The instinct to criticize the way in which the electronic media reports the news is so strong that we sometimes forget the marvellous, theatrical detail in which television news channels and the Web make the world available to us.
Close-up moment: Jayalalithaa recently criticized Sonia Gandhi on camera. Senthil Kumar / PTI
The storm over M. Karunanidhi’s remarks about Prabhakaran, the leader of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), and the way it was reported by the news channels, is a good example of television’s capacity to nuance the news. The first interview with the Tamil Nadu chief minister had him saying categorically that Prabhakaran wasn’t a terrorist. When pressed, he smiled and found another way of saying the same thing; he, Karunanidhi, was a friend of Prabhakaran and he wasn’t a terrorist so…
Karunanidhi’s interview had a television context: The news channels had been showing aerial pictures of trapped Tamil civilians trying to escape the final battle between the besieged LTTE and the Sri Lankan army. Vaiko of the MDMK, once Karunanidhi’s protégé, now his arch-rival J. Jayalalithaa’s electoral ally, had already appeared on television screens threatening rivers of blood in India if Prabhakaran were harmed in Sri Lanka.
In statements and interviews screened in quick succession, Karunanidhi went from calling Prabhakaran his friend to declaring he wasn’t a terrorist, to protesting that the DMK hadn’t forgotten or forgiven the role of the LTTE in Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination in Sriperumbudur, to distancing himself from Prabhakaran’s plans for running Tamil Eelam as a dictatorship, to saying he’d feel sorry if Prabhakaran were killed and then, in the end, invoking the shade of Alexander to urge the Sri Lankans to treat a defeated Prabhakaran with the chivalry that the great Macedonian had extended to the vanquished Porus.
Print couldn’t have captured the poignance of the Karunanidhi equivocation in quite the same way. It was poignant because Karunanidhi’s inconsistency wasn’t just a function of political cynicism. Yes, he did need to address local concerns about Tamil suffering in Sri Lanka and simultaneously keep the Congress, his ally, happy, but he also seemed genuinely torn between his attachment to the radical, separatist Tamil politics of his youth and the expediencies of all-India politics in age. He could have expressed a general concern for Sri Lanka’s Tamils and thrown Prabhakaran and the LTTE overboard, but in his reluctance to do that you could see that the embers of Tamil nationalism still glowed in this political ancient’s imagination.
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The next act of this televised drama was owned by Karunanidhi’s nemesis, Jayalalithaa. Less viscerally attached to the cause of the Eelam, Jayalalithaa’s intervention was a model of cold-blooded politicking. Looking straight into the camera, she began stirring the pot with a series of rhetorical questions designed to embarrass the Congress into taking action against an electoral ally.
“Why is it,” she asked, “that Sonia Gandhi is keeping silent? Is she not the Congress president, is she not the widow of Rajiv Gandhi, is she not the chairperson of the UPA? She should come out with a clear explicit answer on these questions, and she should tell the nation what she feels about it as Mr Karunanidhi has made the statement.”
It was a sharp little speech, trenchantly delivered, each question a dart designed to hurt. Sonia Gandhi had been tight-lipped about Karunanidhi’s publicly declared fondness for Prabhakaran, a man who had masterminded her husband’s assassination, and the Congress had been thrown off balance by the controversy. The reason it didn’t work was that Jayalalithaa made the mistake of using on television an idiom more suited to rabble-rousing in the open air.
When she asked “…is she not the widow of Rajiv Gandhi…”, she overplayed her hand. The relish with which she asked the question seemed ghoulish precisely because Sonia Gandhi had been widowed in ghastly circumstances. This exercise in Coarse Politics might have played well in front of an AIADMK rally; on a news channel broadcast to a less committed audience, Jayalalithaa looked like someone scratching at old wounds to score political points. By forcing people to do politics in close-up, television allows us to assess them in unexpected ways.
Some people survive this examination better than others. Jayalalithaa’s rhetorical attack supplied Priyanka Vadra with a cue. Asked about Amma’s outburst, she described it as a kind of politics, something to which she didn’t want to respond. For her, she said, the controversy had a public and a private dimension. Given his record, she didn’t think Prabhakaran ought to be pardoned, but she didn’t personally harbour strong feelings about him.
Since she had earlier visited the woman convicted for conspiring to kill her father in Nellore jail, and had subsequently spoken about Nalini’s suffering, not her own bereavement, the note of quiet detachment struck by Vadra during television interviews in the wake of the Prabhakaran controversy seemed plausible, not put on. This instructive little skit wouldn’t have been possible without television’s ability to assemble scattered provocations into a story complete with dialogue and repartee, nor without the Web’s archival function that allows us to revisit the scenes of this drama on YouTube. In an earlier time, Vaiko’s rabble-rousing, Karunanidhi’s equivocations, Jayalalithaa’s taunts and Vadra’s response would have been scattered over days of newsprint. A magazine writer might have consolidated them into an article, but the urgent, shot-on-location feel that television does so well, that sense of vérité, would have been missing.
But there are things that print can do that pictures can’t. If television can do reality with a plausibility that print can’t hope to equal, there are effects that a print journalist can achieve with a throwaway line that gigabytes of footage can’t match.
The loveliest recent example of this was a report on the BBC’s website about Maoist rebels who had seized a train carrying several hundred passengers in eastern India during the elections, and then released them, unharmed. The report quoted a Maoist spokesman called Gopal telling the BBC that “(t)his was a symbolic gesture, no intention to cause harm to passengers and anyway it is very hot here.”
Mukul Kesavan, a professor of social history at Jamia Millia Islamia, Delhi, is the author of Men in White.
Write to Mukul at firstname.lastname@example.org