Ranjona Banerji: Did Sunanda Pushkar story merit top billing?

21 Jan,2014

By Ranjona Banerji


The last few days saw the news cycle consumed by Sunanda Pushkar, Shashi Tharoor and Mehr Taraar with allegations of affairs and unhappiness. There was a tragic culmination to the story with the suspected suicide of Pushkar. But how important was this story, that newspapers and news channels gave it top billing?


Sunanda Pushkar was the wife of junior minister Shashi Tharoor. The world (other than the cocktail circuit of Dubai and perhaps New Delhi) knew of her because of the controversy of the Kochi IPL team, where both she and Tharoor had some involvement. It was IPL commissioner Lalit Modi who revealed details of the Kochi team through his Twitter account. Tharoor had to resign as minister, Pushkar removed herself from the Kochi team and the rest of us became familiar with the term “sweat equity”. Tharoor married Pushkar and then both became the darlings of the Delhi cocktail party crowd.


So far, there is no indication of how important either Tharoor or Pushkar are to the national narrative. When Pushkar started tweeting last week from her husband’s phenomenally popular Twitter account, it was all about how some Pakistani female journalist was stalking her husband. The journalist in question, Taraar, denied allegations, Tharoor said his account had been hacked, Pushkar said it wasn’t hacked and that she had been tweeting. She made elliptical allusions to an affair and then to how she had been made the scapegoat in the IPL controversy. All this was played out on social media and to a salacious mainstream media.


Still, nothing of national interest is visible here except a gossipy prying into other people’s lives. It is true that Pushkar made it all public but that has no bearing on the importance of the material. Then Pushkar is found dead by her husband in a Delhi hotel room and that ends all other news. Apparently, top news anchors even stopped the nightly debates when they got the news on the cellphones.


When Princess Diana died in a car crash in Paris in 1997, The New York Times famously decided not to make it the top story of the day. By any reckoning, Diana was more famous than Pushkar. As obituaries of the poor woman appeared in newspapers across India, most people had nothing more to say than Pushkar was warm, vivacious, a good cook and lit up parties when she entered them. Others mentioned that she was a bit of a social climber and old school friends popped up to tell us that she was a shy, withdrawn girl who wanted to shrug off her small town origins.


The significance of the front-page leads and top billing on news channels is still unclear. The Delhi government with India’s new hope Arvind Kejriwal is involved in all kinds of bizarre tactics. Rahul Gandhi and the Congress are making valiant efforts to get back into the conversation. Narendra Modi is smarting from Kejriwal’s popularity while trying to save the country. And enough other sundry horrors happening all over the country and world to keep journalists occupied. So why did this story get so much importance?


Here’s a theory: Delhi’s journalists knew Pushkar and Tharoor socially and therefore felt a personal loss with her death. They also felt some guilt at the way the affair allegations were played out in the media. The decision to make Pushkar top news was therefore a personal one, where the reader or viewer was forgotten. There is no justification at all for making this story more important than any other, even with the understanding that every such decision is a judgment call that can be contested.


Even with Shashi Tharoor being a minister, this story was overplayed. The only takeaway is that everybody in India who takes part in the English media knows more about Sunanda Pushkar in her death than before. C’est la vie?


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One response to “Ranjona Banerji: Did Sunanda Pushkar story merit top billing?”

  1. zoneofsilence says:

    Drawing a parallel between Diana and Sunanda is meaningless. Why is every journalist/ writer. television channel scared to voice the truth. Sunanda knew the inside story between the Congress and the ISI and would have spilled the beans at the right time. Read her tweets and read between the lines. People in power know how to silence the Sunandas of the world.

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