There is a silly idea that was peddled in Delhi last week—that a gag of some kind be imposed on the media. Apparently, because media outfits wield a disproportionate clout, are prone to misuse it, peddle fake news and influence public opinion, the argument went. Sane counsel prevailed, and it was nixed.
In the interim though, rhetoric captured public imagination, attracted much attention, and led to vociferous debates. I was close to being clubbed to death by these arguments by a buddy from school. He is among those who subscribe to a world view that the media has descended into much hypocrisy and must be curbed.
“You guys must be put in place,” everybody furiously texted me on a group that us friends use to stay connected and share dirty boy jokes on. For this once, political differences were set aside. My butt was waiting to be kicked.
After having been in the business though for as long, “amused” describes the emotion these messages evoked. This is a proposal that in today’s age and time can be best described as “ill-advised”. It was destined to crash-land—and crash-land it did. My smugness had much to do with conversations in the past with veterans in Indian politics. They work off a principle—that there is a half-life to political ideas in India. So, they pick their battles wisely.
This is much like how things are at most India homes. It has hierarchies. After many years of calling the shots, when the patriarch or matriarch of any home concedes way to their progeny, much is expected of the chosen one—the son—until a proxy emerges in the form of a daughter-in-law. It is inevitable there will be some resentment as well from those who were the coroneted ones. As a thumb rule though, in the early days, the mood is one of optimism. It is much the same in Indian politics.
How all this works was recounted over much jovial banter one evening by a gentleman who was nominated to the Rajya Sabha a few years ago. His take was a simple one. Most politicians know they are elected for a five-year term. But they are acutely aware their half-life in office is actually a little less than three years. The math, as a politician perceives it, is very simple.
a. Soon after assuming office, the first six months of any politician’s career is the honeymoon period with those who voted them into power. All of their mistakes are pardoned by the masses. The poor blokes imagine there is a reason why the one they chose to cast their ballot in favour of doing things the way they are. The suave politicians know this. That is why they take the toughest calls they must take during their terms are taken then. They know forgiveness is theirs for the taking, people will bite the bait, because the anointed one is doing it in the larger interest of the nation.
b. Once the honeymoon is done with, silence from the followers will follow. This is when people are waiting for the much-promised big bang changes to fructify. This is much like what happens in an Indian home after a new bride has settled in. The bride and the politicians know the honeymoon period is short. Change and acceptance takes a long while.
People who voted for the politician, though, start beginning to get impatient—much like the bride’s in-laws. They are, however, willing to pardon the new leader (or bride as the case may be) and wait it out though for a little longer. This silence will last 12 months on the outside. By then, 18 months would have passed. That is one and a half years of an elected politician's five-year tenure in India.
c. Every politician who has assumed office before now knows snipers will take position and veterans in the opposition will begin to start taking shots. This, apparently, is something Indian mothers forewarn their daughters about as well. Some mothers, it seems, suggest the girls grit their teeth and wait it out. Others may advise a tooth-for-a-tooth and a nail-for-a-nail.
While an Indian daughter-in-law has time on her side to prepare for a long slug-fest, Indian politicians know they do not have that luxury. Instead, the din for crucifixion will grow louder. Policymaking is one thing; implementing and waiting it out until change begins to show is another. To that extent, the earlier they move to make a decision and implement it, the better off they are.
It takes a long while and the murmurs soon begin to sound like a crescendo. But for a politician, when the clock strikes 36 months, time's up. There is nothing else he or she can do now. By now, everybody will claim they are exasperated with the lot that has been elected to power and that the much-promised changes that were made during the run-up to the elections haven’t been fulfilled. Pot shots are now par for course it is time to start the second round of jockeying for power.
d. As far as voters and those in opposition are concerned, they’ve given those in power three years to deliver (much like Indian neighbours watching a new bride and her afflictions with much glee). If they don’t think they have seen anything of consequence, pain must be inflicted on the government in multiple forms.
e. The politician intuitively knows though that in a democracy, it takes time to prepare for impending elections that are now just 24 months away. India is a huge country with all kinds of affiliations and complications.
Campaign trails must be planned, and new promises must be thought up. What people perceive as promises that were reneged upon must be repacked. New ways to hammer away at the opposition must be strategized, and snakes within the camp must be watched out for as well.
The dynamics are as complex to navigate for a daughter-in-law that has come into an Indian household. In the domestic context, the victim in this crossfire is the married man because a married Indian male is inevitably an idiot. He has neither learnt to let go of his mother nor figured out what may it take to stand up for his wife.
To go back to the political life, on paper, a politician has five years in office. The reality in a democracy is that a politician has only three. By now, the opposition will be jeering openly for not having fulfilled promises. Every crucial decision now made will be scrutinised carefully and torn to shreds on;6 all platforms that matter.
That places into perspective why a half-baked idea such as policing “fake news” had to be aborted. If this idea had been announced earlier, much like the ill-thought through demonetization was, it may perhaps have sailed through with much applause. After all, everybody is concerned about “fake news” and the implications of it all on “impressionable minds” in this age of unreasonable technology.
And that brings me back to where I started. Assuming for a moment this move was made early on in the tenure, you cannot police the media in this time and age. Technology propels it. If some perspective be needed on why, that is not possible, may I lean on the shoulders of an essay by Paul Graham, computer scientist, author, venture capitalist and one of the deepest thinkers of our times?
“Technological progress means making things do more of what we want. When the thing we want is something we want to want, we consider technological progress good. If some new technique makes solar cells X% more efficient, that seems strictly better. When progress concentrates something we don’t want to want—when it transforms opium into heroin—it seems bad. But it’s the same process at work.”
“Could you restrict technological progress to areas where you wanted it? Only in a limited way, without beco;6ming a police state. And even then your restrictions would have undesirable side effects. 'Good' and 'bad' technological progress aren’t sharply differentiated, so you’d find you couldn’t slow the latter without also slowing the former. And in any case, as Prohibition and the 'war on drugs' show, bans often do more harm than good.”