Backstory: Modi Media Coverage From Madison Square Garden to Houston

A fortnightly column from The Wire’s public editor.

A quick ‘then and now’ sketch may be useful, one that focuses on two September events five years apart.

What has really changed from the Modi jamboree held in September 2014 at the Madison Square Garden in New York and the recent shindig at Houston’s NRG Stadium?

The similarities are obvious because all Modi events can be broken down to the discrete, pre-fabricated modules that comprise the whole. They range from the waving of the tricolour to the showcasing of Indian “diversity” by presenting a group bearing the stamp of being from a minority community (difficult to say whether they are the same ones ferried from venue to venue, but they look very similar and can be spotted as far afield as Australia and China).  

But the differences, too, need to be noted. The numbers, for one, have surged from 19,000 in NY to an estimated 50,000 in Houston, indicating the expansion of the machinery that brings them together; the chants hailing the chief – and there was only one in the stadium, make no mistake – have become more strident; expectations seem to have evolved from the merely celebratory to the clearly transactional, with Big Oil playing an enabling role this time; and the chief protagonist no longer makes claims of being a “common man with small ideas” but comes armed, literally armed, with the most powerful man in the world, US President Donald Trump.

What concerns us here, though, is what has really changed in the media coverage of such an event. The first thing to note is that the Indian mainstream media has become even more embedded in the official Government of India narrative than it was in 2014. In its search for global glory, helmspersons of India’s foreign policy have steered the country right back to the old neighbourhood, riven with conflict and potential bloodshed.

In this endeavour they have been encouraged by the irrational exuberance of the Indian media corps. So irrational is this exuberance that it caught the attention of Trump himself, when he turned to Modi and asked how he had managed to assemble such a collection of faithfuls.

The way this remark was sought to be used as a badge of honour was a standout moment to gauge just how suborned the country’s media had become to the country’s government. A tweet from India Today went:

US President @realDonaldTrump praises India Today and its Senior Executive Editor @gauravcsawant on international platform. #NaMosteAmerica #ModiTrumpMeet

Gaurav Sawant: Isn’t terror the biggest threat, Pakistan state sponsored terror…

Trump: You have great reporters. Where did you find reporters like this? This is a great thing. I wish I had such reporters…”

Better counsel finally prevailed, it seems, and the tweet was withdrawn, but not before NDTV rushed in to claim some of the fame for having asked a similarly patriotic question.

In 2014, we had coverage that extolled Modi and his government, but the media at that point had attempted a little more balance. Certainly there was far more coverage in those days of the protests outside Madison Square Gardens than there was in Houston, despite the fact that the protests this time were far larger, creative and passionate, with hashtags like #AdiosModi.

But none of this cut any ice with Indian mediapersons – the only protests they were interested in were those staged by Pakistani dissenters against their government. As The Wire article, ‘‘Howdy, Modi’, a Coming-Of-Age Event in Indian Politics’ (September 23), noted, “The mega event was televised in such a way that people sitting across the world barely registered the thousands protesting Modi’s US visit even though protestors thronged the streets outside the NRG stadium…”

In 2014, we had Rajdeep Sardesai actually interviewing Modi’s critics before he was famously roughed up at the hands of the PM’s supporters. At Houston, most media references to the protests came heavily annotated with slanted information, with audiences invariably alerted to the fact that the “pick-up spots” for protestors were local mosques, or that those waving placards bearing angry slogans were “Khalistani and Pakistani goons”.

ANI, the GOI’s favoured news aggregator, made a pointed reference to “fake Kashmiri” groups being amongst the protestors, without any elucidation on how it had come to the conclusion that they were “fake”.

This was an opportunity missed because a lot of genuine outrage was on display at Houston – over Kashmir, the National register of Citizens and rising murderous vigilantism – despite attempts by event managers to crackdown on protestors or prevent mediapersons marked as hostile from accessing the event.

Unlike in 2014, in 2019 a clear critical argument emerged from a broad swathe of dissenters, including deeply religious Hindus (‘Why We, as Hindu Americans, Are Opposed to Modi’s Undeclared Emergency’, September 24). By ignoring this section of opinion, by reporting with nationalist filters, by cocooning audiences in layers of triumphalist reportage, the “patriotic” media was in fact doing the country a huge disservice. They were being denied the whole picture.

In the meantime, the media narrative in the US media had actually begun to disdain such spectacles. In 2014, a newspaper like the New York Times was prepared to be intrigued by the manufactured Modi aura on display. The headline of a report from Madison Square Garden in 2014 went ‘At Madison Square Garden Chants, Cheers and Roars “for Modi”’.

By 2019, boredom had set in, and with it a strong scepticism. The headline for the NYT report from Houston reflected it: ‘At Rally for India’s Modi, Trump Plays Second Fiddle But a Familiar Tune’. The report referred to the excitement on display at the stadium as a “boisterous cultural rally”.

This was a clear calling out of the inherent parochialism of the rally, despite its all-American moniker of ‘Howdy, Modi’. Those craving for western approval of the Modi juggernaut – which ultimately was what this investing of Trump with Big Brotherdom was about – should recognise Houston as a tipping point.

