Backstory: A Once-In-Five-Years Chance for Media to Understand India and Its Politics

A fortnightly column from The Wire’s public editor.

A hundred days from now, India will be neck-deep in electioneering, and political parties are already in campaign mode. The question before us journalists is this: will we have the wisdom to distinguish between the “real issues” facing the country and “electioneering issues” – which could come wrapped in distractions of poll demagoguery. Can we seize the once-in-five-years chance to understand India and its politics?

I believe the Indian media failed that simple test in the 2014 general election. All we need to do is rewind to a speech by Narendra Modi exactly five years ago to illustrate this. Speaking at an event organised by the Baba Ramdev Trust in Delhi on January 5, 2014, Modi projected himself as a much-maligned man against whom “people hurl wrong allegations”.

This was followed by the unspooling of a familiar story, which since then has been fact-checked and found to be economical with the truth:

“I look back at my life and think, the country is so great, its people so great, that they lifted a child who sold tea in train compartments on their shoulders…. I am not a pessimist because I have seen my mother, despite cleaning utensils and filling water in neighbouring houses, making us cultured.”

Let’s skip these poignant autobiographical bits, it’s what he said next that deserved careful scrutiny but didn’t get it:

“Elections are now being fought on the plank of development”.

Development, that all-encompassing term which means different things to different people, depending on whether they happen to be an Adani or a farmer in Mandsaur, was let loose over the electoral horizon during the Modi 2014 campaign like a hydrogen-inflated balloon that enthralled everybody but which nobody could quite catch.

Modi then went on to perorate on another theme:

“We had heard of green and white revolution. But pink revolution meant opening slaughter houses, killing cattle and exporting their meat. Tell me: what will be good for the nation: cattle or mutton? To make money, cattle are being smuggled, stolen and the Indian government does not impose any tax on slaughter houses…We can change the situation if we want.”

Today we know well how the situation “changed” once ‘Candidate Modi’ became ‘Prime Minister Modi’, how the cynical deployment of cow politics came to polarise the country communally, destroying the agrarian economy, bringing stray cattle on to village roads and mobs on to the streets in a string of murderous vigilante attacks. Not one significant media platform had, in 2014, thought it fit to ask the prime ministerial candidate what he had meant when he said, “We can change the situation.”

Also read: Modi Government’s Stance on Slaughter Proves It Doesn’t Really Care About Cows

Of course, since Modi’s preferred style is uni-directional, the one-too-many format of hurling words into air over radio waves and from public podiums, even turning the occasional interview he grants as a one-way monologue (‘The Narendra Modi Interview That Should Have Been’, January 2), there was no way the media of the time could have actually posed a significant question to him.

But by failing to rigorously question this candidate on the issue editorially, through opinion columns and primetime discussions, the media became complicit in allowing one of the ugliest chapters in the country’s post-independence history to unravel.

This is also an example of why the media needs to track not just what is being conveyed in a literal sense, but what was being conveyed in an emotional and symbolic sense for purposes of shoring up electoral bases because it is the latter that invariably stirs people and dominates mind space.

Moral of the story: the media as a public institution cannot relegate its responsibility of calling out dog whistles that are potentially destructive, both socially and communally.


With the election season upon us, it is not surprising that The Wire has upped its political content considerably. This is as it should be, but the challenge lies in doing this in ways that are not repetitive and which go beyond the coverage of mainstream media which, of course, having far more resources, can offer a vast pan-Indian electoral canvas.

The only way for small, if determined, players like The Wire to remain relevant in such a scenario is to gain that extra edge through constant ideation, by covering categories and people who get routinely overlooked – partly because advertisers and markets generally are not interested in them and, of course, by tapping the long-time contacts of its team members in order to unearth new and relevant facts.

An example of the last was the piece ‘During Crucial Rafale Negotiations, PMO Compromised Defence Ministry’s Position’ (January 2), which led to The Wire coming to figure in parliamentary discussions. An example of the first was the innovative way in which the prime ministerial interview given to ANI was interrogated – by posing questions and counter-questions that had not been attempted in the original interview (‘The Narendra Modi Interview That Should Have Been’, January 2). The stories on Rajnikant’s political ambitions (‘One Year On, Rajinikanth’s Plan to Form a Political Party Remains Just That’, January 1) and on the Prakash Ambedkar’s announcement that the Bharipa Bahujan Mahasangh will have an electoral alliance with Asaduddin Owaisi’s AIMIM (‘Prakash Ambedkar and the Future of Dalit Politics in Maharashtra’, January 1) were instances of underreported stories that presented important insights into regional politics.

