Media

Conform, Or Get Ready to Pay the Price

Beyond the personalities and the calculations at work in the NDTV-Chidambaram censorship affair, what we should indeed be mourning is the sudden death of liberalism.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi with defence minister Manohar Parrikar and army chief Dalbir Singh Suhag meeting top army commanders at INS Vikramaditya in Kochi, Kerala. Credit: PTI

Prime Minister Narendra Modi with defence minister Manohar Parrikar and army chief Dalbir Singh Suhag meeting top army commanders at INS Vikramaditya in Kochi, Kerala. Credit: PTI

In this moment of our greatest national satisfaction against Pakistan, we have paid that failing nation a flattering compliment: we have become a bit like it. We have become enamoured of the idea of intolerance and intimidation. And our liberals have abandoned their professed beliefs and practices. Instead, we have embraced illiberalism and its ugly demand for conformism.

Just think. A former home minister of India has been bumped off air by an English language news channel that all these years pretended to be a voice of liberalism, decency, debate and dissent. And who is this censored man? None other than P. Chidambaram. He is not some country bumpkin. He is a sophisticate with a competent familiarity with matters of national security. He is not — has never been — a subversive. If there is anyone — probably other than Manmohan Singh and Pranab Mukherjee — who is privy to the dark secrets of the Indian state, it is P. Chidambaram. As finance minister, thrice, he has been a cynosure of corporate India. Every business house sought – and perhaps got – access to him. Everyone, including the impresarios in the impugned media house, would give his left arm to be seen as whispering something in his ear. As finance minister, he probably helped “restructure” the outstanding debts of very many media houses.

Make no mistake. Chidambaram is not a softie. He is not a woolly-headed liberal. He is not a closet Naxalite. Not by yards. As home minister, he was once accused by a fellow-member of the cabinet committee on security of wanting to put in a place a “Gestapo.” This man and his views are now considered a threat to some notion of national security.

And, who has created this hysterical notion of national security? Surely not the Narendra Modi government. There is simply no evidence to suggest that the powers-that-be, in South Block or North Block, stepped in to ask NDTV to take the Chidambaram “drivel” off air. It must be presumed that the decision to censor the former home minister of India was made autonomously, in-house, presumably by some fiercely autonomous editors.

Perhaps, a simpler explanation can be that the channel and its lords and masters were caving in to the competition’s hysterical rave and rant in the wake of the “surgical strike.” May be, it lacked the requisite intellectual fortitude and self-belief to remain true to its professional habit of rhetorical moderation. May be, it thought that the national mood indeed had become ugly and that it must give in to the mob’s passions. There can be many other reasons. Castigating NDTV may be necessary, but not sufficient. It is, perhaps, not even about embedded journalism.

Beyond the personalities and the calculations at work in the NDTV-Chidambaram censorship affair, what we should indeed be mourning is the sudden death of liberalism. A few surgical strikes and, suddenly, all the self-proclaimed liberals walk out of the closet, proclaiming that their protestations and commitments to democratic dissent and dialogue were all a fake. And, they all show a zealous willingness to pray devoutly at the church of national security.

This can only be a matter of profound regret and sorrow. It may or may not be the “Modi Effect”, but there is no doubt that the Indian liberal, especially of the Nehruvian variety, is no longer sure of his convictions, attitudes and approvals and disapprovals which all these years were celebrated — even marketed — as minimum essentials of an “Argumentative Indian.” Suddenly, those very liberals seem to be demanding: “Shut up and salute.” Salute the army. Salute the general. Salute the commando. Salute the ex-colonel. Salute the demagogue who feigns to salute the jawan. Agree with every “news” or commentary that is being manufactured in the name of the “brave jawans.” Or, risk being clubbed to death as an anti-national, risk getting condemned as lacking in patriotism, as every bit deserving of a good old-fashioned lynching.

The unmasking of this liberal facade is as sobering as a bucket of ice cold water in the face on a wintery morning. As sobering as L.K. Advani’s famous indictment of the Indian media’s behaviour during the Emergency: “When asked to bend, it chose to crawl.” That was the time of an “authoritarian” Indira Gandhi. We have, since, often celebrated our evolution as a robust democracy and its noisy, quarrelsome media. Oh yes! Since then, we have also rewritten the book on the rites of censorship — and, capitulation. The job of intimidation has been sub-contracted out to the self-proclaimed liberals themselves.

To be fair, the Modi government has not asked the liberals to bend or crawl. It may have used — as all state governments try to do — its power of patronage and persuasion to reward and empower its own partisans. That is a bread-and-butter tactic available to any government. It has also used — and, quite legitimately so — its vast resources and reach to manufacture a discourse that is in sync with its ideological prejudices and political priorities. It can’t be faulted for doing a superb job.

