ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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Media and Modi

The Prime Minister could continue to browbeat those in the media who criticise him. Ever since Modi came to power in Delhi there has been "a conspiracy of silence" in large sections of the national media that have chosen to look the other way where his many transgressions are concerned.


The manner in which Prime Minister Narendra Modi was able to deflect criticism about demonetisation in much of the mainstream media, reflects his consummate skills as a spin doctor who seeks to manipulate public opinion through sympathetic journalists. Whereas sections of the media did highlight the huge problems faced by ordinary people on account of demonetisation, there were many newspapers and television channels who "balanced" their accounts by emphasising the "good" the decision would do to the country in the long term: weeding out black money and stopping the use of counterfeit currency notes by terrorists.


Modi’s acolytes publicised the findings of a "national survey" using a mobile phone application in which 5 lakh people participated to claim that more than 90% of the country's population supported his decision to suddenly ban the use of high-denomination currency notes. Those sections of the media which played up the outcome of this so-called survey failed to highlight the simple fact that these findings would be inevitable given the manner in which the questionnaire was structured. In any case, most Indians living in rural areas do not still know or have the facility to use such mobile phone apps. Using the services of his bhakts to put out selective information to suit his purpose is typical of the way Modi operates.  


Ushered into his office when he was chief minister of Gujarat, I found Narendra Modi attentively going through a pile of clippings of newspapers. Seeing the quizzical expression on my face, he observed, “Arrey bhai I am half a journalist too.”


Well before he became Prime Minister of India, Modi had worked as an organiser for the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) which he currently heads and also as a pracharak of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). As one who thrives on information, I did not find Modi’s comment surprising. But if the Prime Minister is half a journalist by temperament by his own admission, how does one explain his government’s crude attempt to first punish the Hindi television channel, NDTV India, for allegedly disclosing sensitive information that could have jeopardised the operations of the country’s security forces, and then keeping the controversial decision on hold? Or his apparent intolerance for dissenting views?


In Modi’s estimation, a journalist is not a person who just purveys news and information but rather an individual who influences what goes on in society by shaping opinions. Even as the aam janta realised that they had been put to enormous difficulties because of his ill-conceived move to suddenly demonetise, the media exercised self-censorship and refrained from focusing on the negative impact of the move on common people and on the working of the economy. With a substantial section of the media silent initially, ordinary people found that they were without a voice. Although with the passage of time the media slowly started reporting on their plight, the reportage was not as critical as it could have and should have been. Even on social media, truthful reporters and commentators found themselves attacked by bhakts alleging that they were in cahoots with anti-national elements. “In my paper’s editorial meetings, bhakt journalists attempted to shout down those who wanted to report anti-government stories every day, and they were successful,” an editor of a mainline paper confessed to this writer.   


Exhortation Against ‘Sinning’


To return to the story on NDTV India, the gag order that required the Hindi television news channel to cease broadcasting for a day has been temporarily kept in abeyance. However, the unprecedented move has bared the fangs of the current government. Though the order was by an inter-ministerial committee set up by the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, it is difficult to imagine that an order of such far-reaching significance was taken without the knowledge of the Prime Minister. Ironically the ban came two days after he was the chief guest at the presentation of the Ramnath Goenka Awards for excellence in journalism. During his speech on the occasion, he repeatedly harked back to the days of the Emergency when the government of the day had put shackles on the fundamental right to freedom of expression. Modi exhorted citizens to ensure that in the future there should be no political leader who would even think of committing such a "sin". He did not refer to Indira Gandhi by name but the reference was obvious to all.


The NDTV India gag order came a day after the Union Minister of State for Home Affairs Kiren Rijiju said that the media should give up the habit of questioning the authorities and raising doubts. “This is not good culture,” he remarked, after considerable scepticism surfaced about the police version of the encounter killing of supporters of the Students Islamic Movement of India (SIMI) in Bhopal.


Better Watch Out


That the ban order on NDTV India was motivated is clear from the fact that the information that the channel purveyed (about militants holed up in the Pathankot cantonment close to residential areas and where fighter planes were parked) was already in the public domain. Part of the information had been given out by Indian Air Force spokespersons themselves and other parts had already appeared in the press. Why then was NDTV singled out for action? Was it on account of the perception that Prannoy Roy (who heads the New Delhi Television group) is close to the Congress party especially its supremo Sonia Gandhi? By choosing NDTV, Modi and his supporters were seeking to send out a clear message: those in the media who are critical of the government had better watch out.


NDTV 24x7 (the English channel of the group) also made the cardinal mistake of not telecasting an interview with former finance minister and home minister P Chidambaram after showing excerpts of it. In the interview, Chidambaram had made adverse comments about the Indian Army’s "surgical strikes" inside Pakistan ostensibly to rid the infrastructure for training terrorists and had pointed out that the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government had also undertaken a surgical strike but without any fanfare. NDTV was not forthcoming on why it held back the recorded interview but by all appearances it seems that the channel was persuaded by the government to block it. NDTV, which is known to be in financial trouble, took the advice seriously and not the least because it was already grappling with show cause notices from various departments of the government for alleged financial irregularities.


This is where I believe NDTV made a mistake. By buckling under pressure, the management of the channel conveyed an impression (perhaps without intending to do so) that it could not stand up to pressure exerted by the government. We all know what happened next. Faced with a barrage of protests from different sections of the media (including the Editors Guild, press clubs in various cities and eminent journalists) and legal action in the Supreme Court, the government decided to suspend its order stopping the broadcast of NDTV India for a day. However, the sword of Damocles is still hanging over its head. At the same time, it seems clear that the powers that be realised that this is a battle that they had lost in the people’s court, at least for the time being.


A "Practical" Man


One personality trait of Modi that has gone largely unnoticed by the media is that he is highly practical and pragmatic. He will only push through a move if it benefits him politically and does not run into great opposition. This is the reason why Modi as the unquestioned Chief Minister of Gujarat for nearly 13 years never could lift prohibition in that state although he was personally against it.


By nature Modi is authoritarian and dictatorial. And despite what he says from public platforms, he holds one view most of the time (that is, his own) and is a past master at drumming up support for himself. This leads one to the inescapable conclusion that he would bide his time before seeking to intimidate his critics in the media again in the future.


If that happens, the media will only have itself to blame. Ever since Modi came to power in Delhi there has been "a conspiracy of silence" in large sections of the national media that have chosen to look the other way where his many transgressions are concerned. The force of Modi’s oratory and his general demeanour has intimidated large sections of the press into abject obedience. Individual instances of opposition such as the one by journalist Akshaya Mukul who refused to accept the Ramnath Goenka Award for the best non-fiction book of the year from the Prime Minister saying that he could not bear the thought of sharing the “same frame” with him, are few and far between.


Modi has little respect for journalists. His attitude has not changed. But in the era of "paid journalism", more and more owners of media organisations will be reluctant to stand up against the government. Paid media is incompatible with a free media. Those who live in glass houses should not throw stones. Although there is nothing in the laws of the land that bars paid news, if the Indian public and the media truly want a free and independent "fourth estate" they have to ensure that the media first cleanses itself. Otherwise the likes of Modi will not spare any opportunity to browbeat those who do not subscribe to his ideology or share his predilections.


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