After the economy, the Presidential scanner shifts to the media. In his customary Independence Day-eve speech, President K.R. Narayanan rapped the "sensation-crazy" sections of the fourth estate with a bent to romanticise criminals.
The reactions to such plainspeak has been diverse. While on one hand the acceptance of the ubiquitous trivia reporting and "superficial sensationalism" is universal, an animated debate rages about its extent.
What the President was concerned about is the manner in which the media focused on Veerappan, carried his photos and carried interviews of his wife and daughter. Nakkheeran editor R.R. Gopal got a fair share of publicity. And TV channels showed extensive footage of the sandalwood smuggler in his hideout. One Tamil magazine even used its computer to put Veerappan and actor Rajnikant on the cover. Veerappan has become an icon of sorts in Tamil Nadu, courtesy the media.
Says B.G. Verghese of the Centre for Policy Research: "Over the years the media has been sensationalising issues through display and the language used. Even in the Veerapan misadventure, the English media is following the same trend and making him a larger than life hero. At the end of the day, the impression on the reader is that fools run the government and these rebels are the true heroes."
Professor of Political Science and director Centre for Studies in Social Sciences, Calcutta, Partha Chatterjee is worried about the media morphing the association of the politics and criminals into a banal episode. "I agree with the President to an extent. But what is more pervasive and destructive is the trend where reportage assumes ethics and morality do not belong to politics. Instead of condemning, it accepts it as a way of life."
Agrees sociologist Ramachandra Guha: "Even Harshad Mehta was made a hero, a person who beat the system hollow. He even had advisory columns!" But he would also blame the intelligentsia for mystifying and inevitably canonising "these Robin Hood elements."
Mukul Kesavan, history professor at the Jamia Millia, New Delhi, however, gives a different spin. "Had the President been a little more specific, it would have been really interesting... To me, the broadsheet media in India is pretty strait-laced. Do we have a tabloid like The Daily Mirror here? Thats sensationalism... It is also difficult to claim that the electronic media are the purveyors of hype."
The outright negation of the Presidents observation comes from Prof M.L. Sondhi, chairman of the Indian Council of Social Science Research. "What sensationalism is he talking about? He didnt want to touch China or Kashmir. So he had to hit out on the media. His comments are really insignificant and shows he is adverse to change... The Leftists are nothing but the leftovers."