The other day I watched Frank Capra’s 1939 film ‘Mr. Smith goes to Washington‘, a political drama about a small town Boy Ranger who is appointed by the governor of a Western state to replace a deceased Senator. The newly appointed Senator, Jefferson Smith (played by James Stewart) is a rookie to the world of politics; idealistic, highly patriotic, naive, and is selected for the position because it is thought by the governor and his cronies that he will not interfere in their monetarily beneficial political plans (monetarily beneficial of course, only to them). When Senator Smith gets wind of these plans, namely, a bill for the construction of dam on the lands upon which he had proposed a national boys’ camp, he opposes the same in the Senate and false charges of corruption are planted against him.The dam-building graft scheme is supported by James Taylor, a rich industrialist who has in effect put the politicians backing the scheme into power. Down, out and ready to give up, Senator Smith with some inspiration from his more experienced secretary launches a filibuster to delay the appropriations bill for the graft scheme and to prove his innocence. Eventually after continuously speaking for 23 hours, he collapses, the conscience of his fellow state Senator is pricked, and the falsity of the charges against Smith are admitted to.
What particularly struck me of this film (apart from the excellent acting and filmography and the simplicity of the story) was the fact that during Smith’s filibustering, even though at times the audience and press seemed to be in support of what he was saying, due to the magnitude of James Taylor’s influence, everything actually printed in the newspapers is in a negative light, and subsequently, the immediate public opinion on Senator’s Smith’s guilt is adversely affected.
Now in the day and age of this film the media was limited only to the print media and thereby control over the news and public opinion was simple enough, if one had the sufficient means and influence to do so. This fact made me think of the Anna Hazare’s anti-corruption agenda/the Aam Admi Party/Arvind Kejriwal/ the Jan Lokpal Movement. In the current scenario, the media has expanded to include television and social networking in addition to news print. It may seem therefore that infiltration of the sort depicted in Mr Smith goes to Washington would not be possible. However, it is my opinion that distortion of the facts has become less obvious, more subtle, pervasive and dangerously influential upon public opinion.
Today there has been great praise and promise written about the Aam Admi Party’s showing in the Delhi Assembly elections and Arvind Kejriwal’s announcement that he will form government in the Capital. However, going back to Anna Hazare’s first fast in 2011, there was great praise and promise written of Anna’s movement during its inception as well. What happened subsequently? I derive the trajectory of public opinion on the issue through my own opinions on the same and how they have been continually changing without my own consciousness of the same. After Anna’s 6th or 7th fast, the news reports began to become highly negative, branding him as a foolish and senile old man, desperate for publicity, clinging to an outdated Gandhian ideal in vain. The same media sources which had, weeks earlier, lauded him as a saviour of the people and a crusader for justice. Then came the split between Kejriwal’s camp and Anna’s camp which unleashed with it a tidal wave of negative publicity. Kejriwal was heavily discredited and the public lost faith in his capabilities. We lawyers, law students, liberal intellectuals and political enthusiasts engaged in heated discussion on how fickle they all were and how there was no unity between Anna Hazare and his followers. And of course, that he was just a stupid old man who needed to stop fasting.
Then suddenly due to the lack of choice (NaMo v. RaGa) we all decided that the Aam Admi Party was the future of justice and transparent governance in our country (when we earlier criticised Kejriwal, branding him a hypocrite for entering the political realm). Because there was no strong candidate projected to appeal to our intellectual senses, we again turned back to the AAP. The same AAP which we had dismissed to negative publicity over the Anna-Kejriwal split. The constant interchange between the positive and negative light in which these personalities and their programmes have been chronicled makes me question the character of our national media, and whether it is truly as unbiased as it claims to be.
As life at times appears to imitate art, in Kejriwal I see a version of Senator Jefferson Smith, a rookie to politics and in some respects misrepresented and misunderstood. Anna Hazare and Arvind Kejriwal had ideological differences about whether or not to enter the political realm to combat corruption. This does not make them hypocrites, nor should it render their movement meaningless. While Anna chose to stay clear of politics, Kejriwal felt the need to engage in the democratic process to bring about change. Whether he succeeds in fulfilling his promises, remains to be seen. Whether the conscience of corrupt politicians is eventually pricked remains to be seen (though I don’t think 2014 shall bode as well for conscience-pricking as 1939 did). Whether Anna, Kejriwal, the Congress or the BJP are right, wrong, just, corrupt or progressive are subjective notions to be determined by each citizen and resident based on their own thinking capacity and opinion generating faculties. Neither should we be forced to support any particular movement or political party, nor should we be irrationally turned against them. In the nation with the longest democratic constitution in the world, it is the hope that we are free to make our own opinions and that our opinions are not subtly controlled by the media, in turn controlled by the influential. In the meantime, Mr. Kejriwal has gone to Delhi. It remains to be seen whether he will stay there, or if negative forces shall succeed in conspiring against him.