Friday, August 5, 2011

Inanity takes over the country…..

All around us today, we find a huge amount of inanity. Inane politics is mixing with inane media and the concoction is finding an audience in an inane public. Inanity is bringing the government to a standstill. It is drowning out the great Indian growth story. Just a year back, we were bursting with confidence, having managed the economic slow-down rather well; and it appeared that we were ready to take on the world. Today, it looks like everything is lost. Only outsiders seem to have any confidence left in India; internally, there is a huge sense of despondency. I blame the politicians, the media, the institutions and the public at large for this sorry state of affairs. Who’s wringing their hands with glee? Our competitors, including our key neighbours Pakistan and China, who have been jealous and worried of our progress for long.

One “event” after another shows how logic has seized to matter in this country. How rhetoric rules the debates in Parliament and on TV. How even a body like the CAG loves the glory of government bashing, merrily commenting on policy matters when its mandate expressly prohibits it from doing so. Why, it even likes to host press conferences giving out details of its report, when rules and protocol demand that the report will be submitted only to the PAC of Parliament. The Supreme Court is no different. It’s fighting for its own place under the sun. It wants a piece of the action too. If it had its way, it would want to run the government – of course without the concomitant responsibilities. It ordered the setting up of a Special Investigation Team on black money – on the lame duck charge that the government is dragging its feet. In reality, it knows very little about the complexities of the subject matter and is grandstanding to the public. This is the season of government bashing....and anyone who joins in....and can help raise the crescendo a bit more is a hero. The CAG is a hero. Anna is a hero. The SC is a hero. The media that blasts the government is a hero. Everyone who attacks the government is a hero. Everyone who attempts to bring in sanity is a villain.

Soli Sorabjee used to be a darling of the leading English news channel in this country. It found his views palatable in the past because on 2G, his views matched the views of the channel’s lead anchor. Yet, last night, when the poor fellow kept counselling the anchor that a CAG report should not be taken as an “indictment” but merely as observations, he was cut off. The anchor preferred another member of the panel who was willing to go along with the anchor’s views that the CAG charges were “very very very serious” and “all hell had broken loose” and of course, the CM must resign. It was the same with Harish Salve, who was a favorite of this channel in the past when he used to attack politicians on 2G. But when he took the view that Anna’s movement was going too far and he had adopted the “my way or the highway” style, he was asked to shut up. I hardly see Harish Salve on this channel these days. He prefers to be on the other channel that appears to have a lot more sanity. Take the case of Suhel Seth – a person I don’t particularly admire and consider him to be a loud mouth. His views ran afoul of the channel anchor’s.....even though in the past, they matched.....when he hinted that Anna’s team should back off; he’s been absent from this channel for a long time now. Clearly then, to be on this channel, you need to tow the anchor’s line. And to add to the crescendo. What else have you been invited for? To speak the truth? Are you kidding?

Government bashing is growing as rapidly as a malignant cancer. No one knows anything specific, but everyone wants to join in. Hardly anyone understands the implication of including the judiciary under the Lokpal, but they don’t care. Hardly anyone wants to explain why a 30,000 strong Lokpal institution – which will also be paid lowly official government salaries and be bestowed with enormous powers to put people behind bars – will not itself become corrupt. Hardly anyone wants to understand the primary reasons why corruption starts in the first place. In a country that believes so much in homeopathy (which attempts to cure a disease from its roots), no one is willing to discuss the root causes of corruption. Everyone wants to talk about inflation, but hardly anyone recognizes that salaries are growing faster than inflation (for most people including agricultural laborers and factory workers); hence people are much better off than earlier. Most don’t even understand what inflation means. One person commented on my blog that India’s GDP was growing slower than the inflation. If only he read more, he would realize that the GDP growth is measured over and above inflation. So the GDP is actually growing at 8% (real GDP growth) + 9% (inflation) = 17% or thereabouts. The leading TV channel does not even know how to calculate percentages. If a Rs 100 budget becomes a Rs 900 actual spend, that’s a 9 times increase alright. But the increase in % terms is 800%, not 900%. It’s a minor detail, but for the TV channel, the 900% sounds bigger and better than 800%. But then, this is the season of inanities. Truth and reason hardly matter. Emotions rule. Anger for politicians dominates every single aspect of life. Hardly anyone wants to pause and think what the outcome of this all could be. If every politician is bashed (it’s not the Congress or the BJP alone that is being bashed.....basically, whoever rules is bashed), then who is going to run this country? Are we suggesting that we throw out democracy and make way for a dictator to take over?

