A fortnightly column from The Wire’s public editor.
In his essay, ‘The Yogi and the Commissar’, written in the summer of 1942 when the world was in the bear pit of the Second World War, Arthur Koestler transposed the figure of the yogi – symbolic of renunciation and spirituality – against that of the commissar, representing the authoritarian, ruthless wielder of power. He saw these two figures as representing the two ends of the broad spectrum of human attitudes to life. While Koestler himself could not imagine that a synthesis of these polar opposites was humanly possible, today’s India has demonstrated that even this can happen. A yogi, drawing on the spiritual authority of a centuries old religious monastery to fuel a viciously communalised politics, can indeed become the commissar.
If the emergence of Narendra Modi and its potential impacts on Indian politics demanded an informed and critical engagement from mainstream media in 2014, interpreting the rise of Adityanath, in many ways symbolising the apotheosis of Moditva, is no less critical in 2017 – more so even given that Adityanath, at 44, has time on his side. The record, though, is far from sanguine. Just as it was in 2014, power as the universal unguent has once again meant that the media has become the message. The man who has delivered some of the most toxic public speeches in recent history and has police cases as evidence of this, is now being cast as a papaya eater, feeder of gur to cows, who works indefatigably for the “development” of Uttar Pradesh.
His controversial baby policy steps as chief minister, which have led to incalculable distress to millions, stripped helpless people of their constitutional right to free movement and ways of life, and may have caused disquiet among individual journalists, are being largely presented in the familiar “for and against” binary that avoids the imperative of taking an unambiguous stance against the unconscionable. More pernicious still is the attempt to present him as a cutesy, lovable figure with an interesting hair cut, invested with the capacity to build a Ram Mandir in a jiffy. For an exposition of this, watch ‘Yogi Wah’ from the “Politoon” series put out by a major media house, ‘So Sorry’, where the comic interludes and canned laughter create a false bonhomie where none exists.
If this is going to be the dominant pattern of media content, it holds little prospect of any substantial counter-narrative emerging to the majoritarian, divisive consensus-creation that is increasingly marking Modi’s India. As The Wire has flagged in an editorial (‘The New Normal in Uttar Pradesh’, March 28), Adityanath “is the clearest sign that the BJP as well as its parent, the RSS, are thinking of an agenda that goes far beyond just winning elections” and which is designed to turn India into a ‘Hindu rashtra’.
If the media were to seriously interrogate such a phenomenon in times of shrinking space and public indifference, if they are to keep “hopes and possibilities alive” even while confronting a giant engine coming at them, journalists would need to “throw themselves into work,” as a noted television anchor put it (‘Those Who Throw Ink Have Become Party Spokesmen, Those Who Use Ink Are Propagandists’, March 20). This would demand at least four consistent responses. They would need to call out the Adityanath government when it crosses red lines; provide perspective and context to steps being undertaken by the government and throw light on the larger game plan; analyse future trends using credible data; and weigh in on policies and plans by citing established democratic norms and practices. When terms like “secularism” and “minority rights” are dismissed, distorted or deprived of all meaning in public discourse, it is the journalist who has the power to keep them relevant through everyday reporting.
What can certainly be said of the times is that there is much to report and reflect upon. For perhaps the first time in post-independent India, we are contemplating the possibility of the separation between Temple and State being demolished. We now grapple with that curious construct, “Hindutva development,” what one writer in The Wire termed as “a clear and decisive narrative of Hindutva as an integral component of the larger economic development project” (Adityanath as UP Chief Minister is the Biggest Push Yet for ‘Hindutva Development’, March 20).
There are other big questions too. How would Adityanath’s past associations and stances impinge on the future politics of the state and the administration of justice? (‘What Does Adityanath’s Alleged Meeting With Ajmer Blast Convict Mean For Hindutva Terror Cases?’, ‘Activists Object to Adityanath’s Presence at Allahabad High Court’s 150th Anniversary’, March 29). What are the implications of having the RSS set the political agenda (‘The RSS Remote Control is Clearly Visible in the Appointment of Adityanath as UP CM’, March 21)? How has the ascendance of Adityanath impacted the lives of 38 million Muslims in Uttar Pradesh?
Despite some attention being paid to the meat ban, there is surprisingly little consistent reportage on the insecurities, fears and the terrorising of ordinary Muslims by vigilante groups in the post-verdict era. Even The Wire has not as yet come up with a comprehensive examination of this trend, although it did put out poignant essay that deserves to be read widely, ‘Shall We Stay Silent at This Most Unholy of Wars?’ (March 28). Then there is that whopper of a question: ‘When Is the BJP Likely to Achieve a Majority in the Rajya Sabha?’ (March 19). To ask the hard questions and provide credible answers to them would require both courage and perspicacity, attributes difficult to summon up when politics gets rough and governments turn absolutist.
The manner in which the Finance Bill was presented on March 21, wrapped up as a money bill despite the fact that its proposed amendments impacted several civil laws and rights, was a scandal. Scandalous too was the fact that words of criticism from the mainstream media were startlingly few and far between (one tweet said it all: “Happens when the FM is bureau chief of all political & business bureaus of newspapers”!). The Bill smoothly transited into the statute books after the amendments proposed by the upper house were brushed off like flecks of dandruff by the lower house, where the BJP has a crushing majority. The Wire was among the few media platforms to recognise the seriousness of this move (‘Breaking Down the Finance Bill’s All-Encompassing Amendments’, March 22). This was followed up by an in-depth video discussion (‘Watch: Do Finance Bill Provisions Impinge on Rights?’, March 23), which flagged several aspects of what was really a “civil liberties issue”. Unfortunately this discussion was marred by pixilated patches in the video that The Wire’s tech department needs to fix.
My mail box was, as always, full of messages from those who wanted articles to be published in The Wire. I don’t take editorial decisions and would therefore urge contributors to send their pieces directly to the editorial team (email@example.com).
There were also complaints that reader responses to The Wire’s content have not been given space. In such matters, it is the discretion of the editorial team that is paramount. I would only tell Sharat Rao – who, despite getting his comment posted, is irate that it was not carried in its entirety – that editing a reader’s post for size and content is standard practice.
So what is the ideal reader response? Reader Revathi Suresh argues that The Wire should draw a line when it comes to ‘trollish’ stuff. She writes: “Just because a reader wants to provide a ‘counterpoint’ (which is usually along the lines of “it’s because of people like you that the country has suffered for so many years” and variations of whataboutery) doesn’t mean that you have to put forth that point of view”. She wants The Wire to publish only those comments that add “value to the published piece, even if the reader is not in agreement with the writer. Everyone enjoys a discussion or debate, for general rants there are so many outlets these days”.
Sushil Khanna is surprised that The Wire doesn’t have a mechanism to alert readers on the stories it puts out: “Visited your website to follow your stories and be alerted through regular email. No chance! If i don’t follow Twitter (and I don’t), there is no way to keep track of your stories. You obviously don’t care about readers following you.” In fact, there is a prominently marked subscription box on the homepage, on the right-hand side. The Wire‘s editors say they have several thousand subscribers to their daily newsletter.
Full marks to Satish Naidu who spotted that Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s name was spelt incorrectly as “Vajpeyi” in a piece. “Curious, why was Vajpayee’s name spelled differently. The upper half has the correct spelling, the lower half spells it twice incorrectly.” As Confucius, he say: alert reader, better media.