Perhaps the Twain Shall Meet

Opposition alliance, or the lack of it, is potent fuel for television, and why attempts to end the Cold War have gone cold

Written by Pratik Kanjilal | Updated: May 26, 2018 12:05:47 am
Perhaps the Twain Shall Meet Opposition leaders, including Congress’ Sonia Gandhi & Rahul Gandhi, SP’s Akhilesh Yadav, AP CM Chandrababu Naidu, WB CM Mamata Banerjee, RJD’s Tejashwi Yadav, CPI(M)’s Sitaram Yechury, NCP’s Sharad Pawar, & newly sworn in Karnataka CM HD Kumaraswamy at Vidhana Soudha

There’s nothing like a close-fought election to reveal who’s who and what’s where in the media. Some were enthused, others saw it as the dalliance of hubris and nemesis. NDTV declared the extraordinary swearing-in ceremony at the Vidhana Soudha in Bengaluru to be a show of opposition strength. Maybe it wasn’t quite that, since the structure of a broad front remains in the realm of mystery and imagination. But it was certainly a visual index of opposition unity, and demonstrated that it is not unthinkable. But the event was certainly a rallying point which the Opposition used to full advantage. That’s something that it has become unused to doing.

But India Today saw it as a lesson for Rahul Gandhi, teaching him “to be humble”, and that he does not lead “the Congress of the Seventies”. Never mind that he was studying in a Delhi school at the time, and did not have to bother about matters of state. It was apparently also the “humbling of Mayawati”, who had to embrace Sonia Gandhi. And as the Opposition leaders from all over the country held hands in a brief show of solidarity, Rahul Kanwal commented: “A lot of humble pie is being eaten on stage.”

That was far from the main point of the story, which was that Chanakya-niti is a double-edge weapon. You make the cut on some days. Other days, you cut yourself shaving. One also recalls an earlier discussion when Times Now asked Ram Madhav the Deewaar question, and he replied, “We have Amit Shah”. The anchors were gleeful when they should have been asking the next question: “What does that mean?” There were only two possible answers, and neither was very palatable.

The main topic of discussion in studios: how can a ragtag coalition hold together, scale up to a national level and challenge the BJP’s juggernaut, which is permanently in poll mode? How would they agree on anything? Prudent choices, guaranteed to sustain TV debate for eternity, examining the low profile of former posterboy Siddaramaiah and the body language of DK Shivakumar, part Stoic and part Spartan. Of course, ragtag alliances unseated a hegemonic Congress the first two times. And the Left supported the Manmohan Singh government after decades of rancorous relations between the Left Front in West Bengal and Congress governments at the Centre. The dictum that there are no permanent friends or foes in politics seems to have been forgotten.

In due course, all these discussions will be rendered redundant by the ever-reliable Father Time. The real takeaway from the swearing-in ceremony at Bengaluru was the optics. It reminded us that while the news environment has become as complex as the wiring of an undersea cable, with multimedia, print, television, internet news and social media constantly feeding into each other, TV is still where you get the whole picture. It showed the comfort levels between members of the Opposition — Mamata Banerjee and Sitaram Yechury shaking hands, and the patently warm embrace of Mayawati and Sonia Gandhi. At the same time, there was the obvious discomfort between incoming chief minister HD Kumaraswamy and Governor Vajubhai Vala. Who, in a wiser world, would have been outgoing.

Let’s turn from the real picture to fake news which swept the world’s media. Maybe not fake as we understand the term, but wholly wrong-headed news, anyway, concerning an old obsession — octopi. The process began with an inconsequential paper by 33 academics, which tried to revive the question of panspermia— the late 19th century idea that since life can originate anywhere in the universe, life on earth may have come from elsewhere. Speculating — on the basis of nothing much — that the Cambrian explosion, a sudden acceleration of evolution, was triggered by virus fragments from space, it was greedily picked up by niche publications.

These were read by people in mainstream newsrooms, who distilled out the sexiest conjecture: since octopi are significantly more intelligent and better equipped for survival than squids, their closest relations, was their DNA infected by viruses from space? Octopi seem to be visibly alien and have featured prominently in sci-fi art for decades, and the notion was bound to fly. This baseless story, inspired by the academic press (you can find the original paper on Elsevier) helped them to infiltrate all media, print, TV, internet and social, for days on end.

Finally, it appears that the Cold War is not about to end. Trump has pulled out of talks with North Korea with a letter that the BBC analysed for diplomatese, commercialese and Trumpese. It brings relief for editorialists and Twitter wags, who value the opportunity that the nuclear rivalry offers on news-poor days. But it was fairly obvious that North Korea would end only testing, and it did demolish the Punggye-ri test site before the world’s cameras. Visually, it turns out that the destruction of a nuclear facility is no more impressive than the Border Roads Organisation dynamiting an inconvenient hill. Quite a bore.

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