Saturday, August 20, 2011

Hazare Hysteria

The cheerleading for Anna Hazare by the major television "News channels" is so blatant I almost felt embarrassed for the poor field journalists.

For the two days that Hazare sat in Tihar jail making the authorities squirm for their stupidity in arresting him, TV journalists were called upon to provide wall-to-wall coverage of a story that consisted of nothing more than crowds hamming it up for the cameras. They were reduced to asking ridiculously leading questions to elicit halfway intelligent responses from people who clearly had little knowledge of what the whole stir was about.

Some reporters with more integrity than is probably good for their careers noted the general ignorance about the issue, as well as the fact that most of the crowds seemed to be curious sightseers. Other reporters were enthusiastic propagandists. The station managements did their bit too, with crawlers and repetitive headlines that said things like “India say ‘I am Anna’” (sic), “Anna corners Government,” and “Stand up and be counted, support Anna!”

The “elite” newspapers were also unashamedly partisan. “Anna jailed, but India takes battle to govt,” screamed The Times of India’s six column headline on 17 August. The next day, in even larger type, it said “Govt Buckles, Anna Wins Round 1.” The New Indian Express declared in an all-caps headline “LOK POWER DEFEATS UPA.” The Hindu was staid by comparison, declaring in the main head: “Government arrests Anna, then Blinks,” and under it, “Mass protests across India catch Congress by surprise.” The paper diplomatically did not say what numbers of people constituted a “mass protest.”

In the two days leading up to Hazare’s emergence from Tihar Jail CNN reported there were “hundreds of people” demonstrating in Delhi. Times Now and Headlines Today reported “thousands” of demonstrators in the same period. At the Ramlila Grounds on Friday it became “tens of thousands.” The largest crowds outside Delhi were in Bangalore, a BJP stronghold.

 Television reporters and the "elite Press" studiously avoided noting the politicized nature of the support for Hazare. It was left to the lowly Business Standard to note that detail. A piece by Sreelatha Menon on 19 August reported that many who “you would imagine to be supporters of Anna are against him for being exclusivist, high handed, and a stooge for right wing parties.” Public support for Hazare, she wrote, was “perhaps more a testimony to the mounting public anger against brazen acts of corruption in the country, than any indication of concrete knowledge about Anna's Lok Pal Bill draft.”

 The article said "the number of civil society stalwarts who have lined up to speak out against Anna and his methodology for civic protest” was “remarkable."

Actress and communal relations activist Shabnam Hashmi recalled 1992 when "a similar frenzy led to the demolition of Babri Masjid."

Aruna Roy, the Right to Information activist who was part of the consultations with the government and Team Anna was “bitter about the way her views” were consistently “attributed to wrong intent and viewed with suspicion and mistrust” by Team Anna. Disagreement with Team Anna’s draft was deemed “tantamount to promoting corruption.”
Prominent activist Purushottaman Mulloli thought the whole campaign was "being scripted by political players with agendas—namely right wing ideologues like the BJP and the RSS, specifically the youth wing.” He thought it “strictly an upper caste, middle class urban phenomenon.” The BJP at its national conference in Lucknow last year had declared that corruption would be its electoral plank, and a few months later the ‘India Against Corruption’ campaign was launched.
Despite the vast amounts of airtime and print expended on the issue there was nowhere a critique of the Jan Lokpal Bill proposed by Team Hazare. Even the government did not make clear why the draft is problematic.

As far as I can see, the Team Anna draft is unacceptable for the following reasons:

1. It concentrates too much power in an unelected, unaccountable body. To open the judiciary to investigation and to put the CBI under the Lokpal is to create a Frankenstein's monster. If we call the Lokpal the Grand Inquisitor that problem should become readily apparent to everyone (or at least to anyone who knows the history of the Catholic Church).

2. To include all the lower ranks of the bureaucracy in the purview of the Lokpal is to condemn it to be ineffective. No amount of investigative power will be enough to deal with the volume of petty corruption at those levels. The solution to that sort of bribery is to set up in every Ministry a public email reporting system monitored by an outside invigilator. Anyone who is asked for a bribe should be able to report it. That should immediately reduce the volume of corruption, and if properly implemented, eliminate most of it.

3. To make the Prime Minister open to investigation by the Lokpal is to ask for trouble. If an adversarial relationship develops between the incumbents of the two posts it could tie up the whole government. The government Bill allows the investigation of ex-Prime Ministers; that should be enough.  

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