I have been an active participant in the media (both print and TV) for the last 30 years. But never before have I been as embarrassed to be a part of the media as I was on Wednesday, April 24, the day of the suicide of a farmer at a political rally organised by the AAP.
For me, a suicide is one of the most difficult events to comprehend. Suicides are complex; there are often multiple factors involved. They can rarely, if ever, be attributed to one thing. If this is close to accepted wisdom, then what public policy implications can we draw from it? None. It is insensitive and logically, ethically and morally wrong (just plain wrong) for politicians, journalists and even the aam aurat to derive any policy conclusions from such a tragedy. An accident can yield insights into public policy — a suicide, never.
The Congress and AAP were the worst offenders, arguing for a direct linkage of the suicide to poor farmer distress and the BJP’s attempt to introduce the land acquisition bill. And the media, especially TV, gleefully joined in support of this. Is there no shame left?
Part of the problem with mainstream media is that it is considerably left of centre in its ideology. On the face of it, there is nothing wrong with having an ideology, as long as one is consistent. However, the problem begins when this same left of centre media revels in pro-poor rhetoric of the sort demonstrated on Wednesday. Paraphrasing its angst, “the suicide shows how the BJP government is out of touch with the needs of the poor; don’t they see the distress caused to the farmers by the pro-rich and pro-corporate policies the BJP is pursuing”. The politician sayeth, and the glib media agreeth, that now is not the time to bring in the land acquisition bill because it will add further to farmer distress.
Notice the “logic”in the media’s pronouncements. Farmer distress and farmer suicides have occurred for centuries — and without the push to suicide by land being acquired. So what caused those previous suicides? The reason behind the amendment of the Congress bill of 2013 is that it was stillborn. No purchase by public authorities or the sale of land by the farmer has taken place under the 2013 act. The farmer — and India — is yet to have a modern land acquisition act.
The TV media revealed its true ultra-biased stripes with the pronouncement that the return of the prodigal son, Rahul Gandhi, heralded a new era in Indian politics and that his speech-a-day diatribes were singularly responsible for rattling the BJP and changing the contours of the debate on the “poor” farmer. Rahul Gandhi, possibly encouraged by the media spin, even went on to say that “the farmer gave us the Green Revolution. And the Green Revolution happened because the farmer was given abundant credit and because the farmer was provided with the idea of an MSP so that he could sell his crops”.
As Gandhi should know, and his speechwriters surely know, neither the Congress government, nor the “abundant” credit, nor the Indian farmer, had much to do with the Green Revolution — or with the later adoption of the hugely profitable genetically modified cotton. The technological advances were brought about by scientists like Norman Borlaug and funding from the Rockefeller Foundation and Ford Foundation. Regarding minimum support prices (MSP), they came into being at a national level in 1974-75, about seven years after the advent of the Green Revolution in India. And if ever there was a suited-booted scheme for farmers, it is the MSP, which disproportionately helps the large farmer and hurts the more numerous landless workers. And I would like to know if any journalist who has re-gone gaga over RaGa commented on the utter nonsense expressed by Gandhi on the Green Revolution and MSPs.
If I were young and naïve, I would accept all of this as the free flow of any democracy’s most treasured asset — a free and free-wheeling media. And I am certain that the following did not happen — that the Congress assembled the leaders in the media space sympathetic to the Congress and past beneficiaries of the Congress (about 90 per cent of the English media, print and TV) and said, “Guys, you have to help us on this comeback trail. Rahul has done his introspection and now it is time for you to do yours, and especially so that we can continue with the crony leftist socialism of the last 67 years.” I know this did not happen, but it certainly felt like it did. The group-think in the media, the consistency and identity of the arguments, are troublesome.
While on the subject of TV, some unsolicited advice, and interpretation, to all TV anchors — those leading a shouting match and even those conducting a civilised debate. Have you noticed that, regardless of political affiliation, whenever a political party member (MP or spokesperson) is asked a difficult question, s/he goes into filibuster mode? The orders seem to be for these individuals to keep repeating something, in as loud a voice as possible, so as to both drown out the opposition and drown out the debate. The good anchors are forced to change the subject; the bad ones themselves continue to shout.
While we await the details about whether the suicide victim, Gajendra Singh, died accidentally or via suicide, some facts underline the irrelevance of the death to any policy decision or policy interpretation. Singh comes from a family that owns 40 bighas of land in Dastur, Rajasthan. According to NSS landholding data for 2011-12, that places him and his family among the top 5 per cent of all landowners in Rajasthan and the top 1 per cent of all landowners in India. A relatively rich farmer committing suicide — what has that got to do with the land acquisition bill? Indeed, even a poor farmer committing suicide — what has that got to do with the land acquisition bill, or for that matter, with the setting of the MSP?
In 2013, there were 1.3 lakh suicides, out of which only one-third were female. So should we pass some legislation to protect the “males” from suicide? Should legislation be brought in to alleviate male distress? Should males get an even higher salary so that they commit suicide less? Going by their learned comments on farmer suicide, if the Congress had won the previous election, they would have introduced bills to reduce male distress and, to satisfy all voters, a right to happiness bill.
The writer is chairman, Oxus Investments, and a contributing editor for ‘The Indian Express’.
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