Members of the fourth estate aren’t supposed to be chums of those in power. They are not expected to keep reassuring the prime minister that “all is well”, though many media persons may be prone to doing this. Some Modi-friendly journalists of late have argued that the “liberal” media targets the prime minister individually. In a highly-centralised, PM-centric regime, this is inevitable. It’s quite simple. The media exists to ask questions, to hold those in power to account. Everything else is just public relations and the government is free to take out full-page advertisements to tom-tom its achievements.
But now we seem to be living in New India, where the role and meaning of the press and government have changed with such astonishing speed in just three and a half years that the rationale of the fourth estate in a democracy is being questioned by the media itself.
Consider the following facts. Modi is widely hailed as a “great communicator”, yet ever since he assumed office on May 26, 2014, he has not held a single press conference. A press conference by the prime minister of a democracy is not a favour to be bestowed on what the current government describes as “sickulars” and “pressstitutes” but his or her meta responsibility; a free press has to hold power to account. Modi’s patriarchal, one-way communication via social media and his private radio monologue show Mann Ki Baat is contemptuous of democracy and the role of a free press at worst, and can only be considered evasive at best. Even US President Donald Trump, with his well-advertised disdain for mainstream media, has not done away with regular presidential press conferences at the White House.
Modi is the only leader in the democratic world who has entirely done away with the practice of being asked questions in an official setting. He has not appointed a press advisor in the prime minister’s office, though having one is a fairly standard practice and was followed by even his BJP predecessor Atal Bihari Vajpayee. Appointing someone to fill that role would ensure that the press had a single point of contact to raise questions about the various promises made by Modi.
Modi did away with the practice of accommodating journalists on prime ministerial flights abroad, a decision that was widely celebrated by right-wing bhakts who hailed the withdrawal of a “perk”. This was misinformation, because journalists representing various media houses always paid for their own stay abroad and only travelled free on a jumbo aircraft, with a lot of spare capacity, which ferries the prime minister on taxpayers’ money. Being part of the prime minister’s entourage enabled reporters and editors to ask questions – even the man Modi kept attacking as “Maunmohan Singh”, his immediate predecessor, always held an on-board press conference on his flight back, where he would answer any question without prior screening or scrutiny. He also held at least three large, free-for-all press conferences (2004, 2006 and 2010) while in office. This was not privileged “Lutyens access” that the ‘bhakts’ talk about, but a chance to ask important questions on national interest. The president of the US also carries a media contingent on foreign trips and it is considered normal for journalists to get a chance to ask vital questions.
Modi’s allergy to a free press is well-known and dates back to the time of the Gujarat riots in 2002. He has tried to bypass traditional ways of communication by speaking through social media. But what worked for the chief minister of Gujarat is not necessarily applicable to the Indian prime minister. Activists repeatedly complain of the RTI Act being diluted and petitions filed under it facing a stone wall. Modi’s allergy to the media has trickled down to his cabinet, which is scared to speak out of turn – or at all.
An RTI petition last November revealed that the central government spent over Rs 1, 100 crore on advertisements featuring Modi. This information was provided by the information and broadcasting ministry and it did not include expenditure on platforms like hoardings, posters, booklets and print advertisements. With 18 months of tenure left and a spate of state elections coming up, expect the spend on “Brand Modi” to triple.
While the media, perceived as adversarial, is frozen out, cheerleaders are swamped with goodies. Modi gave an interview to the Reliance Industries-owned channel, CNN-New18, last year, where he batted friendly questions and held forth expansively. The anchor was so much in awe of the audience he had got that Modi, helpfully, even started asking questions. Interestingly, this was the day that Reliance Jio was launched and Modi appeared as a brand ambassador for the group wearing a jacket in the brand colour (though the government later claimed the company had not taken permission to use the prime minister’s photograph). The interview was also aired the same evening with Modi in the same jacket, giving off the faint whiff of a brand advertorial.
While the American media has banded together and decided to make Trump accountable, sections of the Indian media, richly awarded and compensated, have emerged as Modi megaphones. So editors recently exposed by The Wire as possibly brokering foreign postings in the Ministry of Finance continue merrily in their jobs. This would have been a sackable offence and a career-ending move in any other time. Other channels continue to beat the drum for the government.
Matters recently got so outrageous that India TV’s Hemant Sharma, whose son’s wedding was attended by both Modi and BJP president Amit Shah, was asked to leave by the channel after the Central Bureau of Investigation indicated it wanted to question him in a medical seat racket. The owner and editor of the channel Rajat Sharma, who is also known to be close to the BJP, said that “he and the channel had a zero tolerance for corruption”.
Stories on the government’s poor performance and even Shah’s assets are quietly pulled down by huge media outlets with zero answers, as was done recently when he filed his Rajya Sabha nomination from Gujarat.
Government ministers routinely tweet and re-tweet fake news stories put out by the propaganda websites which have sprung up after the Modi dispensation came into power. Sources say that funding for these sites can be traced back to the corporate backers of the government and are fairly opaque. Their handles are normally followed by Modi and central ministers. Says a senior minister, “This is a new growth industry for our erstwhile trolls of the IT cell. We have found them jobs either managing the SM accounts of central ministries or working in our propaganda websites. A story there goes straight in to our What’sApp group and is amazing fodder to spread the message”.
Journalists who are on Modi’s side, so to speak, have been given a plethora of columns, Rajya Sabha seats and board memberships of lucrative companies, such as Ashok Malik, current press advisor to President Ram Nath Kovind, who had earlier been nominated to the India Tobacco Company board by the finance ministry as an independent director Or take the case of Swapan Dasgupta, now nominated to the Rajya Sabha under the “distinguished quota” as a “writer” category. Dasgupta, before he entered the Rajya Sabha, had been nominated to the Larsen & Toubro board by the Ministry of Finance.
So while journalists outdo themselves in being their master’s voice, I was rather astonished to see a piece in Open magazine by a former opinion editor of The Hindu anguished by the “Modi haters in the media”. Really? Is asking Modi questions tantamount to heresy, as the piece seems to suggest?
All of us in the media would be failing in our duty if we decide that Modi is a superman and above questioning. And, really, let’s not reduce ourselves to the bandwagon-wallahs in the media who make the deceptive argument that Modi should not be “targeted”. In a government which for the most part looks like a one-man show, he and he alone surely needs to be sharply targeted by the media.
Swati Chaturvedi is a journalist and author based in Delhi. She tweets at @bainjal.