By : Prof. Pradeep Mathur
NEW DELHI : No doubt freedom of expression is a necessary concomitant of democracy. But to be vibrant democracy needs not only freedom of expression but also an enlightened public discourse focused on the issues that serve the larger interests of the masses. Unfortunately our public discourse is largely frivolous. It neither relates to the issues concerning the interests of the masses nor helps to equip us with knowledge to face the challenges of a fast-moving world. And for this the leadership of both the ruling party as well as the Opposition is responsible. Also to blame is our mass media which sorely lacks the perspective to distinguish between genuine issues and non-issues. The controversy about something Prime Minister Narendra Modi said during his recent Bangladesh visit is a case in point.
Though made for a good reason Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bangladesh visit was ill-timed. It resulted in an entirely avoidable controversy and caused needless embarrassment to him. The Prime Minister’s advisors and officials sitting in PMO should have known the mood in Bangladesh and should have advised him according. Obviously they did not learnt anything from British Prime Minister Boris Johnson who cancelled his New Delhi visit last January to avoid the embarrassment of facing agitating farmers’ who have many sympathizers in Britain. His excuse was Corona which could have as well served Mr. Modi.
Engaged in a bitter no- holds- barred electoral battle with Modi’s BJP in West Bengal, Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee alleged that the visit was planned to influence the Hindu voters of Matua community whose temple Prime Minister Modi visited in Bangladesh. Originally from what was East Bengal Matua community has sizable presence in more than 30 Assembly constituencies in West Bengal. She even went to the Election Commission with her complaint.
If the Prime Minister’s itinerary was planned to obtain some electoral dividends and the controversy raised by Mamata Banerjee was political, the mass media–promoted debate was frivolous and a case of overkill. Ignoring important ramifications of the visit made in the background of our standoff with China and political upheaval in Myanmar which has common borders with both India and Bangladesh, media got busy in debating the claim of the Prime Minister that he too contributed to the Bangladesh freedom struggle in 1971 by taking part in a demonstration and courting arrest. It was obvious that the Prime Minister Modi was saying this to please his hosts.
One can easily recall that the ruthless suppression and genocide of unarmed people by the Pakistani Army in East Pakistan, as Bangladesh was known then, deeply moved every India irrespective of creed, caste, class and gender. When India decided to move to help the liberation struggle there the then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi had unqualified support of the entire country. Countless number of Indians supported the Bangladesh war and contributed to the war effort in whatever big or small way they could. After the surrender of the Pakistani forces to the Indian Army in Dhaka and formation of Bangladesh they forgot about it and never mentioned it as if it was their duty. I was also among such countless Indian. Working for The Tribune and staying in the Tribune Colony I hosted a Mukti Bahini soldier who was sent to India to seek public support for the cause of Bangladesh after he got hurt in the battle and was no fit to fight. I wrote a piece on him for The Tribune and organized his meetings with Panjab University students. A senior colleague’s daughter, now running a prestigious hospital in Bhopal. , gave him a bag full of capsules and tablets for suffering Bangladeshis. It was our very small contribution to the Bangladesh liberation struggle which we made and forgot. No bragging about it was called for as it was too small a thing when Indian soldiers were staking their lives in fighting the enemy on both eastern and north-western borders of the country. If Narendra Modi did something it was nothing extraordinary and not worth mentioning or taking credit for. And it was hardly worth taking notice of by the Opposition or the media.
Then was it a good political strategy on the part of the Opposition to contest Mr. Modi’s claim? And for that matter was it the most important point for media to do news stories. I think not. In my view it was a tragic diversion and deflection of the public discourse at election time when the political parties and their leaders stand in the court of voters and answer what they have done while being in power and what will they do when voted to power.
If our Opposition is sincerely committed to people’s welfare and our media cares for genuine democratic concerns they have, in my view, spoiled a very good election time mood to keep the focus on real and serious questions.
There are a number of serious issues like corruption, poor governance, declining standards of education, poor health care, increasing economic inequality, crime against women, increasingly obscurantist socio-cultural environment, rising unemployment, inflation, high oil prices and increasing atmosphere of social disharmony on which Prime Minister Modi can be pinned down. These are real issues concerning the masses on which public discourse will give political mileage to the Opposition, and not on what Modi did or did not do in 1971.
It is time our politicians learn to pick up the right issues for a meaningful public discourse on policy matters. We saw that a greenhorn of a politician like Tejashwi Yadav nearly toppled the well-entrenched government of an experienced and shrewd politician like Chief Minister Nitish Kumar by making employment for the youth as the central theme of his election campaign.
In a democratic society with a free and independent media political leaders are lampooned, ridiculed and criticized by people, press and political opponents. But there is the need to distinguish between criticism and cynicism –real issues and non-issues.
Prof Pradeep Mathur is a veteran journalist and media educator & Advisor cum Chief Consulting Editor of ICN Group.