Middle ground not allowed

Neutrality has become a non- existent virtue these days. Everybody is expected to take sides in an alarmingly childish way. As if there are just two answers to complex issues — yes or no.

Many moons ago when I was in school, this was the question (“Whose side are you on, anyway?”) that used to get my goat and annoy me the most. Generally, it was asked by the class bully and the rest of us were expected to meekly go along with the popular vote on whichever issue was being debated.

Hardly anybody dared present a contrary perspective. Those who disagreed, hung around in small clumps later and tched tched over the “unanimous” decision. Nobody spoke up. This suited the class teacher just fine. It, of course, suited the bully the most. This is exactly the scenario we are witnessing in the political arena today.
It is a reminder of the George W. Bush era in America, when he declared — “You are either with us or against us.” The question of being neutral simply did not arise. Neutrality has become a non-existent virtue these days. Everybody is expected to take sides in an alarmingly childish way. As if there are just two answers to complex issues — yes or no. This holds true in the electronic media world the most. The job I least envy in this field is the one held by those wide-eyed interns in charge of herding guests into the studios for thundering nightly debates. Most of them are bachchas, straight out of college and hoping to get the hang of the business by working in chaotic newsrooms. Clearly, nobody has the time to teach them a thing about how the madness works. They are left to their own devices and thrown to the wolves, after a cursory briefing. Their awful job is to call up the usual suspects (I include myself) and ask them for their availability for a prime-time show.
I am told most studio guests don’t bother to ask what the topic is — they are just thrilled to be on national television. It doesn’t matter one way or the other whether the anchor is discussing India’s nuclear policy, Asaram’s shenanigans or Mallika Sherawat’s assets. Have opinion, will express. Well, in recent times, there has been a small change in the drill. If an invitee does agree to participate, and is bold enough to ask about the topic, the poor intern is instructed to counter question the person and get a “yes” or “no” response on the spot.
“Do you support the death penalty for rapists — yes or no?” Middle ground not allowed. The mighty anchors are invariably pushing an agenda, either their own or the channel owner’s. The intern’s job is to make sure the panel agrees with the anchor for the most part. These poor kids lack the required cleverness/sophistication to camouflage the agenda and generally end up giving the game away. I held my breath and nearly gagged when I overheard an intern curtly dismissing an eminent former judge — “Okay, Sir… we won’t need you tonight since your views don’t match the anchor’s.” Right!
We are heading into a crucial election. Is it too much to ask for some transparency from the media? Or are we above and beyond all scrutiny? Can we not follow the American model (with all its fault lines, everybody out there pretty much knows the political alignments of various newspapers and news channels)? Though, frankly, the reader/viewer doesn’t really give a damn. When it comes to voting, the Indian voter is fiercely individualistic and rarely gets swayed by media brain-washing. Which is why it is amusing to watch — and occasionally participate in — the nightly charade on television.
All that bombast and belligerence, the posturing and pretence. Most of which is instantly switched off the moment the cameras stop rolling. But for those who watch/read the news closely and monitor shifts in political positions, it isn’t all that hard to figure out who is gunning for Narendra Modi or which channel is backing Rahul Gandhi. Earlier on, there used to be a pretty elaborate pantomime of objectivity on display. Anchors and editors would go to great lengths to disguise their prejudices. No such attempt is required any more. Even the dumbest viewer/reader can tell where a debate is headed in the first two minutes. All the explosive exposes look fixed/leaked. Secret papers and files appear on camera mysteriously. And panellists adjust their expressions to look suitably outrage/miffed/shocked /resigned.
It would really be so much more civilised to just be upfront and say it in a khullam khulla way. After all, it’s legal to do so. But will anybody be that foolhardy? We love hedging our bets in desi politics. As they say, who knows which blighter will come to power? It’s best to suck up to the lot… just in case.
And that’s exactly what we are doing this time. Subtlety be damned. The Modi camp in Delhi is rooting for its candidate pretty aggressively. The Rahul camp in Mumbai is doing its bit. The “Rotla vs. Pizza” battle is going to hot up in the weeks ahead. Those poor interns have a herculean task to deal with. Soon, they’ll be instructed to ask panellists bluntly, “Are you a Modi-walla or a Rahul supporter?” The thought that many out there could genuinely be non-aligned does not exist. We do live in interesting times.

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