Shyamsunder Panchavati

Shyamsunder Panchavati
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Friday, December 29, 2017

Case of Indian Media gone nuts 30-012







Times Now, one of India’s most-watched English-language television news channels, recently had a stunning scoop about Rahul Gandhi, the 47-year-old scion of the country’s influential political dynasty.

In a “special exclusive”, Times Now revealed that Mr Gandhi, president of the opposition Congress party, was in a cinema watching Star Wars: The Last Jedi just hours after Congress lost a tough election battle in Gujarat, home state of Narendra Modi, prime minister.

In other words, Mr Gandhi was, well, human. Yet that was not how the channel chose to report the story, complete with shaky footage of the cinema floor and undercover reporters asking theatre staff about their sighting of the politician. In a sequence seemingly lifted out of a spoof news show, Times Now anchor Rahul Shivshankar thundered that Mr Gandhi, along with four friends, was spotted “queueing up for popcorn” and sitting in “the posh sofa seats . . . in the J row” after the narrow defeat. Such conduct, he proclaimed, raised questions about “the efficacy of Rahul Gandhi’s personality” and his “suitability to politics”, particularly as a rival to Mr Modi, a notorious workaholic.

Maybe it does; and Mr Gandhi is still struggling to shake his reputation as a political dilettante. Yet the fact that a post-election film outing was deemed worthy of primetime debate raises questions about what Indian voters want in their politicians, particularly when it comes to “work-life balance”.
In some democracies, voters seek out politicians with whom they can identify. In US presidential races, it is widely believed (though never proved) that undecided voters will finally opt for the candidate with whom they would most like to have a beer. Spouses, children and family pets are considered important assets to boost as candidates’ “likeability”.

In the UK, Andrea Leadsom, a mother of three, claimed she was more suitable to be leader of the ruling Conservative party than childless Theresa May, as her children gave her “a very real stake” in Britain’s future. She was later forced to apologise for the comments — and lost the race. Russian President Vladimir Putin makes political capital out of his holidays, boosting his macho image by engaging in “manly” outdoor activities.

India has given rise to a different political ideal — that of the renunciate, who has no personal ties and dedicates every minute to the public good. It’s a political idiom pioneered by Mahatma Gandhi, who took a vow of celibacy, distanced himself from his family, and fashioned himself as a Hindu ascetic, as he led the independence movement.

“There is the strand in Indian politics, and culture generally, which says, if you are in public life, you must not have attachments and be committed totally to public work,” says historian Ramachandra Guha. “It’s a valorisation of joylessness.”

Many top politicians are unmarried. “It’s a plus in your CV if you don’t have a family,” says Mr Guha.

No one fulfils the ideal of political renunciate as does Mr Modi, who abandoned both his wife and mother as he set out on the long journey to the prime minister’s residence. Mr Modi has told reporters he sleeps less than four hours a night and works 20 hours a day.

Mr Gandhi reflects a competing tradition — that of large, close-knit families, finding joy in each other’s company and simple pleasures. His grandmother, the late prime minister Indira Gandhi, was said to see Rahul and sister Priyanka off to school each morning before starting work.
His parents — the late Rajiv Gandhi, another former premier, and mother, Sonia, former president of the Congress party — also revelled in outdoor holidays with their extended family, although these were the subject of criticism by political adversaries.

Mr Gandhi remains a bachelor. But he has obviously close relations with both his mother and sister. These strong family ties — and seeming sense of family duty — will resonate with many Indians.
India’s ideal of a political ascetic still dominates public life. But it is not far-fetched to imagine that one day India’s increasingly materialistic youth will look for politicians who seem more like themselves.

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