Nor can the Modi government be double-faulted for reducing the September 29 “surgical strikes” across the Line of Control to an event management execrcise. Since it has publicly and politically owned the cross-border operations, and since the previous governments did not demonstrate this kind of audacity, it is entitled to do a bit of chest-thumping. To be sure, none of the previous governments had an utterly brazen Raksha Mantri such as Manohar Parrikar. Nor can the Modi government and the BJP be chastised for wanting to milk the “army” and the “surgical strike” for political and electoral gains. This has been the signature tune of this regime since May 2014.

It is not what the Narendra Modi-Amit Shah arrangement is doing that is surprising. What is a matter of dismay and disappointment is the liberals’ collective failure to understand, leave alone counter, the use of conflict and confrontation with Pakistan as a strategy to demonstrate leadership and competence and to mobilise popular sentiment for political purposes. The Modi crowd is not the first to invent this stratagem. Leaders — democrats, quasi-democrats, authoritarians — all over the world have used their soldiers’ valour and commitment to derive political and electoral mileage. The Narendra Modi-Manohar Parrikar crowd should be given  credit for playing the game with exquisite cold-bloodedness.

The NDTV-Chidambaram affair is emblematic of a larger vulnerability: the wafer-thin precariousness of liberal India. In less than 20 months, the liberal voices, individuals and institutions have buckled at the knee. The penny has dropped just in time. The genuine liberal forces will now have to rework their strategies as they seek to resist the authoritarianism’s new hegemonic demands for conformism and obedience. Democratic India will not cave in that easily.

Harish Khare is the Editor-in-Chief of The Tribune, where this article originally appeared.

  • Joji Cherian

    How lucky Modi is! All the fruits of EMERGENCY without proclaiming one. And he still can go on abusing Indira Gandhi for the same.

  • S.N.Iyer

    The danger to liberalism has been the talk for some time by many learned scholars. But the NDTV incident regarding Chidambram’s interview does xast some doubts on the freedom of the media. It is no SECRET that almost all media on TV are controlled by big business houses and some of them are very close to the Govt and have been used covertly to control editorial control. That the Govt had no direct role to play is very difficult to assume. This whole matter of “”surgical strikes”” right from its nomenclature has definitely taken a political colour though the PM did make an emphatic statement that there should be no poliitcs on strikes, yet some senior Ministers and the party chief have their own take on the matter and are desperate to use it for electoral gains.The RSS too has jumped into the issue and apart from Ram Madhav who is directly involved in Kashmir issues, the RSS chief has made a direct statement on the whole Kashmir issue. I suppose Modi has no control over them or even Amit Shah. But he could caution Parrikar not to cross the laxman rekha drawn by him.

  • samar

    Well, it seems the wire has also joined in this descent with its careful phrasing of praise for the Modi Government. Exactly the sort of tune that Amit Shah will dance to. What is happening to our intellectuals?

  • Anjan Basu

    I am not sure that it was ‘sudden death’. Indian liberalism has been in death throes for a decade and more, at any rate since the new, ‘neo-liberal’ orthodoxy became the only legal tender in the national discourse. What the last two years have done is accelerate the dismantling of the old liberal order espoused by the likes of Nehru. Otherwise, it is Nehru’s ‘ legal’ heirs ( meaning the Congress Party) that have been the poster boys of the death march. BJP and the Sangh Parivar injected their own brand of viciousness into this neo-liberal ( anti-liberal) condition, but otherwise it was a death foretold. NDTV did what was inevitably the only way open for neo-liberals: shed the last vestiges of classical liberalism. We are in the condition defined by Camus in his ‘Plague’: since nothing really matters, we might just as well scramble for whatever odd bits and ends ebbing life has to offer. All behaviour, including the most outrageous kind of capitulation, is in order today.

  • ln Bushab

    The answer to the writer’s predicament lies in the way this nation was governed for the last ten to fifteen years. The country was hit left right and centre from all hues of terrorists from across the border and the rulers just feigned their ignorance not even being publicly able to publicly condemn it leave alone fighting it head on. This has created a disgusting feeling among the general public at large and today when they see someone there standing up and say enough is enough they are wholeheartedly moving with the tide. For the rest who are still not able to understand this can get solace in writing postmortem reports.

  • K SHESHU BABU

    Ironically, he is the same person who supported BJP on many issues like GST and, even the armed forces action. He is a Congress, not even a communist, let alone outlawed naxal group member …. he has in fact, advocated bombing of Chhattisgarh forest areas. Even if he is not allowed to speak, the rightist party is trying to scuttle ‘ mild opposition’ of a mainstream party which has most ideas in common with it. So, even ‘ friendly liberal ‘ opposition is being perceived as a threat to BJP, let alone ‘ left liberals’ and Maoists. Thus could end up more atrocious than emergency days.