Who is Kerala's best minister? This was the subject of an enquiry by a leading television channel during the Left Democratic Front government's second anniversary celebrations last month. Another channel looked for the worst minister.
Obviously, only one individual can emerge totally unscathed from a contest to pick the best minister. Even his closest competitor can only be the second best.
Malayalam television channels have established in recent years a reputation for caricaturing the political leaders mercilessly almost daily. The tallest leaders are perhaps the ones lampooned the most.
Most of the leaders have fans whose loyalty to them can put to shame the most ardent admirers of the superstars of Malayalam cinema. Yet the channels have not encountered any significant hostility on account of their political spoofs, possibly because the viewers treat them as mere entertainment.
The leaders, too, have raised no objection. Some of them even claim to enjoy the mimics' version of them. They would rather be ridiculed than ignored.
Asianet, which pioneered reality shows on Malayalam television, was the one which organised the quest for the best minister. The selection procedure closely parallelled that of the reality shows.
An account of each minister's work was presented and viewers were invited to send SMS to boost his chances. Low-scoring ministers were eliminated, three at a time. The process was continued until only one was left.
The winner was Water Resources Minister NK Premachandran, the Revolutionary Socialist Party's lone representative in the cabinet.
Premachandran is unlikely to feel elated by the honour since he had reservations about the fairness of the exercise. While the elimination round was still on, this writer had occasion to talk to him about the programme.
Labour Minister PK Gurudasan and Fisheries Minister S. Sharma, both belonging to Chief Minister VS Achuthanandan's camp, had just been eliminated. "They are both good ministers, working quietly," Premachandran said sadly.
The "worst minister" contest was organised by Jaihind channel, promoted by the Congress party, emulating the example set by the Communist Party of India (Marxist), which set up the Kairali group of channels.
All ministers, including Education Minister MA Baby, who was voted the worst, suffered the electronic humiliation in stoic silence.
There was a lone exception: the garrulous Co-operation Minister G. Sudhakaran. He said he would get the State Consumer Federation, which is under his department's control, to pick the worst journalist.
In a sense, grading of ministers by the electronic media is an extension of the system of awarding marks to them, initiated by the print media a few years ago.
Newspapers gave up the practice, possibly because many opinion leaders, who were asked to evaluate the performance of ministers, disapproved of the system of awarding marks.
Is it proper for the channels to grade ministers on the basis of SMS messages? Media persons and others have discussed the issue in private in recent days, and many of them are known to view it an unhealthy practice.
In the first public discussion on the subject, former Additional Chief Secretary D. Babu Paul asked in a magazine article last week, "Who are we to line up the ministers who rule over us as if they are children competing to pick up lozenges at the school anniversary competitions and determine the winner?"
In a democracy, ministers are not the masters, although some of them seem to imagine they are. They must be ready to face public scrutiny at all times, and not just at the end of their five-year tenure.
While the media and even the general public are entitled to evaluate the performance of ministers, it is incumbent upon them to do so in a responsible manner, without doing damage to the dignity of the high office they hold. Viewed in this light, the procedures adopted by the channels to determine the best and the worst were clearly objectionable.
It is, however, unfair to lay the blame for the general lack of respect for high offices in Kerala on the media. Political parties have contributed more to devaluation of public office and the dignity attached to their holders than anyone else, and it is for them to take the lead to correct the situation.
The spurious contests on the small screen, like the spurious discussions the channels organise, are manifestations of the lack of sufficient professionalism. In a situation of declining values, competition brings out not the best but the worst. –Gulf Today, Sharjah, June 2, 2008.