Politicians must take the blame for this sorry state of affairs. Many of them (but by no yardstick, all) are responsible for this perception that they are corrupt. Many of them are responsible for the poor governance that we see in many parts of the country; for the kind of roads we have; the shortage of good quality schools; the lack of basic medical care; the inflation; the poverty all around…..They have to take responsibility and shape up. The people of the country have become far more demanding than in the past.

Even though it appears that people are really angry with politicians, is that really true? Is the fury of the people really that much or is it that public opinion has been hijacked by a few loud sections of society. Let’s look at some stats. The viewership of all news TV channels has fallen from some 9% of overall TV viewership 3 years back to some 6% now. In the meantime, GECs (like Star Plus in Hindi, Sun TV in Tamil etc) have grown their share; likewise, sports channels also have grown their share. If the ordinary viewers so adored the bashing of government officials, why wouldn’t they stay glued to their news channels? The reality is that in happy times, people indulge more in entertainment. In times of crisis (like a bomb blast or a war), they spend more time on news channels. Clearly then, the people at large appear to be happy with their well being. Again, why is it that readership of existing newspapers is stagnant? In fact, for many leading newspapers and editions, the readership is actually falling. Yes, overall newspaper readership nationally is increasing, but that’s because many new vernacular titles and editions are springing up in a hitherto-underserved countryside. One has to conclude that the larger public is unconcerned with – perhaps even unhappy with – the role our TV channels and newspapers are playing. It’s not as if there has been too much shift to the internet as a substitute of TV and newspapers either. Overall penetration of the internet is under a 100 million. Not even 20% of that is on broadband (that rules out watching news TV on the net). One more thing; this is the number of people who access the internet once a month. That’s it. Besides, a bulk of the internet users are using the net for emails and social media. Not for reading news. Isn’t all this a clear sign that the larger public is searching for more sunshine and less gloom and doom?

India needs reforms, but I am sorry this is not the way to go about it. People forget that India is a fast-growing economy.....not a dead one like Egypt which many frustrated people like to compare India to. Yes, there are problems with distribution of wealth, and those need to be addressed. But turning off the growth tap (our economy is starting to sputter) won’t help the poor become rich. Keeping the economy blazing, while concurrently fixing the problems, will. The poor don’t even care about all this debate going on. They are interested in their “rozi roti”. And their life has been improving (read Swaminathan Anklesaria’s various articles on this subject). In many ways, it is the rapid economic growth that has given society such a big voice. Ten years back, there were only a handful of news channels. Today, there are some 350 (but like I mentioned, the share of these channels is falling day by day). Public criticism should lead to a clean-up.....but I worry that too much of it could lead to chaos.

The real truth is that an irresponsible media – pandering to the wishes of a small section of the society – is hurting India and its growth story. A few opinion leaders in Delhi and Bombay and a few other big cities are bringing the entire government to a standstill. What should the government do? In my mind, one of two things: Either it should come out strongly in defence of its actions and engage with the people or it should ignore the “uprising” knowing that it’s reach is very limited; Either which way, it should not let growth stop.

1 comment:

  1. Prashant, you have pointed it out right. This could be the reason why there is a specific set of people who attend a particular channel on almost all topics and not other channels. The anchor is taking the lead in the discussion rather than the panel. Good Article.