Somebody has rightly remarked that in a parliamentary democracy today&’s opposition is often yesterday&’s or tomorrow&’s government. The BJP-led NDA government, now into its second year, is facing the same heat the Congress-led UPA government did during its 10-year tenure. Over the past few days we have been bombarded by news of the garrulously unpleasant Lalit Modi, who, as commissioner of Indian Premier League cricket, made it not only famous but also a money-spinning venture. He now claims to be a legal British resident and has been enjoying asylum in the UK but is wanted for questioning by the Enforcement Directorate under the Union finance ministry for 14 alleged contraventions of the 1999 Foreign Exchange Management Act.
Lalit Modi has thwarted all attempts for his extradition to India for questioning, thereby violating the Indian Penal Code, and says all these allegations are a conspiracy of the former UPA government and of P Chidambaram, former Union finance minister, to fix him after the Sunanda Pushkar-Shashi Tharoor-Kochi IPL fiasco where Pushkar was allowed co-ownership of the Kochi team.
The reason I use the word “unpleasant” to describe Lalit Modi is because in the exclusive interview he gave to India Today channel&’s Rajdeep Sardesai in Montenegro, against a seaside backdrop, he comes across as a man with no patience to listen to anyone but himself. He goes on the offensive to justify his stances and rubbishes every allegation of having used people on all sides of the political divide to promote his business empires and to get out of the economic pickle that he has got himself into. The name-dropping episode where Rajasthan chief minister Vasundhara Raje Scindia was mentioned as a close friend of his wife&’s and who accompanied her abroad for her treatment and so, too, of Union external affairs minister Sushma Swaraj and her husband Swaraj Kaushal has put the BJP in a spot. Here is a man who will spill it all and embarrass friends in high places to cover up his ugly tracks.
The BJP has, meanwhile, defended Sushma Swaraj for helping Lalit Modi get his travel documents to visit India to see his wife — a cancer patient — calling it a humanitarian gesture. To allow an alleged economic offender who has been enjoying immunity from the UK government to visit the country for any reason, humanitarian or otherwise, requires that the official channels be activated. That the Union external affairs ministry&’s secretary was not in the know of all the diplomatic intrigues set in motion by his minister appear like a strategic catastrophe.
Sordid details of the cosy relationship/friendship enjoyed by the Swaraj family with Lalit Modi are out in the public domain. This is perhaps why the adage that those who live in glass houses should not throw stones at others becomes appropriate. Virtually all politicians live in glass houses. Relationships of the past are put through the scanner. The opposition party/parties are quick to allege all kinds of wrongdoings if a powerful minister is “close” to an economic offender or any other scamster.
The present political burlesque has been magnified by the media, which today is starved of real news. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has almost boycotted all media after he occupied the hot seat. He uses the official media, which is unquestioning and is compelled to carry his “Maan Ki Baat” monologue. During the campaign period, Modi used the media with elan and effectively reached voters in every corner of this country. Today, as far as I can remember, Modi has not given a single press conference since he became Prime Minister. This is not how a government behaves in a democracy. Rulers forget that they derive their powers from the people and that they should be using different media (not just the one-sided social media twitter) to reach out to people and allow a talk-back mechanism, not through channels of their choice but through popular media.
US President Barack Obama does not shun the media; he remains answerable to the public. So why does Prime Minister Modi fear the media? This irrational isolation of the media means that the BJP has shut its doors on any auto-rectification process that is necessary for every political party in a democracy, assuming that India is still a democracy, a concept that is increasingly under a cloud. Merely having an election once in five years does not make a country a democracy. There are several other intrinsic facets that come with being a democracy — a free and independent media being one of these.
And this brings me to the media of which I am an integral part. On the evening of 16 June, the overpowering anchor of a certain “national television” news channel raved and ranted because Lalit Modi refused to give it an interview. Apparently Modi had told the channel that it would have to sign some kind of bond with the UK government to get him to speak to them. The chief anchor of the channel frothed at the mouth as he shouted that the kind of journalism he practiced did not allow that kind of compromise. Only after I switched channels did I realise that Lalit Modi was speaking to a rival channel, which also claimed that this was “Lalit Modi&’s first tete-a-tete with any television channel”; in other words, an exclusive.
No wonder the other channel was furious; it had just lost the game of one-upmanship! Now this is what I see as the biggest challenge for the media today. We have become bloodhounds for Television Rating Points because the larger the audience, the more the money that comes in by way of advertisements.
Someone once used the term “media terrorism”; I think we are now in that age. The panellists coming on the shows night after night have to be furious, garrulous, illogical, boisterous, cantankerous, and must not show any courtesy whatsoever towards fellow panellists. This is our media today and the tragedy is mediapersons don’t even think there&’s anything wrong with the way they are conducting themselves. So when Narendra Modi shuns the media, he has a fair enough excuse to say that he does not want to be part of a crass, cacophonous marketplace where opinions are manipulated by intemperately impudent anchors.
Clearly the electronic media, which was once meant to be the medium to minimise the urban-rural divide and to increase the role of citizens in the policy-making process at the cost of politicised middle-men, has lost its way. Lalit Modi and his predicament have become more important than flood-hit Assam or other more important matters that affect 80 per cent of the people of this country who actually have no voice. How does he matter in their scheme of things? The IPL, in any case, was a game of, by and for the elite of this country. And politicians have always had cosy relationships with the moneyed class, no matter what the nomenclature of the political party. So when the Congress today crucifies Sushma Swaraj over her facilitating the rites of passage of Lalit Modi, they forget their own love affair with Quattrochi and other big-wigs in the business hierarchy.
A sad state of affairs, indeed!