Politicians will not tell you the truth, you have to dig deep

On covering politics in Lutyens Delhi Parties politics and corruptionAmbuj Saxena and Indianhillybilly: Wikipedia
Flix Journalism Saturday, January 02, 2016 - 14:52

The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it.

The first part of Karl Marx’s statement deals with those who identify problems and the second, with the actual process of social change. Social change is effected in a multitude of ways both through organizations as well as individual attempts.

Journalists operate in the space between these two groups, as the conduit that convey information and ideas between these two groups of people and to both groups of people. This is even more so in the case of political journalists, as political parties and politicians have a direct bearing on the lives of people.

The last few years have been tumultuous politically, with the demands for Lokpal, and the subsequent formation of the Aam Aadmi Party and its contribution to the trajectory of the Lok Sabha election campaigns of the national parties. This coincided with numerous high profile scams involving government officials, politicians, and private companies. The last major event was the election campaign for the 2014 General Elections.

With allegations of corruption, crony capitalism and nepotism flying around all the time, occasionally involving journalists and media houses as well, media coverage of politics and politicians has possibly never been seen with so much distrust. 

But senior journalists who have been on the political beat do believe that their work is not just relevant, but also important. The News Minute spoke to four journalists who have been on the political beat for over a decade, keeping track of national and regional political parties across the country. Working for separate organizations, these journalists discussed their work and their views on the parties they cover. All chose to speak off the record.

A senior political journalist working in Hindi media, and who has been on the political beat for 20 years, says that like crime, politics needs to be covered consistently. “You need to dig (deep) to find out the truth. More often than not, politicians will not tell you the truth,” he said, adding that this was why it was necessary to have a political beat.

Another senior male journalist who has covered the Congress and BJP for over a decade and now works with an English magazine, said that although gossip was common in both print and television media, coverage of political parties was important because then, you “know what the present is and what the future will be like”. 

Asked if the monotony doesn’t get to a journalist, a woman political journalist said: “Every once in a while I get a scoop and that makes it worthwhile.”

She said that cultivating reliable sources was one of the toughest aspects of political journalism. She said that often politicians would try and plant a story, and that when one gets a story that could ruffle a few feathers, you could possibly lose some sources. “It’s important to have multiple sources,” she said, so that you can afford to lose some.

As a television journalist, she said that one of the toughest challenges a political reporter faced was to find the time to build sources. “It takes a lot of time, which I don’t have. It is also a challenge to win the trust of sources.”

She also added that the languages one was able to speak sometimes helped to make contacts with politicians who spoke the same languages. 

Corruption 

Unethical practices and corruption are fairly common among journalists and media houses, but the journalists who spoke to The News Minute said that you can stay out of that nexus if you chose.

The senior magazine journalist said: “Bribery is a two-way thing. It’s not like shooting (that you have no control over what happens to you). They can’t bribe you if you don’t want to be bribed.”

Institutional bribery was also very common, he said, and more problematic because: “Even if you don’t (want to be a part of it), you automatically become a part of that nexus.”

An age of megalomania and sycophancy?

Discussing the national parties, a journalist with an English national television channel said that personality cults had become part of politics but it wasn’t a sure shot formula. 

The journalist with a magazine said that currently, Congress stood at the phase of “sycophancy”. In 129 years that the party has been in existence, he said that the party had gone from the task of securing freedom to nation-building, all in Nehru’s time. “To an extent, Indira (Gandhi) tried to follow in Nehru’s footsteps, but her personality being what it was, the party turned into a party of sycophants.” 

He said that Rajiv Gandhi was a politician by accident. He said that a Congress politician had told him that Rajiv did not even want to campaign. His entry into politics was an accident. Rajiv had apparently told the politician that he knew that “somehow, mummy had to be helped”, the journalist said.

The journalist said that the Congress party could tolerate no dissent, and only people who rose in the party, were those who posed no challenge to the Gandhi family. “It is like political in-breeding,” the magazine journalist said.

The journalist with an English television channel said that the Congress was riddled with factions and infighting. He said that anthropologist Evan Richards’ concepts of fission and fusion in connection with African tribes best explained what the Congress party was like. According to Richards’, the various factions of the Congress fought bitterly among themselves (fission), but would unite when an external threat came along (fusion). 

“Everybody is fighting with everybody,” the journalist said, and that the only thing that kept the party together was the Gandhi family. “That is the only utility of the Gandhi family,” he said. 

“What is Sonia Gandhi’s claim (to lead the party)? She is the daughter-in-law of Indira Gandhi, widow of Rajiv Gandhi, what leadership has she demonstrated? Has she ever led a padayatra?” the journalist said.

Saying that personality cults were very much part of political culture, the journalist added that even the Left parties were not immune to it. Having covered the Communist Party of India (Marxist) in West Bengal, the journalist said that when Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee took over from Jyoti Basu, he had to fix a lot of what the CMI (M) had done wrong.

Bhattacharjee had done good work as the chief minister, “work that not even Jyoti Basu was able to do”, but “he got taken in (by his own personality) and the media’s description of him as the poster boy of reform”. 

He said that Bhattacharjee forgot that the CPI (M)’s support came not from the urban areas, but from the vast rural tracts of Bengal. The Singur and Nandigram episodes sounded the death knell, and what was left of the Left, was further eroded by Karat and his associates. What compounded the crisis for the Left, was the unity of the opposition – both Congress and the Trinamool Congress, which had been splintered until then, the journalist said.

As far as Prime Minister Narendra Modi was concerned, the journalist said that Modi’s personality was “hogwash” and that to him, it looked like “megalomania”. He said that television anchors often built up people as “larger than life”, the way cinema did, as with an actor like Amithabh Bacchan.

However, he said a personality cult, could also backfire. “It may work once, or people may reject (politicians) another time.

The magazine journalist said that it was a well-known fact that the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh was the “fountainhead of the BJP”. However, not everyone in the BJP came from a hardcore RSS background. “When you are in power, you attract people, but the BJP’s DNA is the RSS,” he said. 

There was nothing wrong in wanting power, the journalist said, because one could influence decisions and make something of the power one had.

(This story was first published on July 9, 2014 under the headline “Covering the political beat in Delhi: Parties, politics and corruption”)

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