Friday, February 22, 2013

Quality of debates in Parliament more dangerous than even terror attacks….

Thank god Parliament is at least functioning. Usually, the first few days (at the very minimum) are just washed out on one excuse or the other. But its hardly a happy feeling one gets when we consider the quality of debates taking place on two important issues that have rocked the country in the last two weeks – the chopper deal and the Hyderabad blasts.

Take the Hyderabad blasts. And the BJP’s “strong attacks” on the Congress on the subject. As per media reports, after Shinde gave his statement in the House, the BJP accused the Home Minister that if only he had gone to Hyderabad “in the night and come back the next morning”, he would have been better prepared. Really? But if he had gone immediately, wouldn’t the same BJP have accused him of disturbing the investigations? But read on to understand how silly the debates can get. Shinde apparently responded by saying that he worked “till 4 am, then flew to Hyderabad, then came to Parliament”, indicating that he had not slept and had in fact been fully involved in the investigations. Even at low levels in the corporate sector, companies don’t demand that their employees account for every minute of their time spent. But it’s not over yet. To Shinde’s statement, the BJP responded “Then you should have gone immediately when the blasts happened”. So having the last word was the objective. There was no suggestion given (but when does the BJP ever give suggestions?). If this is what the BJP means by strong attacks, then god save this country.

The BJP has proved itself to be the most petty, the most shallow of all opposition parties. It is also the most obstructionist; opposing for the sake of opposing. It sees ghosts when none exist. Last year, it opposed the setting up of the NCTC on some lame-duck excuses; mainly taking the “Center is attacking the federal structure” line. Federal structure, my foot. Today, if we had had the NCTC, we could at least have had a better co-ordinated intelligence gathering and sharing function between the Center and the states. It’s unacceptable that Sushma Swaraj today accepts that “But is Centre’s responsibility only to pass on information to states or help them in preventing it? Terrorism is not a normal law and order situation which states can handle on their own” (Economic Times). This is exactly why the NCTC is needed. But instead of accepting its responsibility in opposing the NCTC, the BJP accuses the Congress of “being soft on terror”. We know who’s soft on terror; the party that released scores of terrorists in Kandahar.

Then take this ridiculous debate on the chopper deal, where it is becoming increasingly clear that if anything, the Defence minister is taking it as a personal challenge to turn the tables on the opposition. He wants to cancel the deal, even if that’s an over-reaction. He wants to blacklist Agusta Westland, even if that will harm the country’s interests in the long run. He wants to initiate global litigation and arbitration, even though there is no prosecutable evidence yet. The BJP is finding itself losing the opportunity afforded by this scam. It’s grand hopes of calling it Bofors 2 is failing. So it’s only focus now is on “Italy” and “the family that received the bribes” hoping (praying) that it will somehow connect with Sonia Gandhi. The BJP’s debate in Parliament on the subject is solely focused on this issue.

Ditto with the JD(U). Apparently Sharad Yadav “thundered” in Parliament “We know that bribes were given and we know who gave the bribes. The government should now tell us who received the bribes” (Indian Express). He might as well give options for his question a) Sonia Gandhi b) Congress c) Rahul Gandhi. Such is the pettiness of debates, such the political purpose of it all, that Sharad Yadav pretends not to understand that the information he wants is simply not available. But the political objective is to “make it appear” like the info is available and the Congress simply “isn’t giving it”. It’s such politicization of issues that leads to a status quo on such important issues. The debates are hardly debates; they are simply ways and means to score political brownie points.

In this context, one has to look at the role played by TV cameras installed inside Parliament, supposedly to inform the public about the debates. I am not sure how many “real people” watch Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha TV, but what I do know is that several TV and newspaper editors certainly do. And then they “amplify” the most sensationalist parts of what they see. Sharad Yadav and the BJP are not interested in the debate. They are interested in “being seen” as being “tough”. Once they get enough “bytes”, they are happy to let the issue go. It’s all grandstanding. We really need to ask ourselves whether we need such trivialization of Parliament, just like we have trivialized news by allowed hundreds of news channels. Maybe its time to stop live telecasts of Parliamentary proceedings. The only ones who are benefitting are lowly politicians and even more lowly TV channels. (In this context, also consider the demand of the Anna Hazare’s “gang of 5” to telecast “live” their discussions with the government. They too were interested only in grandstanding, but who wants to understand this?).

Consider also how the TV media operates in our country. They work solely for their “advertising dollars” since all of them depend on that for their survival. And advertising flows depend on TRPs. And TRPs depend on sensationalism (so they have figured). TRP data is released weekly, and hence the focus on weekly “highs”. Every week, something has to be blown up sky high. Usually, it is about government bashing. So it’s the Delhi gang rape one week (or two if they are lucky), the chopper deal another week, and now the Hyderabad blasts for yet another week. Next week will be something else. This shifting focus does nothing to enlighten the public, nor does it do anything to improve the “system”. It’s entirely self-serving and if it works, it brings in the moolah for the channels. The biggest nightmare for TV “journalists” (I shrink at calling them that) is “good news”. TV journalists hate good news. Good news doesn’t get TRPs. Not surprising then that we hardly have any good news on TV. The 1st FDI deal in aviation, (Air Asia), gets just a few seconds. Sharply reduced Whole Price Inflation hardly gets a mention, but a minor uptick gets a full show. Chidambaram’s success in reigning in fiscal deficit gets no mention. Petrol price reductions are boring, but even a 50 paise price hike in diesel is “breaking news”!

The real truth is that the real danger for India is not the terrorists. They strike only once in a while. But our opposition, with their debased political debates in Parliament, and our TV channels, with their perpetual pushing of bad news, attack India every single day. If these are the pillars of our democracy, then we really need to worry about democracy….

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