumbai last week for the BJP National Executive was looking for reaffirmations of set conclusions. Factional feuds make for interesting TV and lazy copy, and the BJP, it had already been decided, was in a permanent state of civil war. Consequently, when the Narendra Modi-Nitin Gadkari spat over Sanjay Joshi was settled amid a show of bonhomie on Day One, the search went on for something that would bolster a ready-made script centred on a formula. Policy issues and strategies, after all, need a measure of understanding and are difficult for excitable reporters to communicate coherently. And so it was that Day Two saw an overdose of ‘sexed up’ stories on the ‘unhappiness’ of LK Advani and Sushma Swaraj’s ‘boycott’ of the public meeting where Modi had the star billing. The net conclusion: the BJP was still at war with itself.
That everyone in the BJP is not on the same page is a truism. No political party in India, not even the CPI(M), possesses an army where every member of the officer corps think alike. This is democratic normalcy, and it is only in India that the media projects the ideal of politics crafted on the North Korean model.
These may be the reasons why the media missed the dual significance of the BJP’s Mumbai session. It failed to detect the emergence of two very distinct currents that, in turn, are tantamount to a major course correction.
First, the BJP has implicitly recognised that an all-powerful, over-bearing party centre is not viable. It has belatedly dawned on the BJP leadership that the party cannot progress unless it acknowledges and institutionalises the role of strong state parties with strong leaders. The return of Modi to the National Executive meetings after a long gap, the behind-the-scenes parleys that led to BS Yeddyurappa making a symbolic appearance on Day Two and the acknowledgment of Vasundhara Raje’s leadership in the Rajasthan were momentous developments.
If the trend towards a more federal BJP is allowed to proceed, it is certain to address the problem of factionalism too. What had clearly been apparent since 2004 has been the existence of groups and coteries in the States that draw sustenance from individuals in the national leadership. These factions have invariably been at loggerheads with the State leadership. A greater involvement of State leaders in decision-making at the national level has the potential of choking the lifeline of those who waged local battles with ammunition from Delhi. Had the BJP embraced federalism earlier, the problems associated with Karnataka, Rajasthan and Bihar may not have assumed alarming proportions.
Secondly, and as a corollary to the growing importance of State leaders, is the clear emergence of Narendra Modi as the proverbial first among equals. The exceptional status of the Gujarat Chief Minister — the third person to secure that exalted position after Atal Behari Vajpayee and LK Advani — didn’t stem from any formal resolution or even from any informal conclave of the worthies. It was by acclaim and as a consequence of pressure from the grassroots. From the enthusiastic response of the party’s political workers at the public meeting in Mumbai, it was clear that only Modi has the ability to both inspire and enthuse the faithful.
In a possible journey to the top of the political ladder, he has cleared the first big hurdle. He has, for all practical purposes, secured the endorsement of all the major stakeholders of the BJP.
Yet, it is still too early to say whether Mumbai was the prelude to Modi being anointed the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate for 2014. Any formal decision has to await the outcome of the Gujarat Assembly elections in December, consultations with allies and the overall flow of politics. Recall that Vajpayee was chosen the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate barely eight months before the 1996 polls. For the moment, and for good or bad, the BJP has honed in on a leader and a structure of politics—significant steps that matter more than the discordant notes the media was hell bent on discovering.
I wonder how today’s media would have covered the Calcutta session of the Congress in 1920? Would it have focussed on Gandhi’s emergence as the new symbol of nationalism? Or would it have honed in on the ‘sulk’ of the Tilak-ites and followers of CR Das?

Sunday Pioneer, May 27, 2012

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