The deliberate averting of the gaze from genuine newsworthy issues is equally a sign of how journalists are out to divert the national conversation.
Minutes after the Congress’s foot-in-the-mouth leader Mani Shankar Aiyar called Prime Minister Narendra Modi a “neech kisam ka aadmi” (a low-life kind of person), there must have been a big sigh of relief in the BJP camp. Maybe even a sense of jubilation. Until then, it was becoming clear that the usual election rhetoric, including going after Rahul Gandhi and the Congress, was not working beyond a point. Gujarat’s voters were dissatisfied with their lot and unhappy at the lack of any growth in their state, and the fear was that they could register their anger on the election day.
Aiyar handed the BJP a new angle, a new idea to spin – the prime minister, ever the nimble politician, took the comment and ran with it. He called it an attack on Gujarat, an attack on India’s great values, except that he also claimed that Aiyar had attacked him for belonging to a ‘nichli jaati‘. This Aiyar had not, but it was a good twist, bringing in caste and specifically, Modi’s OBC status which he deploys whenever necessary.
I have nothing to say on a ‘wise’ Congress leader calling me ’Neech’. This is the Congress mindset. They have their language and we have our work. People will answer them through the ballot box. https://t.co/2McoZnaoar pic.twitter.com/icGqAphUzy
— Narendra Modi (@narendramodi) December 7, 2017
Modi took it further – Aiyar’s remarks smacked of the Congress’s “Mughal mindset”, he said. This is familiar code. Not only does it bring in the Muslims, a reliable currency to use with BJP supporters, but it mentions the Mughals, who had ruled Gujarat for centuries and are much reviled in legend and lore. The conflation of ‘neech’ and ‘Mughal’ tells its own story.
Newsrooms too must have rejoiced after Aiyar’s idiotic gaffe. It was the perfect item for not just looping over and over again, but also for nightly discussions, anchor outrage and hashtags. Republic TV deployed the #CongressNeechPolitics hashtag while CNN-IBN tweeted #SibalManiSelfGoal.
The Hashtag game is really heating up in Darbar. pic.twitter.com/JTlLeCeo0U
— Rofl Gandhi (@RoflGandhi_) December 7, 2017
This outrage came in handy to avoid confronting the most horrific news of the day – the heinous axing of an innocent Muslim labourer in Rajasthan because the perpetrator was angry at ‘love jihad’ being allegedly practiced by Muslim youth. Neither the prime minister, who is supposed to provide the soothing touch, nor the news channels saw any value in mentioning this, forget about condemning it. It shows not just warped news priorities but the effective normalisation of random violence – especially when it is against minorities and the vulnerable. The newspapers the next day too felt the same, preferring to play the news down.
The news cycle is always looking for distractions, but they also practice double standards when reporting – or rather hyperventilating over – controversial speech.
Here is a compilation of just some statements made by the BJP and Sangh parivar leaders against former prime minister Manmohan Singh. Some of them are far from decent, parliamentary language. They had become par for the course in the second half of UPA 2, and the media, especially the electronic media, had begun to join in the anti-government chorus.
Mani Shankar Aiyar's remarks on PM Modi are deplorable and I am so proud of all Congress leaders unequivocally condemning it.
At the same time, here is the compilation of disgraceful remarks made by PM Modi & BJP leaders towards Dr. Manmohan Singh (as PM) w/o an ounce of regret. pic.twitter.com/sPnlAWnlSy
— Gaurav Pandhi (@GauravPandhi) December 7, 2017
Sonia Gandhi’s ‘Maut ka Saudagar’ comment was widely – and correctly – criticised and was held to be one reason why the Congress did badly in Gujarat in 2007. Modi’s ’50-crore-rupee girlfriend’ remark against Shashi Tharoor was barely censured. Does anyone even remember the refugee camps for Muslims in Ahmedabad which Modi called baby producing factories?
Yogi Adityanath is in a class of his own. Much before he became the chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, he had come to be known for some direct communal remarks. He was not reprimanded, but rewarded. Since occupying office – ‘give him a chance,’ many commentators had said then – he has outdone himself. Yet we get stories on mainstream channels about his love for cows, and hardly any serious questioning about his behaviour.
It is not merely the double standards that are a problem here. The deliberate averting of the gaze from genuinely newsworthy issues that are disturbing and need investigation and comment – and surely the axing of a man is one of them – is equally a sign of how journalists are out to divert the national conversation. Rajasthan was where members of the Karni Sena called for violence against Deepika Padukone and they are all roaming about freely. Rajasthan chief minister Vasundhara Raje seems to be getting away without anyone holding her to account.
Soon after Aiyar’s remark, Rahul Gandhi condemned it and then later in the day, suspended him. Arun Jaitley said it was all a conspiracy – first get Aiyar to say something controversial, then sack him. He is a politician; he is entitled to give it his own spin. Surprisingly, most in the media did not get the significance of Gandhi’s action, his first one after taking over as de facto Congress president. He has clearly demonstrated that he will change things in his party. He must have understood the political implications of Aiyar’s remark and calculated that keeping him in could be harmful.
BJP and PM routinely use filthy language to attack the Congress party. The Congress has a different culture and heritage. I do not appreciate the tone and language used by Mr Mani Shankar Aiyer to address the PM. Both the Congress and I expect him to apologise for what he said.
— Office of RG (@OfficeOfRG) December 7, 2017
There will be many more such crude and crass remarks in times to come. Many of us will wring our hands about falling standards of civility and moan ‘how low can we go’. The lowest depths are yet to be reached. Politicians, if they see value in using the coarsest language against their rivals (and against minorities), will continue to do so. It is the media’s role to call them to account, but here too, one can be sure that their eyes and ears will be fixed only in one direction.