Covering a contemporary event like an election can always gain from historical references and the piece that argued that any mahagathbandhan in 2019 would benefit from understanding the dynamics that came into play in 1977 (‘The ‘Unholy Alliance’ Against Modi, and the Election He Wants Us to Forget’, December 31) is an example of how this works.

Also read: Did a Potential Congress-AAP Alliance Prompt Ajay Maken’s Resignation?

There is also scope for bringing the personal into the political. The touchy-feely intimacy of the open letter, ‘Dear Rahul Gandhi, India Needs a Leader Who Will Do the Right Thing’ (December 22), with its argument that India needs the “refreshment of truth” at a time when “doublespeak, propaganda, spin, and outright falsehood have dominated the national discourse” seemed to have been popular with readers.

All media organisations seek to add heft to their election coverage by inviting expert opinion, and here the goodwill that a platform has built up over the years is a valuable resource when it comes to attracting such contributions. One of the more nuanced election prognoses I came across over the last few weeks was on this platform – it was subsequently carried in the Business Standard. Written by an associate professor of political science who was clearly unswayed by the exhilaration of the recent election verdicts, the piece ‘Brand Narendra Modi Is Not Yet Dead’(December 23), calmly surveyed the chaos of the electoral battleground at a point when brand Modi, not being able to play on the “optimism of aspirations” as was the case 2014, is leaning heavily on the “cynicism of desperation” to achieve a favourable verdict.

The writer then poses an important and multi-layered question: “How will the electorate behave in times of desperation? In generic social crisis engulfing cumulatively, will the electorate feel it is more important to punish Modi for what he failed to deliver or will it come to the conclusion he is the best amongst the worst?”

Another invitee – who happens to be on the board of governors of the Oxford Centre for Hindu Studies – presented a rather full-blooded defence of Rahul Gandhi’s public embrace of Hinduism as the only response possible to counter the BJP’s Hindutva. What I found intriguing about this piece was the way it framed Gandhi’s “new-found religiosity” as the perfect antidote to his great-grandfather’s “wrongheaded notion of secularism”. Such a formulation would certainly present the Congress president with a quandary (Can Rahul Gandhi’s New-Found Religiosity Help Fight Hindutva?’, December 26). So far, he has not publicly distanced himself from Nehruvian secularism. The question is, is he inclined to do so? 

Meghalaya’s mining disaster

The unconscionably late response to the tragedy that befell an estimated 15 miners in Meghalaya is a huge and spreading blot on India and on the governments at the state and Centre. While India now sees itself as too powerful a nation to accept assistance from outside the country in crises such as this one, its own systems are cranked up invariably when the situation has gone past the stage of hopelessness.

Unfortunately, the mainstream media’s response this time has been just as languid, seized by the “out-of-sight, out-of-mind” complex. The fact that the mining operations known as “rat-hole mining” were illegal was seized as a ready excuse by the authorities to sit back until it was too late.

Another factor that added to the general obfuscation was the power that Meghalaya’s coal mafia exercises in the area, intimidating not just local villagers who bear the human cost of such operations into silence but the state government itself. As The Wire piece, ‘Trapped Meghalaya Miners Are the Latest Victims of Years of Labour Exploitation’ (December 29) notes, the mafia has its ways to silence critics.

RTI activist Agnes Kharshiing was brutally attacked by a powerful miners’ lobby in East Jaintia Hills in November while verifying information about illegal mines in the area along with fellow activist Amita Sangma. The article goes on to quote a WhatsApp note from Kharshiing, who escaped within an inch of her life, to the writer: “it is difficult to believe that the local authorities are not in the know about illegal mining going on in these areas with the help of cheap labour brought in from various places.”

Also read: Interview | Agnes Kharshiing, the Woman Meghalaya’s Coal Mafia Tried to Silence

Written a couple of days after the tragedy struck, and updated and republished since then, the piece highlighted the utterly unsafe conditions in which these miners work through the eye-witness account of Abdul Karim, who suffered a spinal cord injury when a rock fell on him, leaving him paralysed at the age of 28. Now his family waits to learn of the fate of his older brother, one of the 15-odd trapped in that water-logged seam of coal over 300 feet below the ground.


Reader responses

A reader of The Wire, Omprakash S. Mantri, has just signed up as a supporter of this news portal by authorising the auto-debiting of a certain sum from his credit card every month. He wants to know the procedure of stopping these donations, should he choose to do so in the future. According to The Wire manager, all Mr Mantri has to do to end his subscription is to instruct his bankers to cancel the auto instruction left with them.

Another reader, Balasubramanian from Bengaluru, made the wry comment that advertisements put out by the government of India seem to be chasing the Indian citizens everywhere they turn, and yet they have no option to close the ads or opt out of viewing them. He believes that The Wire should do a story on this problem, which will certainly get bigger as the general election draws closer.

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