The silly season sets in

Unlike in India, newspapers in Britain devote a substantial amount of space, including on the front page, to covering proceedings in Parliament. The Prime Minister's Questions (which are answered by the Prime Minister and not a junior Minister, as is the practice here) generate much interest among both journalists and readers, as do debates that are keenly followed.

This is in sharp contrast to our media's coverage of parliamentary proceedings when Parliament is in session when adjournments and demeaning spats make news but not debates and questions. Which is a pity and a shame.

But this is not really about our media's warped sense of priorities, which accords precedence to a Metallica concert or Lady Gaga's private gig over infants dying like flies at hospitals in West Bengal or Manipuris coping with horrendous shortages on account of a 93-day economic blockade of their state. Nor is it about media's perverse interest in computing hours, minutes and seconds lost in adjournments instead of reporting debates on policy and Bills, which do take place though with diminishing regularity. Strangely, it is what MPs have to say outside, and not inside, Parliament that passes for news provided it has the potential to titillate popular imagination or adds to the perpetual war of words that has come to substitute public debate in this wondrous land of ours.

It's really about the 'silly season' when news is scarce and newspapers and news telly are hard pressed to fill up columns and air time with news stories. In Britain, where the phrase originated, the silly season begins after Parliament goes into summer recess and newspapers are suddenly starved of news. In Germany, this annual phase is known as sommerloch or summer news hole; the French are more morbid in their description of the silly season as la morte-saison while the Swedish take a matter-of-fact view of what they call their annual nyhetstorka or news drought.

Here in India, more so in Delhi, the silly season, which coincides with the festive season beginning with Dussehra and stretching to New Year's social-climbing revelry with a brief interlude provided by Parliament's Winter session when little or no work is transacted, has come to mean various things to various people. Political parties use the silly season to float trial balloons, business houses use the opportunity to ply journalists with gifts (the higher you are in the food chain, the more expensive the bottle of whiskey) and event organisers trip over each other to sell their non-events as momentous happenings that will have a profound impact in fashioning India's image abroad.

So it is that some newspapers ended up reporting that the Metallica concert was held whereas it had been called off at the last minute, resulting in fans going on the rampage. The PR press release had obviously been sent a day earlier to ensure full coverage. But for the F1 tamasha, it would have truly been a morte-saison this past fortnight in Delhi and its tacky suburbs, grandiosely described as the National Capital Region.

A fresh surge of excitement is now being sought to be unleashed through wild speculation over Rahul Gandhi taking charge of Congress affairs as 'acting' president. This, in turn, has led to the hatching of conspiracy theories, among them mother not trusting son sufficiently to make him 'full' president. That apart, the silly season has proved useful for the establishment in both floating and puncturing some balloons.

For instance, we are now told by enterprising members of the commentariat determined to keep their bylines in prominent view that Manmohan Singh has proved to be far more sharper and astute as a politician than he is perceived to be; compared to him, Pranab Mukherjee, till now rated as the sharpest and most astute of all, looks like a novice. As if on cue LK Advani has let it be known that he liked Singh a lot more when he hadn't become Prime Minister than he likes him now. That's a startling revelation because the BJP had major issues with Manmohan Singh when he was Finance Minister and pilloried him mercilessly over the stock market scam.
Nor was Atal Bihari Vajpayee known to be enamoured of Manmohan Singh who, as Leader of Opposition in the Rajya Sabha, made it a point to denounce everything the NDA did. The tireless yatri, I am sure, has his reasons for saying what he said. The British court's judgement in the spot-fixing scandal rescued newspapers from putting out a dull front page on Wednesday.

Anna Hazare's threat to sit on anashan once again has left both media and readers cold, so it's not much of a story, although the shenanigans of certain prominent members of his team continue to fuel outraged commentary. But how much can you write about inflated travel bills without fetching the inevitable yawn? Everybody does it yaar, what's so special if Kiran Bedi does it too?

The writer is a journalist, political analyst and activist

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