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  • Arun Jaitley, Margaret Thatcher and the oxygen of publicity

    Posted On June 18, 2001

    By Karan Thapar

    “You media guys are the cause of at least half the so-called political dissidence we read about” Arun Jaitley once sagely commented although, I suspect, he may no longer remember when or why he made this observation.It may even have been said jocularly but then many a truth is spoken in jest.

    Arun’s remark reminds me of something Mrs. Thatcher said earlier of Norman St. John-Stevas.He was, briefly, a colourful if inconsequential member of her cabinet.  His reputation was built on his differences with her.  If I am not mistaken he christened her ‘the blessed Margaret’, a tongue-in-cheek reference to her saint-like rectitude but also her unbending obstinacy.  The British don’t like saints.They distrust them.

    “Speaking of Norman” said Mrs. T in one of her interviews to Sir Robin Day, the premier television interrogator of his time,“he had no idea he was a major dissident until he read of it in the papers and then belatedly started to behave like one.”

    Whether her sarcasm was an accurate reflection of the role of the press might be debatable but it was certainly sufficient to finish off poor Norman.  He retired to the House of Lords and well-deserved obscurity.

    The point Arun and Lady Thatcher wanted to make (I meant no disrespect when I earlier referred to her as mere Mrs. T but now it’s time to use her full title) was uncannily similar.  There is something about the way newspapers and television report differences of political opinion that converts them into seeming dissidence.  Perhaps it’s their narrow focus, or the exaggerated attention or even the suggested opposition in views that does it.  Or may be it’s inherent in the very nature of political reportage.  Disagreements don’t matter unless they are significant.  And if they are significant then surely they must be more than differences of opinion?  This logic may be circular but it’s also unquestionable.

    So are journalists guilty – if that’s the word? – of making honest and straight forward differences seem like disagreements and dissidence?  And if we are is this tantamount to manufacturing what we then report and comment on?  Or do politicians, perhaps understandably and may be even at times cleverly, blame journalists for problems they cannot reconcile or resolve?

    It’s perhaps a bit of both.  Let me explain with an example of each. 

    The press coverage of the alleged differences between Mr. Vajpayee and Mr. Advani over the invitation to General Musharraf is an example of Arun Jaitley’s point.  They could be real but the truth is we don’t know.  So when they are presented as the truth it is on the basis of presumption not fact.  The process by which this happens is illuminating.

    It begins with the belief that the two have different views on Pakistan and its military ruler.  Advani is said to be a hawk and so has to be against the invitation.  Vajpayee is believed to be a peacemaker and therefore has to be the initiator of the visit.  These assumed differences are then extrapolated to the present situation.  To win over a reluctant Advani Vajpayee had to withdraw the cease-fire.  To overcome the damaging image implications of ending the cease-fire Advani had to agree to the invitation.  The outcome, as far the press is concerned, is a neat but uncomfortable balance which is inherently unstable.  The situation is therefore ripe for further self-fulfilling speculation.

    On such shaky premises is the theory of Vajpayee’s and Advani’s differences built and in turn it provides the basis for further conjecture about their supposed disagreements.  Of course it could all be true.  But it could also be the case that this is simply so much phooey.  Who knows and, sadly, whilst the story serves the purpose of entertaining the readership, who cares.  The possibility that Mr. Advani might be in favour of inviting General Musharraf and even a champion of the visit has simply never been considered.

    An example of the opposite type is the differences between the BJP and BMS leadership over the former’s policy of disinvestment and the proposed labour law reforms.  At a recent discussion on the subject Tarun Vijay, the Editor of Panchjanya, in a moment of indiscretion, dropped the veil of carefully contrived explanation to reveal the real depth of disagreement that separates the two.  He said the Finance Minister and other unnamed BJP ministers were guilty of the arrogance of power.  “Some of the BJP ministers who are in power” he added “think that they know everything and they have every right to do whatever they think is right and they just don’t have to ask anyone else.”

    The day after this became public Mr. Vijay was forced to issue clarifications.  He couldn’t say he hadn’t said it.  Instead he had to explain what he meant.  In this instance the press did not manufacture the differences or disagreement.  It simply exposed them.  In Mr. Vijay’s case the press also embarrassed him – or rather I did, albeit inadvertently, because his outburst occurred on one of my programmes and SAB TV publicised it.  I apologise for the embarrassment and I know that in turn Mr. Vijay would concede that he said it even if later he was forced to dilute his meaning for reasons of political propriety.

    So where do these examples leave us?  Does the press provide the oxygen of publicity – that’s Lady T’s phrase, not mine – fanning differences into disagreements and even dissent?  Or is it simply a mirror that reflects reality forcing those who choose to be blind to see what they have so far refused to acknowledge?  I don't pretend to have the definitive answer but I suspect it varies from case to case.  Not just on the merits of the facts but perhaps also on the basis of the predilections of those involved in the story or even those reading it the next morning.

    The truth of the matter is that most of us think the press is right when we agree with it and wrong when we don’t.  There is nothing wrong with that except when you yourself are wrong.  But then, on such occasions, you are the last to recognise that fact.  And that perhaps is the real problem.

    My friend Ratna Sahai often sends me beautiful books.  She knows I covet them and she generously adds to my collection.  But last week I received one with a condition attached to the gift.  It was mine to keep provided I wrote about it.

    Now the book is a beautiful coffee table collection of photographs by Raghu Rai with an introduction by Khushwant Singh.  It’s called The Sikhs and its cover is a colourful photograph of Sikh women probably at a wedding or a sangeet.  One look and I wanted it.  But how was I to pay the price?

    So I first turned to see the photographs.  They are striking.  But so too is everything shot by Raghu Rai.  Then I turned to Khushwant’s introduction.  It’s very readable.  But so too is everything written by Khushwant Singh.  This filled my heart with despair.  If there was nothing I could think of writing I could visualise myself reluctantly but inevitably returning the book.  That I did not want to do.

    Then fortune smiled on me.  My eyes fell on two Emily Eden prints published on the margins of Khushwant’s essay.  They’re nice but there are better ones which

    could have been included.  One such is Emily Eden’s Nihangs.  I have a copy in all its glorious shades of blue and green.  I bought it in London to commemorate Rajiv Gandhi’s Longowal Accord way back in 1985.  If the publishers want they can photograph it off my drawing room wall and include it in the re-print.  It would make an excellent book perfect.

    And now, Ratna, can I keep the book?

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