Cats, whiskers and mice

May 13, 2012


SOME of the hype is sui generis: it comes with the DNA. But most of it is in the eye of the beholder.

By the latter measure, media becomes some fire-breathing dragon which has leapt out of dreaded mythology and landed straight into the reality of the living room, leaving its angry victim quivering helplessly, or bemused adherents in an addictive haze.

Media, alas, is only a cat in the corner. It spends most of its life doing very little except licking its own face, and purring contentedly at its own brilliance.

Narcissism and journalists are pen pals. But it does have one advantage. Unlike Narcissus, who kept staring at his reflection, this cat keeps its eyes open and records, to the extent it can, every brawl that takes place in the privacy of the home.

It is the cat you notice occasionally, but it watches you all the time. Not very moral, but then it is a cat. It is neither a Persian cat nor an alley growler, although it can turn into either, depending on which avatar it adopts.

Sometimes it gets all Persian, preening in silken fur when stroked by the establishment, or corrupted by gifts. At other times, the alley beckons, and it suddenly snarls and picks up a fight, particularly when it senses some threat to survival — in print, known as circulation; in television, called TRPs.

Once upon a time, this cat was a newspaper which used to go to bed by midnight. Now that it has developed antennae and acquired OB vans, it keeps awake longer, with a sort of serial consciousness. It is not really a big cat, although it does prowl the political jungle. But even on a bad day it does catch mice. And it has nine lives. Politicians who try and kill this cat forget this.

There must be some rational explanation for crazy behaviour, since politicians are, contrary to their reputation in some quarters, reasonable people. Why then are politicians in power tempted towards harassment of media, or censorship through some imbecile form that it is immediately transparent to everyone?

Perhaps their judgment has a direct correlation with office.

Every victor in a democracy now knows that defeat is only a matter of time; the age of permanent re-election is so last century.

But as long as that dismal horizon seems only a distant possibility, the powerful remain serene if not smug.

When possibility metamorphoses into probability, good judgment begins to disappear. The mood gets brittle. The prospect of life outside the pomp and perquisites of office makes ministers frantic, and sends chief ministers (as well as their mentors) into a frenzy.

What other explanation can there be for the crude decision in Andhra Pradesh to freeze the bank accounts of the Sakshi media group in the expectation that its print and audio-visual properties would collapse?

It is obvious that the Congress government in Hyderabad is in the throes of a terminal illness. The party is being taken apart by a nutcracker: Telengana is one handle, and the rising popularity of Jagan Reddy the other. The Congress is loath to acknowledge that both these handles are self-created.

The demand for Telengana has ebbed and flowed through Andhra politics from the 1960s, sparked by the legitimate urge for economic development, and spurred by a sense of injustice. Ironically, it was the Congress which managed to control this emotive demand, when it found a chief minister called Y. Rajashekhar Reddy.

Reddy shifted the economic momentum to the villages and sent a general signal that a better future was within reach. The results of the assembly and general elections of 2009 are evidence.

His sudden, early death, however, completely traumatised his party. Both its local and high commands lost the plot. A badly-timed misstatement by Home Minister P. Chidambaram resuscitated the near-dormant Telengana agitation; today, there seems little hope of curbing it without surrender.

Worse, Congress virtually drove Reddy’s son Jagan from its ranks, and then began to use all the coercive instruments of state in order to bully him into subservience. Jagan Reddy owns Sakshi. It is under assault for long-term and immediate reasons: by-elections crucial to the survival of the Congress government are due.

It is time its sympathisers told Congress that quasi-censorship does not work, for two reasons. Media has more resilience than governments imagine. It is also counterproductive, for in popular assessment it only exaggerates the impact of bad news. If you have something to hide, then it must truly be terrible. An odour turns into a stink, precisely because you are not allowed to gauge its level. The best recipe for media is to leave it alone. Some politicians cannot resist feeding it occasionally, and if this feed is just information, no harm and perhaps some good done. The fate of governments is not determined by media. When governments die, it is always suicide, never murder.

The writer is editor of The Sunday Guardian, published from Delhi, India on Sunday, published from London and editorial director, India Today and Headlines Today.