Wednesday, March 6, 2013

E/J For PM?



Sooner or later, somebody had to pop the question: How about an editor/journalist (E/J) as our next PM? It is logical to consider the Fourth Branch (Estate), in case the Third Branch option suffers a miscarriage.

Democracy is about asking questions—dumb, brilliant, in-between or simply nada. In them we find some relief from our tedious politics, as when Dipendra Tamang, a tweeple, joked in one of his posts recently: “Well if the CJ led government is not possible, then lets have a DJ led govt and dance our way to the elections.”

Those who love the predictability of a disk jockey (DJ)—that he or she is consistent in his or her moves, that he or she makes no qualms about simply being a clown, and above all trying to win audience applause—could fall for Tamang’s proposition.

Beyond offering us a reason to amuse ourselves with sarcasm once in a while, or impregnating us with some of the most creative thoughts, our insipid politics has managed to spark a serious war of words in the media recently, between those in favor of the doctrine of necessity formula and those who believe in the sanctity of neutrality. This feud has fired up not only the so-called (subject) experts, columnists or pundits but also editors and journalists.

What is true is that when you begin to see a sudden surge in conflicting, assertive opinion pieces by our veterans of the trade, and get to hear a speech by a prominent journalist like Yubaraj Ghimire in a political rally, it is a sure sign that we are confusing the people more than enlightening them.

And that confusion feeds misperception in a democracy, which risks mystifying an issue. With a selective perception the public doesn’t necessarily want to hear what Ghimire said at the CPN-Maoist rally, or as he later explained to this scribe: “my freedom is in peril, because democracy (and national pride as well) are under threat. I will extend my baicharik support to any one raising these concerns.” The fact that he was at a political rally will only confirm their stereotypes of him.

In their book Why Deliberative Democracy (2004), Amy Gutmann and Denis Thompson write that democratic deliberation requires the conditions of “reciprocity, publicity and accountability” between contending parties and any decision (read: consensus) has to be binding, keeping the option of either reviving or improving it in the future.
Nepal’s politics has been a two-headed tiger; reciprocity is as easily claimed as it is dismissed. Publicity is as much about leaking and planting stories as withholding them. It’s a big breakthrough this moment, and a deadly deadlock at the same moment. Our analysis of deliberationism has yet to look minutely into closed-door negotiations, their mediation by the press, and the missing conditions.

Punditry, which mostly serves to confirm a writer’s own biases, leaves little room for the deliberative, interpretive middle ground. Most often, assertions and predictions are part of the toolkit to add to story structure or to favor a source rather than to add meat to the article.

But how I, a student of media, perceive political commentaries may be different from how sections of the public view such pieces. At a recent dinner-table conversation with family and friends, someone suggested that perhaps an editor/journalist, for his or her perceived grasp of the issue, neutrality and the professional virtue of truth-seeking, could be an attractive alternative to CJ. After all, deliberation is also about exhausting all alternatives.

Recent surveys have shown that journalists’ public image in fact outshines that of several other civil society members. The small talk ended, acknowledging that the option of civil society, which includes media professionals, could not find buyers earlier and it had to be abandoned.

Still, image is everything in leadership. And a question lingers: if journalists can preach, and are as smart in political knowledge as they seem to project, why don’t they run for the PM post?

 Looking into the past, we see a handful of journos-turned politicos (some actually making a switch to politics from partykarita rather than patrakarita) in the country. Take, for example, former ministers Hiranya Lal Shrestha, Pradeep Nepal, Raghu Panta, Ramesh Nath Pandey as well as those elected to the parliament, such as Kamal Koirala, Prakash Jawala and others. Had it not been for Krishna Prasad Bhattarai, a former journalist who as PM steered the political direction during the rocky transition of the early the 1990s and later the same decade, the role of ex-journos in Nepali politics would appear infinitesimal.

The question remains if Bhattarai made the difference he made just because he was a former journalist. But the question if politicians with experience in journalism, and by implication with skills in communication or persuasion, have made any deliberative contribution to our political culture, is still relevant.

International experience also appears spotty. There is a growing trend in countries like the Philippines and the US where television journalists, capitalizing on their public mediated image, have contested for political positions, with a rather poor performance. Yet, a cursory analysis reveals that a little over half a dozen (former) journalists have held the post of prime ministers or presidents in their respective countries. These include people like Winston Churchill (UK), Luc AdolpheTiao (Burkina Faso), Paavo Lipponen (Finland), Georges Clemenceau (France), Sayyid Zia od-Din Tabataba’i (Iran), Justas Paleckis (Lithuania), Tadeusz Mazowiecki (Poland), John Joseph Curtin (Australia). Some like Churchill and Clemenceau were noted for their negotiation skills and statesmanship during their career.

Do we have a neutral, negotiating genius among our journalists whose services could help the country get through these persisting political obstinacies? As long as this person agrees to be a “former” journalist, forever, there should not be any problem, professional or ethical, for him or her to enter politics.

In a series of academic exercises, I asked some working journalists to suggest names of viable candidates from their field for the PM post. Most hesitated, some arguing there were hardly any journalists with a “neutral” image, others maintaining that most working journalists did not care about their conflict of interests, or that journalists’ political interest was limited to seeking favors from party leaders, as evidenced by the expansion of party-affiliated journalistic associations.

Yet, when I persisted, they believed that journalists such as Kanak Mani Dixit, Prateek Pradhan, Yuba Raj Ghimire, and Prashant Jha as well as a number of former leaders of Federation of Nepali Journalists (FNJ) must have an ambition to be in the highest office of the country! A rough roster with further inputs included names like Kunda Dixit, Narayan Wagle, Ameet Dhakal, Akhilesh Upadhyay, Ajay Bhadra Khanal, Krishna Jwala Devkota, etc, with most placing Kunda Dixit on the top.

But it doesn’t end there. “Would you like to be the next PM? :) Exhausting all options!”— I posted this question, via social media, to several of the above journalists. A few took the time to respond to the question. Comical enough, one editor wondered if it was a spam. All declined the proposition directly or indirectly.

Kanank Mani Dixit wrote that journalists are not made to be politicians. “Let the country never encounter such a disaster that civil society (including journalists) have to be considered fit to be leading the politics.”

I have certainly no ambition of being in power politics, maintained Yubaraj Ghimire.

Ajay Bhadra Khanal posted: “Sometimes I dream of becoming a politician, and think why not? But then my real interest and personality trait are diff, so I decide against it.”

Kunda Dixit was of the view that “on the contrary, we haven’t exhausted all options, there are plenty of visionary, accountable party members with integrity who haven’t been given responsibilities by their own parties.” He added: “Making journalists politicians would be the kiss of death for both politics and journalism.”

Manjushree Thapa observed as an analyst: “I can’t imagine why anyone would want to go into politics in Nepal! And being PM—I wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemy!”

So there we go with my little jabbing excursion!

Published in Republica, March 6, 2013


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