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Backstory: Five Years of the Silence of the Lambs

A fortnightly column from The Wire’s public editor.

Narendra Modi will soon conclude his term as the prime minister of this country without having held a single press conference – the first Indian prime minister to achieve such a distinction. 

So what, some may ask. It is, in fact, a huge deal. It signifies that a man and a party, which had the support of roughly a third of the electorate, could rule over the entire country without any degree of accountability; without even an acknowledgement of the need for such accountability. We also need to note that arguably no prime ministerial tenure had needed a press conference more than the present one since it has seen – more than any of those that preceded it – the radical re-ordering of the fundamentals of Indian democracy and a transformation of the national narrative.

I include the infamous Emergency interregnum of Indira Gandhi in this assessment. Egregious as it was, it could be undone. The Modi years have brought about irreversible changes. The Wire piece, ‘The Unbearable Loneliness of Narendra Modi’ (May 9) talks of “three fundamental and almost irretrievable changes to our polity in the last five years: the legitimisation of communal hate by the government (seen in statements from the Prime Minister downwards), the unprecedented manufacturing and propagation of fake news by the regime and its supporters, and the personality cult of Modi itself.” 

All this has been done without any attempt to establish a basic, two-way conversation with the people of the country that a press conference, at its best, would have achieved.

The most revelatory aspect of this story is that prime minister Modi met with no significant resistance to his project of not putting himself out for questioning, and ensuring that only what he wanted to be conveyed publicly would be heard and debated across the land.

In these five years, the lack of a press conference never became the focus of public discontent, nor did it disturb unduly the mainstream media, the one institution that had the biggest stake in such an event. In these five years, the silence of the media lambs in India on the prime minister and his government was deafening, all the more so when the international media are now slowly beginning to shed some of their earlier inhibitions when it comes to assessing the man.

Also read: What Lies Behind Narendra Modi’s Silence?

What nobody can take away from the prime minister is his capacity for self-projection. His phenomenal ability to throw interminable rivers of words at the general populace was apparent almost throughout this period – rarely was he not in campaign mode during these five years. 

More recently, as the 17th general election unfolded, we’ve been awarded a plethora of prime ministerial “interviews”, from the pre-scripted to the supposedly “spontaneous”, against backdrops ranging from gardens to campaign pit stops. Yet, all the prime minister’s wordplay and all the prime minister’s attempts to show the human side of his personality have not amounted to any real information that people during an election would want to know.

As the piece, ‘Narendra Modi and the Illusion of Communication  (April 28) cannily observes, ‘Despite all his Mann Ki Baat radio broadcasts since 2014 and scripted TV interviews with selected channels like Republic TV, Times Now and ABP, Modi has not communicated with the Indian public in the true sense of the word.”

It went on to list the real questions that are on the mind of the voter,  from “how did demonetisation actually help?” to “why are we all being asked to be chowkidars long after crooks like Nirav Modi and Mehul Choksi have flown away?”

One of the “breaking news” points that emerged during this campaign was that the prime minister would finally be addressing his first press conference in his constituency of Varanasi. It turned out to be fake – like so much other information churned out this season (‘#PollVault: Amid Election Fervour, an Unusual Interview of PM Modi’, April 25).

Instead of being treated to dissertations about how the prime minister prefers to eat his mangoes, women activists in Delhi demanded that Modi answer a bunch of questions they put together (‘At ‘Non-Political’ Press Conference, Women Present 56 Tough Questions For PM Modi’, May 6). Among their fabulous and pertinent queries, there were ones that no journalist has had the courage to place before him thus far.

Among those queries was this one: “Why has the government not undertaken a detailed, official evaluation of the Ujjwala scheme?”

It was a question that another piece in The Wire,For the BJP, ‘Women’s Rights’ Are Really All About the Men’ (April 24), had noted at length. It called out a fundamental flaw in a scheme that the prime minister has long flogged to burnish his “pro-women” image: “The Ujjwala Yojana scheme, launched in 2016, promised free cooking gas connections to rural women in BPL households… turned out to be a cruel joke on India’s poorest women because there is no subsidy for the Rs 700+ refill for the second cylinder.”

The piece also examined forensically the publicity accompanying the scheme and concluded that if the subsidy was an act of bad faith, “making it worse was the publicity around the scheme, promoting benevolent patriarchy and exalting the domestic drudgery for girls”.

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Poll scenes and scenarios

Election coverage is, typically, a combination of ground reports, data analyses and projections. The Wire has been fairly effective with its use of data, even coming up with an interactive ‘Modi marksheet’ where readers are invited assess the prime minister’s performance in terms of the more than a hundred promises he had made back in 2014.

More serious were the data crunching exercises of economists and statisticians (‘Elections 2019: BJP Could Lose 75 Seats in Six Hindi Heartland States’, May 3) as well as local journalists (‘Elections 2019: Why Bihar is No Cakewalk for the NDA’, May 9). 

Assessments of this kind are extremely popular given the insatiable curiosity of the voter as to who will emerge triumphant on D-day. They are also certainly marked with greater care and deliberation than most of the battleground tableaus playing out on television. Yet they are essentially speculative, based on the gamble that the past begets the future, and that change can be reduced to mathematical formulations.

Psephology quite rightly comes with the statutory warning that it is an inexact science. But if it didn’t exist, we may have had to invent it, to cope with the sheer boredom of the current seven-phased marathon we are going through, whose beginnings are now lost in the mists of time and which will finally groan to an end on May 19.

