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In exposing corruption Kejriwal-Prashant searchlights on media too
Saeed Naqvi
03 November 2012

Josh Malihabadi's scathing satire on bribery in the 50s confirms the fact that corruption, ranging from "Bakshish" or "tip" to more unsavoury disbursements, has deep roots.

But the barrage of corruption charges that has left the United Progressive Alliance or UPA II wriggling against the ropes are on a qualitatively different scale, where the nexus between big industry and government tends to institutionalize exploitative systems which leave the poor outside the pale. This is what all Urdu poets without exception have berated as "sarmayadari" or "capitalism". Take the great poet Majaz, for instance:

"Yeh who bijli hai jiski zud

       Mein har dahqan ka khirman hai

Yeh who aandhi hai jiski rau

        Mein muflis ka nasheman hai"

(Capitalism is the lightening which strikes a peasant's thatched hut;

It is a flood in whose path lie the dwellings of the poor!)

I suppose my good friend Dr. Surjit Bhalla, who is a little to the right of the John Birch Society, would like to send all Urdu poets to an IMF sponsored reformatory. We can discuss that too, but my purpose here is to gauge the efficacy of the recent campaigns by India Against Corruption. Nothing in recent memory has quite captured the national mood on this scale as the efforts of Arvind Kejriwal and Prashant Bhushan, picking the high and the mighty, one by one, lifting their chins, then chastising them with double fisted punches.

Corruption, magnified a thousand fold, is being brought into focus, frame by frame, even as the nation sits around its TV sets, riveted. But a small caveat must be inserted. People, angry on a host of socio-economic issues can, when charged up, vent their ire on something quite different.

In Julius Caesar, an infuriated mob has been swayed to kill those who conspired to murder Caesar. A section of the mob falls upon a man, "tear him to piece, he is a conspirator." The man throws up his hands in denial, "I am Cinna' the poet." One of the mob screams. "Tear him for his bad verses".

In the current setting dominated by the Kejriwal-Prashant duet, peoples anger on price rise, growing disparities between rich and poor can be easily deflected because the government's discomfiture on corruption in high places, in its ranks, is much more telegenic. Sheepish spokesmen, rolling their eyes across the screen, are more eye-catching than vegetables whose risen prices are angering millions!

The observation that much of what IAC has exposed was something "we knew" has partial validity. Well, CPI General Secretary, Sudhakar Reddy's 2007 speech in Parliament on the Reliance-official nexus reads like a document from which Kejriwal may well have lifted passages while targeting those deemed guilty.

The fact that the explosive material was lying around is all the more embarrassing for the media: why did it not mount an investigation? In a remarkable exchange on Karan Thapar's Devil's Advocate, Kejriwal throws the gauntlet: "Karan, you don't have the courage to invite Robert Vadra on your show!" Karan, in this instance, is a metaphor for the media in general.

This is Kejriwal's greatest achievement. He has pulled down the screen behind which the powerful felt exclusively secure. By beaming searchlights on those considered beyond investigation, Kejriwal has charted a new course for the media. Will the media rise to the challenge?

It is common knowledge that Corporates control most of the electronic media. That being the case, how has the media turned upon the hand that feeds? Intra corporate warfare?

The nervousness of the Corporates and their media clients is best exemplified by an unprecedented one and a half hour interview Ratan Tata gave to NDTV during the Neera Radia phase which, incidentally took a toll of many media reputations.

The IAC revelations have clearly rattled the establishment. But does not exclusive focus on corruption create the impression that corruption is the only yoke under which the poor groan?

Purpose of life, we were all told, was the pursuit of happiness. Rampaging capitalism made that dictum stand on its head. The purpose of life, according to the new theology, became the accumulation of wealth.

Economists like Prabhat Patnaik would argue that accelerated corruption is a consequence of Neo-Liberal policies. That is where redressal has to be sought to manage popular unrest in a poor society.

The lasting contribution of Kejriwal-Prashant may well be the removal of fear of the mighty. Media must take heart from this and proceed on this new course. But it cannot because its affairs are shrouded in secrecy. The duet, to leave a lasting legacy, must beam on the media, demanding transparency in patterns of ownership. We must know who owns a channel to be able to know whether it slants a story and, when it does, slants it which way?

(The writer is a Distinguished Fellow at Observer Research Foundation, Delhi)