The politics of victimhood

By Rajdeep Sardesai
08 April 2010 11:14 IST

On the face of it, a Narendra Modi's politics is as different from Mayawati's as a Gujarati dhokla is from a Lucknowi seekh kebab. One is a Hindutva icon, the other is the Dalit mascot. One is a chief minister of a fast track state, the other of a state still struggling to catch up with the rest. One prides himself on being a CEO-like politician, the other is credited with a transferable vote bank . One is trying to live down his image as a hate figure for minorities, the other is trying to live upto her status as a symbol of caste empowerment . But there is a stark similarity between Modi and Mayawati: they are both authoritarian leaders whose identity is shaped by the politics of 'victimhood'.

Central to the imagery of the politician as 'victim' is the role of the media, in particular the English language media, as a seemingly 'hostile' force. For Mayawati, the media is 'manuwadi', an upper caste, upper class dominated elite group that cannot stomach the idea of a Dalit woman in power. For Modi, the media is a collection of secular fundamentalists who are anti-Gujarat, anti-Hindu, and by extension, anti-national.

When Mayawati was encircled by the cash garland controversy two weeks ago, her instant reaction was to lash out at her critics by claiming that she was a 'Dalit ki beti' who was being targeted by upper caste conspirators. When there was a genuine error made over the date on which Mr Modi was to appear before a Special investigating team inquiring into the 2002 Gujarat riots, the chief minister was quick to denounce his opponents for allegedly engaging in a campaign to defame him and the people of Gujarat. In both instances, the chief minister was projected as the 'victim', while the villain was not so much political opposition, but that ubiquitous enemy of the new age politician: the 'media'!

Lets be honest: Mayawati and Modi are polarizing figures who attract strong reactions. The media, in a sense, is unable to extricate itself from this climate of divisiveness, making it almost impossible to have a dispassionate dialogue on these leaders. Why, for example, should every criticism of Mayawati's alleged disproportionate assets be seen through the prism of caste, or any reference to the Gujarat riots be seen as an indictment of Modi? Conversely, can we not praise Gujarat's phenomenal economic growth without being accused of being an apologist for the chief minister by his critics? Unfortunately, a rising intolerance has shaped the media debate on these leaders, raising serious professional challenges.

In particular, the stereotyping of the media as being anti-Mayawati, or anti-Modi has been used as an enormously successful propaganda weapon by its proponents to push the media on the defensive. In the case of Mayawati, she has almost made her refusal to engage with the media a badge of honour. The UP chief minister will rarely speak to journalists, and even when she does, the interaction is confined to a long-winded monologue. For Mayawati's core constituency of dalits, their leader's contemptuous treatment of the media only reinforces their faith in her larger than life image.

In Modi's case, the media is neatly divided into an 'us' versus 'them' categorisation. Only those who will toe the chief minister's line are granted an audience, the rest are boycotted (remember Modi's infamous walk-out of an interview with Karan Thapar a few years ago?). Its an attitude that is endorsed by the chief minister's supporters on the ground, and in cyberspace too. Log onto a social networking site and piles of abuse await the journalist who might dare raise discomfiting questions for the Gujarat chief minister.

But why single out Modi and Mayawati alone? Across the political spectrum, senior politicians are unwilling to subject themselves to rigorous media scrutiny. After a decade in politics, Sonia Gandhi has only done a handful of soft focus interviews, with scarcely a tough question being asked. Rahul Gandhi has stuck to gentle, well choreographed press conferences rather than engaging in robust debate. The prime minister rarely interacts on national issues with the media and even his annual press conferences no longer take place. Even LK Advani, who was once a rare high-profile politician who never hesitated from doing candid interviews, appears to have decided to go into hibernation.

Part of the problem lies with us in the media too. Where once the media thrived on its anti-establishment image, a number of influential journalists are now footsoldiers of the political class. Facts have been replaced by propaganda even as the creeping power of the public relations machine threatens the core of journalism. Unfortunately, the changing nature of the politician-journalist relationship means that the space for independent journalism that can hold the politician accountable is shrinking. Access is now strictly regulated, determined not by professional integrity, but individual loyalties. Asking uncomfortable questions of our netas, or expressing a strong opinion is confused with media hyper-activism, or worse, bias.

In the circumstances, when politicians claim they are the victims of media campaigns, it strikes one as a bit odd. Surely, it's the media which is being treated with a mix of disdain and condescension that has far greater reason to complain.

Post-script: A few weeks ago, British prime minister Gordon Brown was on BBC being subject to relentless questioning by the anchor and the audience. Just wonder when a top Indian politician will agree to a similar public interrogation without claiming to be victimized? 

Blogger's Profile

Rajdeep Sardesai

One of India’s most respected journalists, Rajdeep Sardesai, has nearly three decades of journalistic experience in print and tv. He has been the founder- editor of chief of IBN 18 network, which included CNN IBN. Prior to setting up the IBN network, he was the managing editor of NDTV 24 x 7 and NDTV India. Rajdeep has won more than 100 national and international awards for journalism, including the Padma Shri in 2008. He is currently consulting editor at the India Today group.

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