In many countries of the West, there exists a ‘silly season’, the time most natives pack their bags and go off on their sacrosanct summer holidays. It is also a time, Parliament goes into recess and there is a break from politics. In official India, holidays are regarded as avoidable luxuries, best reserved for inescapable family obligations. However, there is an undeclared silly season that coincides with the high summer, the school holidays and the inordinately long gap between the Budget and Monsoon sessions of Parliament. It is ‘undeclared’ because in a strict sense that neither does government stop working nor does political activity cease.
Indeed, looking at the news feeds over the past three weeks, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has stepped up his public engagements out of Delhi — perhaps as a warm up exercise before next year’s general election — and addressed subjects as significant as the minimum support price for agricultural commodities, job creation under the Make in India initiative and expectations from women’s self-help groups. On its part, the judiciary is busy conducting hearings on subjects as relevant as the decriminalisation of same-sex relationships and the centuries-old Ayodhya dispute. In the political sphere, the ruling BJP has also stepped up its activities, with party chief Amit Shah continuing with his tours that keep the party machinery oiled in anticipation of both the Assembly elections in winter and the Lok Sabha election in 2018.
The impression of a silly season appears to be principally a media creation. Over the past fortnight, when I was mercifully spared the unceasing shouting matches on TV and was dependant on online editions of daily newspapers to keep myself abreast of happenings in India, I found myself starved of ‘real’ news. What was in abundance, instead, were stories and contrived controversies centred on battles in the social media. There was the kerfuffle, first on social media and subsequently on TV, over relative non-issues.
First, there was the furore over Shashi Tharoor’s silly alarmist speech in his constituency in Kerala suggesting that if a BJP government was re-elected in 2018, it would pave the way for the creation of a ‘Hindu Pakistan’. No sooner had Tharoor — out these days to prove, mainly overseas, that he is the country’s only authentic Hindu and that everyone else was in the throes of false consciousness and profound ignorance — said his piece than the Internet Hindus were jumping up and down calling for his head.
The internet Hindus are the favourite whipping boys/girls of media that don’t like either its insolence or its disavowal of the Nehruvian consensus. Consequently, any retort coming from that quarter is described as trolling. Earlier this summer, External Affairs minister Sushma Swaraj was burdened with oodles of gratuitous sympathy for reacting to a passport complaint in undue haste. Much more than the social media, the mainstream news apace was replete with suggestions that the minister was being wilfully picked on because she was too independent-minded. In a desperate bid to discover opposition within the BJP to the prime minister, she was posited as a credible alternative — as indeed was Nitin Gadkari, another hard-working minister, whose departmental performance was exemplary.
Like Tharoor’s headline-grabbing endeavour which only ended up embarrassing his own party, the controversy over an orchestrated attack on Sushma was a non-story that was needlessly played up to highlight some Hindu-Muslim schism. Indeed, it would seem that no story is regarded as worthwhile unless there is a Muslim or minority angle to it.
This was the case in the other big story that among other things outraged the alumni of Harvard in India, including Rahul Gandhi. This concerned Minister of State Jayant Sinha being photographed with some people in his constituency that had been released on bail in a lynching case. Subsequently, Sinha issued a statement that on second thought, it may have been more prudent for him to have not been photographed.
No doubt this was a case where a minister had been embarrassed by an unfortunate political association but considering that all public figures in India are under constant pressure for the proverbial selfie, the coverage given to this story was disproportionate. It would have had meat had there been evidence of Sinha having links with accused men that were more profound than being clicked for a photograph. But no such evidence was forthcoming.
Indeed, the business of investigation — which involves costs — has been abandoned by the media in favour of the more cost-effective studio discussions and cherry picking from the social media. This may explain why the news feeds of today are so trivial and the entire year often appears like an extended silly season.
What may be particularly galling is that larger trends are often ignored by the media because they don’t fit into a sensationalist mould. On Saturday, Pratap Bhanu Mehta, an academic of standing who has emerged as a strong critic of the Modi government, suggested in Indian Express that the united Opposition agenda had skirted addressing issues connected with the erosion of institutions and that this needed to be taken up urgently if the Modi narrative was to be challenged. It was a characteristically cerebral article. However, its importance lay in the unstated sub-text. Mehta was conceding that the united Opposition that had received a shot in the arm after the Karnataka election was now floundering and was unable to present a coherent programme. More important, he conceded that the agenda was being set by the Modi government. Mehta mentioned the simultaneous election and the reforms in higher education. But he may as well have included foreign policy and the steep hike in the official procurement price for agricultural commodities.
By January-February 2018, the election campaign will begin in full steam. Till then, there are important positioning games that are underway. These are being overlooked in favour of manufactured controversies. There is no silly season in India. The silliness is fakery born out of ineptitude.
The writer is a senior journalist and Member of Parliament, being a presidential nominee to the Rajya Sabha.