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November 17, 1998


E-Mail this column to a friend Arvind Lavakare

The time has come for the BJP to pledge itself to the old cricketing doctrine -- that calculated and studied attack is the best form of defence

The coming election to the four state assemblies of Delhi, Madhya Pradesh, Mizoram and Rajasthan may or may not turn out to be a referendum on the performance of the Vajpayee-led government in the last eight months. But it will certainly be a barometer of the extent to which the BJP's old image has been dented or destroyed by the urban, mainly English, press. Viewed from Mumbai, the mainstream journalistic response has been so allergic to the H word that its near hostility to almost anything that the BJP-coalition has attempted to do has hardly worn the look of that kind of studied professionalism which every reader has the right to expect in a democracy.

This new Rediff column will have occasion to refer to this lack of professionalism often enough in the future, but a brief review would suffice in this opening knock of Gallimaufry Gallery.

Right from a day after the ministerial swearing-in in late March when Jaswant Singh was excluded from the Vajpayee Cabinet, the leading metropolitan English language press -- and its regional language counterparts owned by the same media barons -- have gone hammer and tongs at the BJP's Hindutva ideology, its alleged sycophancy to alleged RSS diktats and the government's perceived misrule in practically every sphere. Whether it was Pokhran-II or the finance minister's Budget or the idea of reviewing the nation's Constitution or anything else for that matter, the English language journalist has tended to almost revel in lampooning on lambasting the BJP-led government.

Examples galore can be cited of this almost sadistic indulgence by our fourth estate over the last few months, but just one instance will drive home the point. In its edit page article of July 1 this year, The Hindu -- long considered the epitome of an orthodox and balanced national newspaper -- allowed one of its senior correspondents, Harish Khare, to say, 'The BJP's bag of tricks contains only medieval animosities and passions which are insufficient to cope with the crisis of governability in the 21st century.'

Simply put, the country must be told that the BJP is not equipped -- politically, morally, intellectually and spiritually -- to rule this country. Given the 100-day record of stupidity and incompetence, the BJP cannot be expected to do any lasting mischief.

A harsher judgement than that could hardly ever in history have been passed by a court against a criminal, by any god against a sinner and by any journalist against any government -- especially against a nascent one whose only fault was that it thought of the nation in a hitherto novel paradigm strikingly different from that of all the Congressmen, present or past, who had held the reins of power since Independence 51 years ago.

Ironically, The Hindu, which handed down the vile verdict, and which spares no effort to project its own as well as its readers the secular point of view, continues its long practice of daily carrying, on its back page, five or six long paras of enlightenment on Hindu scriptures; ironically, too, the name of the national, secular newspaper remains unchanged as The Hindu.

The BJP's image problems with voters have been compounded by its own inadequate, nay poor, PR, resulting from a non-existent combination of application, acumen and assertiveness in media management. Take its latest battle against the exorbitant onion prices. It has, so far, blamed unseasonal rains and previous Congress governments' alleged neglect of agriculture over the years; it has -- however gracious the acknowledgement -- admitted to hoarding by the trading community (one of its support groups) while simultaneously not considering it illegal, and also conceded its government's slow response in resorting to imports and banning exports of that commoner's vegetable. The BJP's army of economists have kept mum during this whole poll-damaging episode.

That this silence was either indolence or ignorance or both by its public affairs cell was exposed the other day by financial writer Sunil Jain of The Indian Express. In a rare display of impartial journalistic expertise, Jain wrote: 'The real issue (about middlemen hoarding and raising retail prices of onions) is not merely one of hoarding, or the government not cracking down on this venomous breed. The point is that, even if there were no hoarders, a 20 to 30 per cent fall in the crop, as in the current kharif onion, is large enough to cause a large rise in prices -- onions may not have sold at Rs 50 a kilo, but surely they would have sold at Rs 40? Nor is the issue merely of the government not liberalising imports fast enough and not ordering state-owned organisations to import as much as they can -- as the cases of onions, potatoes and pulses have shown, the international surpluses are quite small.'

Even four days after those words of economic wisdom appeared in print, the BJP's media managers and political spokesmen had not cared to use them for the public's enlightenment. No one in government would seem to have had the time or the inclination or the discipline to read the newspapers -- the basic duty of PR professionals, be they in business or industry or politics.

The same lack of PR capabilities has let the BJP coalition wallow in the media, cocktail circuit and overflowing suburban train criticism on several issues -- from P A Sangma's juvenile Lok Sabha speech on the nuclear tests to the state government education ministers walk out on the rendering of Saraswati Vandana.

Unable to foresee the disastrous effect of US economic sanctions on Pakistan's economy, Sangma had the gall to equate Pakistan's nuclear implosions with India's. He went unscathed before millions who watched the Lok Sabha debate on television. Even now, months later, when the truth has dawned on the whole world, none in the BJP-led government has torn Sangma's partisanship and naivety to shreds.

During the same debate, I K Gujral said till his last day as PM he had seen no reason for the Shakti tests at Pokhran. He repeated himself in an interview to Business India magazine. Just a few days thereafter, he sang a different and long tune at some conference in Dhaka. Gujral has not only been let off for this despicable doublespeak, he was made chairman of the parliamentary standing committee on external affairs!

In the matter of the proposal to dismiss the Bihar government under the Constitution's Article 356, L K Advani and other leaders of the government kept talking of the law and order situation in Laloo Land when the critical issue having constitutional implications was that over 1,200 contempt of court cases were pending against Laloo's literally petticoat government. Even later, after a division bench of the Patna high court passed unheard of strictures against the Bihar government -- including the statement that the state was not liveable even for animals -- nothing has happened to indicate that the BJP coalition has had the wit and the will to forward the bench's views for the President's kind perusal.

About the latest fracas on the Saraswati Vandana, the BJP think-tank and media mangers alike failed in their PR when they did not reveal to the public loud and clear that the same Vandana had been sung at Vigyan Bhavan on December 3, 1997 in the presence of the then prime minister, I K Gujral.

Lastly, there is the Srikrishna Report on the Mumbai communal riots of December 1992 and January 1993. While the secular press at large used the report's juicy extracts to condemn the Shiv Sena's Bal Thackeray and the Hindu community while generally turning a blind eye to the doings of the minority community, the BJP and its ally, the Shiv Sena, have not, till now, made use of the masterful 22 page catalogue (produced by the Vivek Hindu Kendra of Mumbai) which exposes the Srikrishna Report for what it is: a blatantly biased and slovenly piece of work. And remember, a petition asking for punitive action under the Report's findings is pending before the Supreme Court.

If, therefore, the BJP is to redeem its image -- whatever the outcome of this month's assembly poll -- the first thing it must do is to employ a professionally strong PR agency. And the first assignment which this agency must actively and quickly facilitate is the slapping of a defamation suit against the writer, editor and publisher of The Hindu for its article of July 1, 1998; a demand for damages of Rs 10,000 crore -- with the plaint promising that the sum will be donated to the PM's National Relief Fund -- will surely bring the newspaper down to the humility espoused by the various (Hindu) spiritual texts carried on its back page day after day.

The time has come for the BJP to pledge itself to the old cricketing doctrine that calculated and studied attack is the best form of defence. Not to do so now would be to court disaster in the major elections to come -- sooner than might be comfortable.

Arvind Lavakare

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