Its time the media must choose between cabbages and king
* The Times have come, Narendra Modi said, to talk of many things.
Sure it is a spoof on the famous line from “Alice In Wonderland”. But there is clearly a lot of reason why the Indian media must answer a barrage of questions, on what’s the media’s role in India’s democracy and how credibly—or otherwise—has it conducted itself. With over 70,000 newspapers and 880 satellite television channels, over 100 of them focused on news, the Indian media is a behemoth by all accounts. The media, particularly the broadcast media, are singularly responsible for shaping public opinion. In the last two years of the UPA government, it went overboard in defining the government’s policy aberrations, notably on harnessing of natural resources, as willful corruption. Two years of non-stop finger pointing by the media as corrupt and inept was more than enough to turn the government led by Manmohan Singh as a stretcher case much before its doomsday.
It has now got a new prey, Prime Minister Modi. As a political leader, he is the opposite of his BJP predecessor Atal Behari Vajpayee, who was perhaps the most media-driven PM India ever had. But Modi is indifferent to media except as an instrument to reach out to the electors. In the run-up to the Lok Sabha election last year, he used television to turn it close to a presidential poll. His television addresses were carried on giant screens to almost every constituency across the country, creating a powerful illusion of omnipresence. The individual candidates of his party, the BJP, mattered the least as every contest seemed being between Modi and the rival party. It is true that the strategy did not prove much useful in states where BJP had no significant electoral presence, like West Bengal and much of South India. But the Modi factor, coupled with BJP’s base strength made the saffron wave unstoppable across the Hindi belt. The Modi wave pitch forked the party to majority status in the lower House, a feat not accomplished by any single party after the ‘Indira wave’ following the late prime minister’s assassination.
Of course Modi owes a lot to the media for his decisive win. But he proved to be a somewhat different animal after his victory, keeping high-power editors and anchors at bay and diligently avoiding situations where journalists could pose unwarranted questions. The only interactions he had with journalists was a series of dinner meets with them around the first anniversary of his government. The meetings were held at the Krishna Menon Marg residence of Finance Minister Arun Jaitley and not at his official residence on Race Course Road, which again is a token of his apathy to get too close to men and women whose job is to interpret him and his words to the people, and that too in any which they like. In his tour of Central Asia this week, he has not even allowed the reporters of news agencies like PTI to accompany him. Only their photographers are welcome, probably because they don’t ask questions. As PM, Modi firmly shut his access doors not only to journalists but also their employers, who had till the recent past enjoyed untold privileges. The UPA chairperson would visit their homes, and reading it as signal, government advertisements would flood their publications irrespective of their actual reach.
Some media barons who began thinking that they had brought Modi to power were obviously seething in anger. Besides, there is a section of the media ideologically opposed to BJP. Together, they launched a furious campaign against Modi on the ‘Lalitgate’ issue, asking for the PM’s head for every leak involving the improprieties of External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj, and detail of the doubtful nexus between Vasundhara Raje Scindia, powerful Rajasthan Chief Minister of the BJP, and former cricket IPL super-boss Lalit Modi who is now in the vortex of controversy. Opposition parties, particularly the Congress, had their axe to grind as the Modi government seemed serious about getting the two legislations—one on GST and other to simplify land acquisition—cleared in the impending monsoon session of Parliament, and that would give Modi a head start in the assembly elections for Bihar later in the year.
The shrill voices in the media were clearly backing the wrong horse as the Prime Minister could by no account be held responsible for the links his party seniors were maintaining with a cricket manager who had attracted the wrath of the previous government for offences never cogently stated before a court in the form of charges. The reasons for Congress’ grouse against Lalit Modi are old, besides being shrouded in speculation. It can be because Lalit Modi cost former MoS for external affairs Shashi Tharoor, a confidante of Congress president Sonia Gandhi, his job by disclosing that his wife (now dead) Sunanda Pushkar had acquired a large stake in IPL’s Kochi franchise. It can be anything else, except the criminal and financial charges for which two successive governments have been unable to produce any proof. But the media could only get cases of impropriety against the two women leaders of the BJP to take on the PM.
It is obvious that the media too was not in search of the proof either. Instead, by raising the pitch of rhetoric against Modi, it was trying to rise above the irrelevancy to which Modi had pushed it. Beyond rhetoric, its coverage of the government is pathetic in its information deficit. The lone-ranger PM has substantially cut off flow of information within the government too, so there is not much news to emanate from BJP’s traditional loose cannons. Is it democratic ? Perhaps not, but it surely pushes the media to a point where it must make up its mind on how it wants to see itself as: a soapbox orator, or a provider of information.
To go back to “Alice”, the media now must choose between cabbages and king.
(The author is National Editor, Lokmat group)