Among the many advantages that Prime Minister Narendra Modi has enjoyed during his term in office so far is a press that has fawned over him and his government. With the notable exception of Human Resources Development Minister Smriti Irani, the mysterious target of numerous hit-pieces -– some of them in very poor taste -– most of his ministers, too, have been showered with the accolades, and praised for their honesty, transparency, vision and efficiency, even when they have not exactly demonstrated one or all of those virtues. Modi himself has enjoyed wall-to-wall coverage, almost all of it adoring. Aside from that one occasion with that suit – which, I think we can all agree, he brought on himself – there has not been barely a challenge in the mainstream print or electronic media, forget about disrespect or mockery. When compared how the Delhi press has behaved in the five years previous to his arrival, Modi has little to complain about.
And yet the PM chose to complain, by delivering a speech – inside the precincts of Parliament, no less – suggesting the media was the major villain of his first year in office. The supposed casus belli was a disgraceful and lowering spat between his junior foreign minister, one V K Singh, a former chief of army staff, and various TV channels. (A digression to explain what happened: The TV channels did not cover the rescue mission to Yemen in a manner that satisfied Singh’s vast ego.) Singh wished to be seen as the personal saviour of the embattled Indian citizens there, and not as part of a larger group effort by the services and the bureaucracy — thus demonstrating that he has become, or always was, the most typical kind of politician. Anyway, the dispute escalated, with TV channels choosing in their inimitable lowest-possible-IQ style to take as serious some sarcastic comment Singh delivered; and it climaxed with Mr Singh, a man who should carry the dignity of not one but two high offices, calling the media “presstitutes”, like some choleric old uncle everyone wants to avoid at a wedding. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which showed its contempt for institutions through the two unprecedented acts of making Mr Singh a minister, and a chief justice a governor barely after he had taken off its robes, may have done India an unintended favour. No army chief has ever become a politician in India, a great and honourable tradition Mr Singh has broken. Thanks to Mr Singh’s demeanour, I fancy he will be the last chief-turned-politician, as well.)
This is the kind of thing that should lead to being publicly hauled up by your boss. But Mr Modi instead used the V K Singh incident to tell the entire BJP Parliamentary party that the media was not covering his government sufficiently and well. “Some people,” he suggested, “have decided not to hear anything good, not to say anything good and not to see anything good. We should not waste our time on them, but focus on those who want to listen.”
Complaining about the media is puzzling on two levels. First, because didn’t this government claim that it didn’t need the media? No briefings, no chats, just plain press releases and social media outreach to the people at large? Was that strategy wrong, then?
And it is puzzling on another level: because it is quite unjustified.
Let us be clear: the media has given the PM and his government a far easier time than it probably deserves. The PM’s desire for spectacle, his knack for showmanship, fits right in with a media that has been desperate for a little glamour after the grey depression of the later Manmohan Singh years.
Consider how breathlessly we have covered his many foreign trips, taking all his assertions about their success at face value. He came back from France and took credit for a nuclear deal, and that was mostly reported without it being pointed out how completely inaccurate it was, and that Singh had signed the agreement with Sarkozy in 2010. He came back from Germany and declared that the Hannover trade fair had been a rousing success for ‘Make in India’. As far as I can tell, only one journalist, Suhasini Haidar of The Hindu, pointed out that in 2006, the last time India partnered the Hannover Fair, $1.3 billion was generated through dozens of agreements; this year, amid all the glitz, just nine agreements were signed, and each for a paltry few million. That should have been the worried headline in the press: instead we got “Modi unleashes ‘Make in India’ at Hannover” and the like.
Other examples abound. The coal auctions finished weeks ago, and the government and its partisans continue to brandish a “Rs 2 lakh crore” figure about with Vinod Rai-like brazenness. But as an investigation by Nitin Sethi and Ishan Bakshi by this newspaper has shown, there are real questions about this figure. Yet most of the media has chosen to faithfully report the government’s talking points, and little else.
If, in spite of this, the PM feels the government still doesn’t get as much rah-rah coverage as he has come to expect, he should realise this may be because there is simply not enough substance to talk about. If he does more, instead of talking more, the press may have more to report and analyse. Speeches and slogans get boring for those not delivering them.
Modi needs to get out of his bunker. Times have changed. He spent much of his energy as chief minister fighting off those, including many in the media, who believed that liberal principles of accountability meant that he should have no place in our politics after the 2002 riots. That argument has been rendered moot by the 2014 elections. (Not lost, for sheer numbers can never win such arguments.) In the face of such power, the press will forget anything.
And so the media covers Modi like a much-loved celebrity now. It gives his government the benefit of the doubt — although it gets nothing in return. There is no official media advisor; most ministers and secretaries are unwilling to talk; the PM himself rarely gives interviews and when he does they have the stilted quality of written-down answers; and the government consistently and carefully releases important news too late in the day for proper analysis before the next day’s edition or prime time. And yet the media treats this government, its endlessly-speechifying head and its hit-and-miss ministers, with kid gloves and the exaggerated deference born of fear and of greed. Fear of what the powerful or their rabid fans could do or say — and avarice because who knows whom the king will turn to as his town crier?
If the prime minister wants this servile attitude to last, he must learn to throw us a bone now and then. He may think – and worse, say – we are “news traders”, and his legions of online advocates may be empowered by such statements to attack individual journalists, but at some point even something as spineless as the Indian media will grow tired of receiving nothing but insults.
I fear that moment, truly. Because if the Indian media rediscovers its spine before the prime minister discovers collegiality, then this may not play out well. Already, criticism of the government is being called unpatriotic, and the media is being accused of not reporting sufficiently positively. Like the NGOs that the government is currently attacking and trying to choke off, the media could soon be accused of holding up development — especially if it begins to report on troubles in India’s rural heartland as prices stagnate and the rain turns unpredictable.
If things turn bad -– and say, the government does not deliver as much as it has promised -– it will be said that the media is to blame. Surely, then, in the interests of new India, should we not control those in the media blocking or distracting from development at the behest of anti-India interests? This is what the government is already doing with NGOs, after all (and let’s not forget that Mint wrote an editorial backing such government action, in the national interest).
Such confrontations have not played out well for either side historically. The press and individual journalists suffer; proprietors are hassled and subject to false cases and raids. Oddly, the last PMs to have this jaundiced view of the press were also PMs with brute majorities — Indira and Rajiv Gandhi. But in the end, their political careers, too, suffered as a consequence of the confrontation. But so did the nation. Narendra Modi needs to let go of his sense of persecution, for his government’s sake, and India’s.