By Praful Shankar
It would not be a misstatement to suggest that the ascent of Narendra Modi to the post of the Prime Minister of India was an event that most sections of the national media neither expected nor supported. Despite the fact that almost all sections of the media like to operate under a veil of political neutrality, the revulsion with which most media outlets –particularly of the TV news variety – view PM Modi and his government have now become too obvious to hide.
This has been a fractious relationship over a decade in the making.
In fact, unlike what most people would think, the seeds of discord were not sown after the Gujarat riots but much earlier. Before the rise of Modi, India’s intellectual leftist elite – who make up a substantial portion of New Delhi’s media powerbrokers – had other enemies. Chief among those were LK Advani, Atal Bihari Vajpayee and their then-nascent BJP. During the early to mid-nineties, the New Delhi establishment had watched on in horror as those they derided as unfashionable ‘temple-goers’ and ‘communal fascists’ swept into power across the Hindi heartland and finally, into New Delhi.
Coincidentally, the BJP’s rise to national power overlapped with the beginning of the culture of 24/7 Television news in India.
In fact, it was the Vajpayee government which had the deep misfortune of being the first full-fledged Indian dispensation which had to deal with India’s partisan, hyper-ventilating news channels. The initial bouts of ‘dramatic’ news coverage began with the Kargil war but the first actual sign of the depths that news channels would sink to became clear during the shameful coverage that surrounded the Kandahar hijacking. It is a profound irony that today, those very same channel owners and editors pontificating and lecturing about the need for subdued media coverage were the ones that presided over the live TV blackmail that the coverage of the Kandahar hijacking was in actuality.
When the Gujarat riots happened, the news channels reacted as though they had hit the mother-load. While being great for TRPs, the spectacle of a communal riot in a BJP ruled state was also a great weapon for the media to hammer the NDA government with. Villains were found, crimes were described and sentences were meted out – all on live TV. Casting Narendra Modi and the Sangh Parivar as the perpetual villain of the piece seemed to be the best way that the New Delhi establishment could circumvent the personal popularity of Vajpayee and still deliver a body blow to the BJP government.
During this period, the NDA government made numerous mistakes themselves. Without having the systems in place to properly judge the impact of the news coverage they were having to deal with, the government reacted with immaturity on most instances – allowing the media to drive the narrative and permitting most of the media’s imaginary claims to go unchallenged. The lack of sure-footed responses made the BJP seem guilty even on occasions when they were innocent.
When the BJP suffered a shock defeat in the 2004 Elections, the media exulted. In their minds, it seemed as though they had done their bit to restore the reigns of India back into to the hands of its natural rulers. The ‘Brahmin-Bania’ party had been put in their place and the lofty ‘Nehruvian Idea of India’ was restored to its preeminence. Over the course of the next few celebratory years, the Congress and the new channels exchanged numerous ‘Indian of the Year’ and Padma Shri awards with each other. Editors turned into powerbrokers and gatekeepers, flourishing under the patronage of the crumbs thrown down at them from the Congress’ high table. TV anchors who cry about being abused on Twitter today routinely described Narendra Modi as a mass murderer and the architect of a Muslim genocide – never mind that the most horrific communal riots that had taken place in India had happened under the ‘secular’ Congress’ watch.
During the decade long rule of the UPA, the media narrative around the BJP and Narendra Modi, in particular, was fashioned exactly how the Congress would have designed. After the election defeat of 2009, it was suggested that a split in the BJP was imminent and that even if the party managed to stay together, the internal contradictions of the BJP would never allow the then-Gujarat CM to take over the party’s reigns in Delhi. And in the remote case that this happened, it was opined that a Modi-led BJP would be starved for allies and would never even come close to a simple majority on its own.
The Congress had convinced itself and, by extension, its hangers-on in the media that a combination of dubious CBI cases, media demonization and manipulation of the BJP’s internal dynamics would make the Gujarat Chief Minister unelectable. During the course of the UPA decade, what most sections of the media intellectuals meant when they said that the very ‘Idea of India’ would reject a Modi premiership was that their internal sources had informed them that the powers-that-be in the Congress party had a plan in place to ensure that their bête-noir would never make it to Delhi.
Over a decade of being in intellectual tandem with the ruling class had made the media anoint themselves the true gauge of public mood. Some even laid claim to their capacity to shape it.
Post the election results of May 2014, the news media was confronted with the truth that for all their punditry and intellectual prowess, they had harshly misjudged the national mood. After having crowned themselves the representatives of the common Indian, the fact that news channels had grown distinctly disconnected from their viewers was a difficult proposition to live down. A part of this difficulty was having to deal with the fact that most prominent TV media personalities and news channels had crumbled in terms of public credibility. The release of the Nira Radia tapes had only confirmed what the public had begun to suspect – that leading journalists were no longer just content in reporting or analyzing the news. They had decided to become power-brokers and go-betweeners in the UPA’s murky politics.
If the election results presented a chance for the media to take a long hard look at themselves, it was an opportunity that was forcefully turned down. Consequently, what one has seen is a recalibrated approach in dealing with the government – an approach which took a few months to evolve but took final shape by the time the government completed a year in office.