Internal colonialism?

The point-counter point engagements between a political scientist and a career diplomat in these columns, which tiptoed around several points of sharp disagreement without assuming the contours of a rhetorical brawl, were an important addition to The Wire’s body of work over the last fortnight.

The central point was whether “internal colonialism” is a useful framework to define India today. The exchange was usefully hyperlinked for those who wished to follow it (You can read Partha Chatterjee’s original article here, Vivek Katju’s first response here, Chatterjee’s first response here and Katju’s second response here).

The arguments assume a certain importance in the current context: the highly controversial abrogation of Article 370, upon which the Supreme Court of India is soon to weigh in on; the continuing mess of the NRC process and tentative plans to roll it out on a national scale; continuing murderous vigilantism; and hyper-nationalistic electioneering that will soon sweep the country with elections in the states of Maharashtra, Haryana and Jharkhand on the anvil.

Variegated voices in the newsroom

There is wonderfully illustrative photograph of the New York Times newsroom from the mid-1940s. Every one of the faces smiling back at the camera was white and male. The idea of diversity in the newsroom took a while to gather heft, but it is based on a simple idea – if NEWS is really about North East West South, it must necessarily be diverse.

Reuters press agency has just added another member to its editorial team – a “newsroom diversity editor” to oversee the diversity aspect of the material filed by its estimated 2,500 journalists. The appointment of Joyce Adeluwoye-Adams, Reuters said, was to build a more “diverse newsroom”, as also to recruit, train, mentor and generally assist those from diverse backgrounds to both give of their best and also draw on their own life experiences and sources.

The question, of course, is whether one well-intentioned individual in one well-intentioned post can pushback against age-old conditioning.

Regional journalists out on a limb

Talking of diversity within the news space, Omar Rashid of the Hindu did a pointed and poignant piece about the manner regional journalists are being treated within the Indian media. He writes in the context of the recent spate of cases, where regional journalists following up on important stories that rarely figure in the mainstream media, are subjected to all kinds of ill treatment, including mob violence. That they do their job without a modicum of security or support from their managements is what concerns Rashid.

For a large and politically significant state like Uttar Pradesh, stringers and credible reporters at the lowest administrative levels are extremely important for state or national-level news organisations. Away from the safety net that is Lucknow, it is these reporters who handle all the risks that come with reporting on contentious issues which go on to occupy the national spotlight.

Despite this, they are poorly paid, have few rights or statutory entitlements, randomly sacked, and sometimes not even issued proper identity cards. This leaves them vulnerable to administrative excesses, political pressure and corruption, writes Rashid.

Underlining this was The Wire piece that focused on journalists targeted by the Yogi government just in the month of September (‘UP Police Goes After Eight Journalists in September Alone’, September 21). So what will October bring? India’s journalistic community must realise that that unless they hang together, individual journalists will end up being targetted severally.


Readers’ responses

Had some interesting mail over the last few weeks, and one of them was from Padmini Chennapragada MS, a disability sport researcher based out of Dallas, Texas/Hyderabad, India, who is currently a doctoral candidate. A “fan” of the work The Wire is doing, she was however disappointed with the feature, ‘Manasi Joshi’s Quiet Gold in Para-Badminton World Championships Wins Hearts’ (August 28) which concern a disability sport but was written in a “run-of-the-mill” tone, according to her.

“Disability sport competitions at the world level are complex as they are highly defined by the classification and sport class of each person with disability. You article is missing an important point that Tokyo 2020 does not have a SL3 Women’s Singles Class in competition. Ever wonder why that may be the case? SL3 is a sport class that has very few entries and has over the years not attracted high competition. While Manasi is being heralded as a world champion, it may also be important to draw attention to the system that puts these players in place,” she writes.


Another reader, Rifa Deka from Guwahati, highlighted the plight of over 200 sex workers from Assam’s Silchar, who failed to register their names in the NRC list. She writes: “These sex workers are employed in a red-light area in downtown Silchar. This is just one of the thousand other problems faced by sex workers in the area. If this is the condition of ‘Chouddo Nombor Galli’ – Northeast India’s largest active brothel – then we can only imagine the state of sex workers across the region. Sex workers of Silchar are facing one problem in particular: they want to register themselves as Indian citizens but their families refuse to share legacy data with them. They are thus deprived of the necessary documents to support their claim to an Indian identity.” 

What’s more, she says, “A large percentage of such workers have been forcefully brought to work there and are victims of human trafficking, which is another reason why these victims lack voter ID, Aadhaar, or other such identity cards, further making it impossible for them to be identified as Indian citizens.” Apart from prostitution, a “loathsome and nefarious illegal flesh trade flourishes in Silchar with involvement of the police there”, and most of the nearly thousand commercial sex workers there “are not vocal about the problems that they face”. 

The letter ends on a profound note: “We look forward to the day when the laws of this country will favour not just the privileged but also those looked down upon by society, but who continue to be exploited by that very same society.”

Write to [email protected]