Barkha Dutt has been the face of modern television in India. “We the People” was an articulate expression of the middle class. It was the first time we really started to talk about what we want from society and government. The format and the content of the show “elevated the debate”. Her sincerity drew increasingly large audiences and the show fast became the benchmark for intellectual debate. Yet, years later, the architect of “We the people” thinks of the voice of the people as little more than a mob and defends a status quo that may already have been rejected.
The fallout from the Radia tapes appear to have defined Barkha’s outlook. On the receiving end of the sorts of allegations that are commonplace in the mass media, her defense centered around the irresponsibility of those who questioned her motives. She seems determined not to make false charges against anyone, but that is fast turning NDTV into a platform for speeches, rather than a place where difficult questions are asked. While the Radia tapes do not imply that she is “on the take” as some have suggested, they do suggest that she has grown comfortable with the political system in a way that clouds her judgement. The real story was that of a political lobbyist who was playing power broker to seek to influence political appointments. Yet she was looking at Nira Radia as nothing more than a source, while Radia was in fact the real story.
NDTV’s coverage of the Anna Hazare movement spoke to the growing discord between the voice of the people and Barkha Dutt’s views, as they have evolved. NDTV’s first instinct was to question the size of the crowd. In one particular clip, the ticker read “about 2000 people gather at Ramlila ground”, while the live reporter herself pegged the number at 35000! Once the movement grew so large that numbers were no longer questionable, the debate moved to questioning the legitimacy of what was clearly a mass movement. While the seemingly obvious center for debate was whether the government was losing legitimacy through its inability to respond to the voice of the people , the debate was instead channeled into an abstract, theoretical debate about democracy itself.
The underlying question of whether civil society should actively oppose an insincere attempt by the government to tackle a menace that has engulfed every layer of Indian society had an obvious answer. The debate was fundamentally binary. Through rampant corruption in programs such as NREGA, the PDS system, sarva shikha abhiyan, etc we grease the palms of bureaucrats in the name of welfare, out of our hard earned money. Too many of us are forced into a corner in an attempt to comply with labor laws that are incompatible with the demands of our economic structure. We face systemic corruption that forces us make a false choice between efficiency and propriety when we should legitimately be able to demand both. We have every reason to be outraged, and if you aren’t, you are standing up to preserve a deeply immoral status quo.
Ultimately, NDTV was doing little more than to promote the government line. The artificial debate that the government sought to raise about democratic principles was dangerous precisely because the underlying issue was one that was binary. The fact that NDTV was playing along led many to question the merits of our parliamentary system and raised questions that went far deeper than anything the movement aimed to raise. That we would accept a grand compromise was never in question. Anna was always going to lose our support if the government was seen to have heard our voice, with action and not mere words and platitudes.
In the final days of the movement and once the grand compromise between the people and our government had been struck, Barkha Dutt’s shows were remarkable in content and substance. There was even the odd glimpse of her sincerity in her attempt to push an outraged Mani Shanker Ayer in a live debate. Her shows appeared balanced and spoke to a nuanced narrative which was now reality: “we the people” had spoken and our voice had been heard by the government, while preserving the supremacy of parliament. This was now a time for nuance and she delivered in style.
We now stand at an inflection point, facing serious questions. For democracy to function, we need our institutions to work. The fact that the vast majority of us have flouted the law in order to get something done undermines democracy. However, when violations of the law are that pervasive, it isn’t a question of individual or even social morality, it’s a question of why the system is promoting immoral behavior. The fact that court cases last a generation doesn’t allow democratic checks and balances to function. That the system is all too often prone to influence cannot be denied. That “influence” spreads wide in Indian society, as things stand. To see the back of nepotism, cronyism and the abuse of power, we seek a truly independent media which reflects the voice of the people and seeks to engage civil society in a legitimate debate about the path forward.
It is evident that the distribution of natural resources in particular, but also the award of construction and power projects and various licenses issued by the state have involved significant sums paid as bribes. Simultaneously, we have no shortage of instances where the books are cooked for a wide range of reasons. We know that there are vast sums of un-taxed money stashed away in tax havens. We know the Mauritius route has played a role in the way our stock market has rallied. That order has been called into question by the voice of the people. Now that the crowds have returned to their armchairs and the politicians have returned to missing sessions of parliament, it’s time for a serious debate.
There is plenty of blame to go around and we need to arrive at a just way of tackling a problem that implicates some of those who have contributed immensely to society. As a society we need to weigh the alternatives before us. It’s evident that mixing a ‘license raj’ mentality with the greed and animal spirits that capitalism promotes leads to a system of cronyism. We now need to define the role of government in our lives. A failure to have this debate in the light of day will only serve to legitimize fringe voices such as Baba Ramdev’s and distorted views such as a death penalty for corrupt officials. For the serious debate that lies ahead, journalists need to reflect the voice of the common man, while channeling it with the moderation that is required for society to progress. A nuanced debate is now required.
As I write this, NDTV is conducting a debate on Om Puri appearing before parliament under a parliamentary privilege motion, pushing a ridiculous line of argument perpetuated by a bunch of politicians. The debate simply doesn’t live up to the magnitude of the questions that now face us. A more honest, but all too often impassioned debate at another TV studio is increasingly representing “we the people”, while its architect has seemingly grown comfortable with the corridors of power. We the people are now ready for change, but, we need the fourth estate to channel the debate keeping in mind the intensity with which we expressed our discontent.