Also read: Backstory: What Pragya Thakur’s Nomination Tells us About BJP’s Future Politics

Informed projections are of course always helpful. The Wire, I see, has been quick off the block in drawing up post-election scenarios (‘Regional Leaders Ready to Execute a Karnataka on BJP After Poll Results’, May 4). While there will certainly be a great deal of political manoeuvring post May 23, speculations that hinge on a given set of circumstances may prove inadequate against a backdrop rife with kaleidoscopic possibilities.

This is why my vote this season goes to the sneakers-on-the-ground school of election journalism. While I have had occasion to critique The Wire in the past for a certain sparseness of its reportage – to some extent this is even understandable given that news gathering isn’t easy on the purse, all the more so for a news portal that is punching much above its weight on an extremely modest budget – the last few weeks have seen a distinct turnaround on this score.

Stories like ‘In the Face of Dalit Anger, BJP Banks on Caste Fault Lines in Rajasthan’ (May 6) and ‘Vietnam’ to ‘Jai Shri Ram’: The Slogan Capturing Bengal’s Shift from Left to Right‘ (May 10) would have been impossible without journalists bearing witness to local realities. When ground observations get combined with domain knowledge, as in the piece entitled, ‘Gau Raksha Is Disrupting the Bovine Economy and Threatening Farmers’ Fields’ (May 5), you have stories that become valuable additions to any sound understanding of the realities of contemporary India. Having travelled this summer through the rural heart of the heartland – Barbanki, Ayodhya, Faizabad in Uttar Pradesh – one realises the extent of destruction on people’s lives that the “awara pashu” (stray cattle) has wrought. Yet rarely have I come across a piece that has reflected this more effectively than this one.

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One moment of honour for the Indian media was the move of journalists in Leh to expose the attempt made by two BJP leaders to bribe them. It drew a great deal of admiration from their colleagues in other parts of the country.

The Indian Journalists Union (IJU), for instance, saluted them for “upholding the best tradition of journalism and integrity”. Before long, BJP president Ravinder Raina  and party MLC were booked for bribing journalists in Leh, with an FIR registered at the police station in Leh (FIR no 41/2019 u/s 171E &171F). These arrests would have been possible had the local journalists not stood up for the integrity of their profession when BJP MLC Vikram Randhawa began distributing envelopes bearing Rs 500 notes to the journalists who had attended a press conference addressed by BJP State unit President Ravindra Raina.

As the IJU statement noted,

“Shocked to see Rs 500 notes in these, the journalists felt insulted at BJP’s audacity to bribe them and returned the envelopes outright. The next day, seven journalists, including Presidents of Press Club Leh and Ladhakh Journalists Union Morup Stanzin and Rinchen Angmo respectively, filed an FIR with the SHO, Leh.”

Apart from journalists, the scrupulousness of Deputy Electoral Officer, Avny Lavasa, who is also the District Election Officer of Leh, needs to be noted. Not only did she follow up on this issue, she was recently in the news for having instructed army authorities to maintain the sanctity of the electoral process after two contesting candidates approached her with the allegation that officers were voting on behalf of soldiers posted away from their unit headquarters.

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As public editor, I have received complaints about the anti-Modi biases of The Wire. But B. Thakur has a diametrically opposite charge. He says his posts, when they are critical of Modi/RSS/BJP or Supreme Court verdicts routinely, fail to appear on this portal.

As he puts it, “I am not sure if it is just a technical snag. It appears just after posting and then vanishes. I would like to convince myself that it is a technical issue as The Wire has done commendable journalism so far despite the backlash from people in power. However, the pattern of my comments vanishing seems to suggest the contrary. I hope I am wrong. We need independent, partial and courageous journalism today.” 

Also read: Backstory: What Does NaMo TV Signify, and Other Intriguing Pre-Election Questions

Responding to the piece, ‘Former Supreme Court Employee Alleges Sexual Harassment by Chief Justice Gogoi’ (April 22), Thakur writes: “It is detailed and needs investigation. But nothing will happen as we saw in several cases including that of Justice Loya. The SC has already shown with its yesterday’s proceedings in this case why we fear about Indian democracy and its institutions. It also connects lots of dots the way the SC has conducted itself in last few years. Ironically, it was the current CJI who lighted the hope by participating in an open press conference. Now, justice and rule of law are just a mirage.”

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Interviews are a popular part of the content put out by The Wire. But one reader has a “humble request”: “Allow the interviewee to complete his/her chain of thoughts, and if one wants to build on them, then wait for the interviewee to flesh out the idea and then ask the next question.” He also feels that interviews could be structured a little better.

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I was delighted to note the honour that came the way of this news portal for its innovative, informative and empathetic series on manual scavenging, #GRIT.  When this series first appeared, many cynics had dismissed it as just another attempt on the part of The Wire to gain brownie points from the jholawalla crowd.

But the #GRIT series lived up to its name and hung in there, flagging developments, initiatives, experiences – sometimes extremely tragic – that most mainstream media disdained to cover comprehensively.

And why should they? Manual scavengers are hardly a major presence in the market. It’s something of an irony, therefore, that it is one of the country’s largest chambers of commerce, FICCI, which partnered the award along with Indian Sanitation Coalition (ISC), acknowledging the role of the series in helping to “achieve a sustainable sanitation ecosystem”.

Write to publiceditor@thewire.in