April 10, 2001


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P C Punnen

The claque and Pavlovian responses

Dr Ivan Pavlov won a Nobel for his thesis on digestion, but is chiefly remembered for his studies on the conditional reflex. He showed by experiments with dogs how the secretion of saliva can be stimulated not only by food, but also by the sound of a bell associated with the serving of the food.

Having taken a keen interest in the media and in politics, one has noticed a few similarities between dogs and our much-hyped media. There is nothing original about this. Phillip Howard of the London Times had noticed the same long ago. Perhaps it is a case of great men thinking alike, you might say. It is not. I read about it in an article in 1993. The author of that article had, last year, told me that all media persons should be compulsorily given anti- rabies vaccination.

Think of this. Whenever a stranger passes by a street, the dogs bark. One stray dog begins the barking, others follow suit, and after a while they give up. One does not know whether it can be called a Pavlovian response.

Consider this. One among the tribe of 'watchdogs of society' -- a title media persons have arrogated to themselves -- writes a story on a politician's peccadillo or corrupt practices or sniffs around for a muck-raking story on a deal. His peers try to do one better than him. Two or three celebs figure in a murder case at midnight in a fashionable joint or the grandson of a retired admiral is charged with mowing down a few policemen in the dead of the night.

The media dutifully generates lots of stories on subjects as varied as: what is the accused's grandfather doing, did socialite so and so have a licence to sell liquor at that joint, et al, and after a while, stop writing about the cases.

Now think of the claque in the media. Claque is a French word that has got into English, and means a group of persons hired to applaud.

Going by the popular Punjabi saying, 'Banta Singh, Santa Singh same same', one can say a claque and a clique are the same.

There is an Advani claque in the media led by a Malayalee journalist, which has for long been comparing Advani to Sardar Patel. The other claques active in the media are: the Vajpayee claque, the Tendulkar claque, the Azharuddin claque and the Chandrababu Naidu claque. The last named is the savviest among the claques. There was a Narasimha Rao claque led by a lady. It now seems to be clapping for Vajpayee. The claque that V P Singh had in the media seems to be down on its luck. Some among that tribe are reportedly seen hanging around all sorts of netas with a hangdog look.

That said, let us look into the vigorous jobs of the claques. President Clinton came to India on a State visit, and forced India to modify its stand on Kashmir. Even before Clinton set foot in India, the Indian media was full of Clinton. Clinton and his entourage came to India with everything except air packed. The Americans themselves handled his security. He addressed our MPs, and there was a scramble among our law-makers to touch him. An ex-MP put out, through his crony in the media, a story that he and his wife got a special invite from Clinton.

After Vajpayee's visit to the US, we were told, by all sorts of newspapers that his visit was a grand success. On what grounds does a visit by a lame duck president and a return visit by a weak-kneed prime minister are called grand successes. There is hardly any reason. Or better put there are as many reasons for saying so as for saying Vajpayee is a great poet and V P Singh is a great painter. The Goebbelsian dictum of repeating a lie till it passes for the truth is at play.

That is the work of the claque. After all, a claque is not meant to objectively analyse anything; it is meant to clap. As a great bard said, it is "no sin or crime for a man to labour in his vocation." So you get to understand much of what has been said or written in the wake of the Tehelka expose, do not you?

Now let us have a reality check. The US has laughed out of court India's entreaties that it be made a permanent member of the UN Security Council. The economic sanctions imposed after the Pokhran blasts have not been lifted. The US insists that India sign the CTBT. It has not blamed Pakistan for what is happening in Kashmir. It has said that Kashmir is a disputed territory. I read in newspapers that it has arm twisted Israel to go back on its word to supply certain missiles. An article in The Statesman mentioned that only 53 American law-makers attended Vajpayee's address to the US Congress. And Vajpayee put his foot in the mouth by calling himself a swayamsevak.

So what has the claque done? It has repeated ad nauseum that Vajpayee's visit to the US was a great success. That reminds one of Orwell's classic, Animal Farm for two reasons.

1. Vajpayee had, in the US, spoken about the Orwellian irony of a state snuffing out democracy and offering talks to its neighbour.
2. Speaking about the national anthem of Animal Farm, 'Beasts of England, beasts of Ireland…' 0rwell wrote how it was sung.

"The cows lowed it, the dogs whined it, the sheep bleated it, the horses whinnied it, the ducks quacked it." It is not one's case that there was no claque in any previous prime minister's tenure. There were, but they went about their assigned job of clapping with some aplomb.

Recall the days of June 1991, when Narasimha Rao and Manmohan Singh junked Nehruvian socialism, which the Congress still swears by. Jog your memory on what newspapers had written on economic reforms, the most decisive among the decisions taken after Independence. Those who protested long and loud, like the BJP, are now the most vociferous admirers of economic reforms. How time makes monkeys of people. Or as Groucho Marx said, how "time wounds all heels."

Nehru had a claque even abroad. In India Unbound, Gurcharan Das, speaking about the great hopes Nehru had aroused with his concept of mixed economy in India, refers to well-known economists visiting India and showering praises on Nehru.

Well known journalist Taya Zinkin wrote that a democratic revolution by consent was under way in India "which would make Communism look old fashioned and barbarian by comparison."

So India will have, always, a bunch of persons moulding public opinion or perceptions on whom the powers that be can bank on. Governments may come and go but the claques in the media will soldier on. They can never stop clapping. What Robert Benchley said of himself applies to them as well. He said that it took him 30 years to realise that he had no talent for writing, but by then he had become so famous that he could not stop writing.

Does not the same apply to all those worthies writing stuff and nonsense on Defencegate? I mean the government has been stripped to the buff, but still the claque is hyperactive.

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