India is the world’s fastest growing economy, something the country takes a great deal of pride in. The Union Budget is scheduled to be presented on February 1, with hotly speculated poll-winning goodies to be distributed by a government desperate to be re-elected.
Given this backdrop, one might reckon the state of health of the Union finance minister in the world’s largest democracy would be a huge issue in the larger public interest. Wrong! Except for The Wire – which broke the story that Arun Jaitley had gone to the United States for treatment of soft tissue cancer and was unlikely to present the budget – the entire media was mum and showed no interest in finding out more about the state of his health.
Worse, not only was the media mum, it actively tried to mislead viewers and readers by spinning the yarn that Jaitley had gone to the US for a routine “check up” and would be back within a week. They airily put out stories saying that it was a certainty that Jaitley would present the last budget of the Modi government.
This leads to the question: just who is the Indian media responsible to? Sure, we call ourselves the fourth pillar and talk big about holding power to account. This means the media should be accountable to the viewers and readers. But, as demonstrated over the past week in the Jaitley case, the Indian media failed miserably.
It’s easy to blame politicians for their spin but, despite knowing the truth about Jaitley’s condition, why did much of the media decide to gag itself?
On Wednesday, The Wire stood vindicated when Rashtrapati Bhavan issued a communique saying that Piyush Goyal would be the interim finance minister and Jaitley would be minister without portfolio. The Press Trust of India confirmed what we had reported and added that Jaitley had his surgery the same day.
Was our media embarrassed by the way it had kept off such a major story? Not at all. Most blandly reproduced the PTI copy. Those that had fallen for the official spin certainly did not explain their earlier misleading reporting.
When Jaitley had a kidney transplant last year, it was The Wire which broke the story (full disclosure: the story ran with my byline). Again, everyone chose to keep off. Subsequently, Jaitley confirmed the news in a tweet from his account and only then was the media omertà broken. This, despite the fact that the finance minister had not been able to attend office for nearly two months.
Even in the case of Ananth Kumar, who suffered from cancer and eventually died, The Wire (me again) did the story that he had gone abroad for treatment. Intriguingly, an online portal ran a story that essentially was a denial of our story and quoted the minister’s staff asserting he would be back in India and back in the saddle within a week. Sadly, we were proved right.
This self censorship is new to the Indian media. Consider this. When Dr Manmohan Singh had heart surgery, the government put out an advisory and Pranab Mukherjee was placed in charge while the then prime minister was recuperating. The nature of the procedure was not kept a secret despite all its attendant risks.
Similarly, when Atal Bihari Vajpayee had his knee transplant in Mumbai, regular medical bulletins were issued and the country knew.
Even in the case of the Modi cabinet, external affairs minister, Sushma Swaraj announced the news of her kidney transplant herself. Goa chief minister, Manohar Parrikar went public on his pancreatic cancer, though not before there had already been speculation to that effect for several weeks. Even Amit Shah as recently as last week announced via social media that he was suffering from swine flue.
In Jaitley’s case, we had the bizarre spectacle of the entire opposition – including Congress president Rahul Gandhi and former finance minister P. Chidambaram – wishing him a quick recovery while his own party kept an embarrassed silence. What made the secrecy worse was that Jaitley held the crucial portfolio of finance and his absence was coming at a crucial time in the financial calendar – the finalisation and presentation of the Union budget. By any yardstick, the gravity of his illness and the length of his absence should have been considered market-sensitive information and widely reported, at the very least by the pink press.
In the United States, the president gets an annual physical every year and the results are immediately made public. This is not to cater to salacious curiosity but to ensure that the citizens in the world’s oldest democracy know whether their president is healthy or not. Donald Trump underwent a four hour physical in January last year and the same ritual will be repeated this year.
This ensures that citizens have all the information they need to make informed choices. The US media reports the physical immediately. forget about spin and plants. The United Kingdom also follows a similar protocol.
So why is the media in India not following best democratic practices? It’s time you as the reader and viewer held the media to account.