If one had followed the news narrative leading up to the one year anniversary of the Modi government, it would have been difficult to escape the deeply cynical mood reflected in the newsroom discussions across almost all English news channels. Equally obvious was the vigorous propagation of the ‘minorities under attack’ narrative based on purposefully ill-informed and selective reporting on sporadic Church ‘attacks’ across India. It seemed as though the news channels had drawn the conclusion – from within the AC rooms of their plush offices in the national capital – that not much had changed post the ascent of Modi and that the public has lost faith in Prime Minister over the course of the year.
Unfortunately for them, the flood of opinions polls and surveys which accompanied the one year anniversary quickly proved that the national mood was quite different from that in news studios. Across surveys, the Prime Minister’s approval ratings were found to hover in the mid-60s with the approval for his government oscillating between the late-50s and early-60s depending on the surveying organization. The electorate, it seemed, was neither as partisan nor as immature as news anchors. The public had understood the scale and complexity of the challenge the government has been confronted with and had signed off on both the intent and the efforts of the new government. More disappointingly for the media, all their efforts to bring the Modi government down a notch on the eve of the one year anniversary had hit a dead wall.
Yet, India’s news channels are nothing if not stubborn. The past few weeks have seen a continued effort to force their own narrative on the general public. The International Yoga Day, an event enthusiastically received across the country, was covered with the same bout of sneering elitism and cynicism which had accompanied earlier events of the Modi government. And there is not a person left in urban India today who has managed to escape the live tracking of Lalit Modi’s twitter updates which engulfed the public airwaves for the better part of a month.
In the former case, the media turned a celebration of one India greatest legacies into a distasteful debate on secularism.
And in the case of the latter, the TV media truly unleashed their fangs. After more than a decade of having their way in almost every confrontation with successive governments and in sight of what they thought would be their first major scalp of the Modi premiership, caution and fair analysis were thrown into the winds. While most agree that the two BJP leaders at the center of the controversy may have acted with some degree of hurriedness, it is equally true that, until now, there has been absolutely no case of illegality or corruption in either of their actions.
When the resignation from Sushma Swaraj was ruled out by the BJP President, the media – with a good dose of help from Lalit Modi – trained their guns on the Rajasthan CM. Each dubious Jairam Ramesh press conference was treated as the gospel truth with absolutely no effort made from the side of the media to assess the factual accuracy of wild allegations being hurled. The media trial descended to ridiculous depths when news channels began to demand the resignation of Mrs Swaraj on the count that Lalit Modi had offered a job to her husband. The fact that Swaraj Kaushal has refused the offer did not seem to be relevant to the frothing news hounds.
For a while, it seemed as though the scandal would continue for as long as Lalit Modi posted updates on his Twitter handle. That is, until he named the Gandhis and the media inexplicably went into studied silence.
Even more than the fact that Lalit Modi had begun to venture into uncomfortable territories, what the media had not accounted for was the Modi government completely stonewalling any demand that was made – whether it was the resignations of the ministers or even a statement from the Prime Minister.
Over 10 years of dealing with numerous media trials and manufactured controversies would have made Narendra Modi almost immune to the pressures that can be mounted by any voluble news anchor – even the ‘Master of the Screaming Primetimes’.
However, more than the ample experience of staring down a vitriolic media that he has behind him, what would have allowed the Prime Minister to be so summarily dismissive of the media’s gyrations was the fact that the more TV channels tried to balloon a relatively minor issue into a full-fledged national crisis, the more it seemed to lose steam with the general public. Once again, it seemed as though the frantic attempts by the media to manufacture public outrage through sheer belligerence had failed summarily.
If, by some remote chance of luck, the media were to see some cause for introspection, one would suggest that it should begin with the re-examination of the extent of their power to influence the general public. The relationship between the general public and the TV media has changed quite a bit over the past decade. Political results over the past few years have shown that the public have moved beyond blind acceptance of media viewpoints as their own. And what has certainly not helped their case is that the both the current and emerging generations of journalists seem to be driven more by hubris that by any analytical or investigative leanings.
Even in the most mature of democracies, institutions do tend to exceed their mandates at some point or the other. What we had seen in India for a long period of time post-Independence was a case of overreach of the political class – which reached its zenith during the Emergency and has since, watered down though not disappearing completely. The past few years have seen numerous instances of the political class brought down to earth through a combined effort of the judiciary and the media.
Democracy – by its very nature – tends to push political class into introspection periodically. Sadly, no such mechanism exists for the media, allowing it to continuously live in denial.
The loss of public credibility of the media poses great risks not just for the media themselves but for democracy at large. Conflicting and self-correcting mechanisms are imperative for any democracy to succeed and in today’s India – where it sometimes takes decades for the judiciary to dispense justice – a credible media is vital for common citizens to be able to make informed choices at the polling booth.
In their mad rush for TRPs, political power and ideological fulfillment, India’s media seems to the forgotten the role they are actually meant to play. And consequently, it is the political class which is laughing all the way to Parliament.