On the face of it, a Narendra Modi’s politics is as different from Mayawati’s as a Gujarati dhokla is from a Lucknowi seekh kebab. One is a Hindutva icon, the other is the Dalit mascot. One is a chief minister of a fast-track state, the other of a state still struggling to catch up with the rest. One prides himself on being a CEO-like politician, the other is credited with a transferable votebank. One is trying to live down his image as a hate figure for minorities, the other is trying to live up to her status as a symbol of caste empowerment. But there is a stark similarity between Modi and Mayawati: they are both authoritarian leaders whose identity is shaped by the politics of ‘victimhood’.
Central to the imagery of the politician as ‘victim’ is the role of the media, in particular the English language media, as a seemingly ‘hostile’ force. For Mayawati, the media is manuwadi, an upper caste, upper class dominated elite group that cannot stomach the idea of a Dalit woman in power. For Modi, the media is a collection of secular fundamentalists who are anti-Gujarat, anti-Hindu, and by extension, anti-national.
When Mayawati was encircled by the cash garland controversy two weeks ago, her reaction was to lash out at her critics by claiming that she was a ‘Dalit ki beti’ who was being targeted by upper caste conspirators. When there was an error made over the date on which Modi was to appear before a Special Investigating Team inquiring into the 2002 Gujarat riots, the CM was quick to denounce his opponents for allegedly engaging in a campaign to defame him and Gujarat. In both instances, the CM was projected as the ‘victim’, while the villain was not so much political opposition, but the media.
Let’s be honest: Mayawati and Modi attract strong reactions. The media, in a sense, is unable to extricate itself from this climate of divisiveness, making it almost impossible to have a dispassionate dialogue on these leaders. Why, for example, should every criticism of Mayawati’s alleged disproportionate assets be seen through the prism of caste, or any reference to the Gujarat riots be seen as an indictment of Modi? Conversely, can we not praise Gujarat’s economic growth without being accused of being an apologist for the CM? Unfortunately, a rising intolerance has shaped the media debate on these leaders, raising professional challenges.
In particular, the stereotyping of the media as being anti-Mayawati or anti-Modi has been used as a successful propaganda weapon by its proponents to push the media on the defensive. In the case of Mayawati, she has almost made her refusal to engage with the media a badge of honour. She will rarely speak to journalists, and even when she does, the interaction is confined to a monologue. For Mayawati’s core constituency of Dalits, their leader’s contemptuous treatment of the media only reinforces their faith in her larger-than-life image.
In Modi’s case, the media is divided into an ‘us’ versus ‘them’ categorisation. Only those who will toe the CM’s line are granted an audience, the rest are boycotted. It’s an attitude that is endorsed by the CM’s supporters on the ground, and in cyberspace too. Log on to a social networking site and piles of abuse await the journalist who might dare raise discomfiting questions for the Gujarat CM.
But why single out Modi and Mayawati alone? Across the political spectrum, senior politicians are unwilling to subject themselves to rigorous media scrutiny. After a decade in politics, Sonia Gandhi has only done a handful of soft focus interviews, with scarcely a tough question being asked. Rahul Gandhi has stuck to gentle, well-choreographed press conferences rather than engaging in robust debate. The PM rarely interacts on national issues with the media and even his annual press conferences no longer take place. Even L.K. Advani, who was once a rare high-profile politician who never hesitated from doing candid interviews, appears to have decided to go into hibernation.
Part of the problem lies with us in the media too. Where once the media thrived on its anti-establishment image, a number of influential journalists are now footsoldiers of the political class. Facts have been replaced by propaganda even as the creeping power of the public relations machine threatens journalism. Unfortunately, the changing nature of the politician-journalist relationship means that the space for independent journalism that can hold the politician accountable is shrinking. Access is now regulated, determined not by professional integrity, but individual loyalties. Asking uncomfortable questions to our netas, or expressing a strong opinion is confused with media hyper-activism, or worse, bias.
In the circumstances, when politicians claim they are the victims of media campaigns, it strikes one as a bit odd. Surely, it’s the media which is being treated with a mix of disdain and condescension that has far greater reason to complain.
Post-script: a few weeks ago, British PM Gordon Brown was on BBC being subject to relentless questioning by the anchor and the audience. Just wonder when a top Indian politician will agree to a similar interrogation without claiming to be victimised?
The views expressed by the author are personal.