Saturday, November 02, 2013

Sins of Emergency repeating themselves

By Swapan Dasgupta

It is sad that Indian newspapers, unlike their British and American counterparts, have not yet digitised their archives. Had they done so, I would have been able to offer readers a selection of the choicest quotes from Professor K.K. Tiwari, once a Minister of Information and Broadcasting in Rajiv Gandhi’s Government.

Tiwari, who was said to have been a teacher of English, loved using Shakespearian analogies to pour venom on the Congress’ then favourite hate figures, notably V.P. Singh who had emerged as the foremost challenger to the Rajiv government. Some of Tiwari’s interventions were very funny and the others were mystifying. Most people viewed him as a ridiculous loudmouth who used the government monopoly to transform the electronic media—AIR and Doordarshan—into propaganda vehicles for the Congress.

However, Tiwari wasn’t quite the buffoon he sometimes appeared to be. Subsequent investigations suggested that he had a major role in designing the St Kitts frame-up targeting the son of V.P. Singh—a conspiracy in which, quite regrettably, a section of the media played a collusive role.

The transgressions of the Emergency which even led to AIR blacklisting Kishore Kumar for his non-performance at a Youth Congress function—surely a warning to Lata Mangeshkar to now prepare herself for recriminations after she publicly endorsed Narendra Modi last Friday—have been well documented. Less recorded are the ways in which the Rajiv Gandhi government tried to narrow the space for dissent by putting pressure on the print media. The Indian Express, Statesman and particular individuals in The Hindu were targeted for unearthing the dirt on the Bofors scandal. But pressure was put on all publications to toe the line. At one time, the Ministry of External Affairs even had two IFS officers working full-time to ‘manage’ the newspapers.

I mention these incidents from the past because there are definite indications that history is repeating itself. Having erred in its belief that the anointment of Narendra Modi as the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate would lead to a favourable polarisation in favour of the Congress and UPA, a disoriented regime has reacted in panic. Where persuasion and better governance should have been the natural democratic reaction to political adversity, the government has embarked on the path of calumny, subterfuge and arm-twisting.

Telecom minister Kapil Sibal whose political ratings inside the government took a nosedive after Rahul Gandhi rubbished the ordinance to insulate convicted politicians from immediate disqualification, has crafted his rehabilitation strategy with a frontal attack on Modi. In itself that is a legitimate exercise in political warfare. But Sibal descended from the sublime to the ridiculous by blaming Modi for the sharp increase in the price of onions.

On his part, I&B Minister Manish Tiwari, who must take exceptional care that he doesn’t come to be viewed as the natural inheritor of K.K. Tiwari’s mantle, has put out a circular warning broadcasters with uplinking facilities that they risk their future by putting the Prime Minister’s Independence Day speech on par with others (namely Modi) who attempt to steal the thunder. Since it is an open question whether Manmohan Singh will address India from Red Fort in 2014, this silly advisory is less aimed at protecting the fragile dignity of the incumbent as instructing the electronic media to reduce their Modi coverage.

Then there are those who, even at this late stage, insist that Modi should be ruled out of the 2014 race using the police powers at the disposal of the government. In recent weeks, inordinate pressure has been put on the country’s premier investigative agencies to call Modi for questioning and thereupon file an FIR against him on the charge of masterminding encounter deaths. Pressure has also been put to somehow or the other implicate Leader of Opposition Arun Jaitley in a case that dates back to 2008.

That officials haven’t succumbed are due to two facts. First, the political antennae of the babus are very sensitive to stirrings on the ground. The emerging consensus within babudom this Diwali is that the UPA isn’t coming back. Secondly, the recent Supreme Court order on tenure has ensured that civil servants and policemen won’t do anything remotely irregular unless it is accompanied by a written ministerial order.

So far the attempt to make politics into an abattoir has not succeeded but a section of the government believes that no means are too petty to fight Modi. The manner in which advertising largesse is being dangled in front of media companies who are experiencing a squeeze on account of the general economic slowdown will no doubt see many channels and publications suddenly going soft on the UPA Government. There has already been the curious spectacle of media managers donning the editorial mantle and penning articles advising the country to be wary of Modi. Presumably, these are not aimed at influencing public opinion and calculated only to informing the money-disbursal teams in the ministries that the hints are being acted on.

Past experience suggests that last ditch attempts to undo the damage inflicted over the past four years are rarely successful. Therefore, unless the next six months lead to something dramatic, all the indications are that this may be the last Diwali, for some time to come, that many of the anxious political stalwarts are going to enjoy in a ministerial bungalow in Lutyens’ Delhi.

A Happy Diwali to them and to everyone else

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