Backstory: 4 Big Concerns Independent Media Needs to Keep Flagging Till 2024

A fortnightly column from The Wire's ombudsperson.

At long last we have got some respite from the election fever that has had the country in its grip for several weeks. Posters and party buntings have been swept away, the ladoos have been consumed, the fireworks have ended, the interminable electoral spiels have hit the pause button, as also the post-poll number crunching and analyses

In this relative calm it may be opportune for the independent media to turn their attention to existing patterns and practices of electoral democracy in India which have emerged from the recent polls in order to understand what could be the state of political play over the next 19 months that will see important state elections followed by a General Election in 2024.

The first and most important insight that emerged from the BJP’s Gujarat blitzkrieg was how the hegemony it exercised in the state has worked to buttress its own indomitable clout, even as it cut through the Opposition like a knife through butter. 

The creation of a hegemonic polity requires not just a putative political apparatus at the service of the hegemon, but the surrender of communities, groups and individuals to the force exerted by that apparatus. What is striking about the profile of those who voted for the BJP this time in Gujarat was that many among them may not ordinarily have done so if they felt they had a choice.

When a section of the population comes to feel that they have no option but to vote for the ruling party for fear of being targeted in various ways, including through the denial of basic civic amenities, that is when you perceive the coercive force of structural hegemony at work.

When tribals who are at the receiving end of polluting industries (see an important ground report on this in The Wire, ‘Planned Zinc Smelter Plant Has Turned Adivasis in This Corner of Gujarat Against the BJP) vote in droves for the ruling party, again hegemony comes into view.

Yet, the great power of hegemony is that it typically remains invisible because it has been internalised to such a degree in the minds of people as to appear unexceptional, even normal. 

Not just the inner landscape but the outer one is being transformed in the state of Gujarat.

Public spaces and monuments with their own distinct histories are being refashioned to conform to the totalising requirements of the hegemon. A recent example was the way a Gandhi image was replaced by that of Savarkar just outside an important university (‘Its Gandhi Out, Savarkar In on Ahmedabad Flyover’ in The Wire). 

One of the tasks independent media would need to set for itself is to expose the intimidatory power of hegemonic political systems. They could do this by consistently reporting on the insecurities of ordinary people in the face of overweening state power – most especially the Muslim minority. They would also be required to call the bluff resorted to by hegemonic forces. 

New Delhi: BJP supporters during the celebrations of the party’s victory in the Gujarat Assembly elections, at BJP headquarters in New Delhi, Thursday, December 8, 2022. Photo: Atul Yadav/PTI

No sooner had the election results come in this time, for example, than we had a BJP minister in Karnataka claiming that a dozen leaders from the opposition party are preparing to jump ship and join his party. Allowing such statements to remain un-investigated and unchallenged would amount to a serious deficit in media functioning. It is precisely because of such failures that hegemonic forces are allowed to flourish. 

The BJP’s unimaginably enormous cash buffer is a second conspicuous element of the recent elections. The opaque electoral bonds scheme – brought in by the Modi government as a money bill in 2018 – has more than lived up to the fears expressed by the Election Commission of India when it was brave enough to file an affidavit in the Supreme Court in 2019 stating that these bonds, given their anonymous nature, made political funding opaque and would have “serious repercussions on transparency of political funding”.

Also read: Electoral Bonds Scheme Amended To Allow Sale for Additional 15 Days in Assembly Election Years

Today the full spectrum of those “serious repercussions” have come into view, not least because they have created an electoral field that is weighted overwhelmingly in favour of the ruling party.

Two recent RTIs filed by Commodore Lokesh K. Batra on the 22nd and 23rd phases of the sales of electoral bonds, between October 1-10 and November 11-15 respectively, show they yielded Rs 545 crore and 676 crore respectively.

Not only are the donors anonymous, no one really knows who decides when such sales take place and for how long. What is known for sure is that it is the BJP corners the lion’s share of such funding. Today hard cash has come to define its politics, whether it is in the alacrity with which it topples governments or in its capacity to keep a well-oiled election machinery on permanent campaign mode. 

Elections in the months ahead are sure to be cash-soaked and the independent media needs to be as dogged as transparency activists are, in following the money trail and exposing it.

The bridge between Big Money and Big Media is the third insight that independent media needs to keep in mind.

Through the entire election campaign, India’s corporate media, much like the voters of Gujarat, have displayed a complete and utter fealty to the ruling dispensation. Most of the election speeches the prime minister and home minister made were faithfully relayed live on national television. This, of course, is not new.

In his book on the 2014 Modi election, Rajdeep Sardesai revealed how, “TV channels aired Modi’s speech without any advertising breaks” because it conformed to the hard-nosed calculus that such coverage would bring their own rewards. Eight years later, nobody even bothers to ask whether this practice of transmitting live endlessly repetitive speeches prime ministerial speeches makes editorial sense. They have become an unquestioned and permanent fixture on the news menu.

Meanwhile otherwise sober newspapers allow themselves to descend into hyperbole  with headlines like ‘Modi’s Seventh Wonder’, ‘Modi’s GujRath Crushes Cong, AAP’, and ‘Gujarat mein Modi, Modi’.

It is an interesting word that Gautam Adani used to describe his shiny new acquisition of NDTV in an interview he gave to Financial Times: it was not a business opportunity but a “responsibility,” he emphasised.

Responsibility towards whom? Responsibility to do what?

No clues, but the editorial vision he outlined in that interview indicates a man who would not like to undermine the forces which have made him the richest man in Asia. He put it this way: “Independence means if government has done something wrong, you say it’s wrong. But at the same time, you should have courage when the government is doing the right thing every day. You have to also say that.” 

Attempts to spike the flow of information within the media sphere with falsities and hate content will get amplified in the days to follow and independent media persons need to be alert to them. Several concerned citizens’ groups are already attempting to do this – the Constitution Conduct Group is a prime example.

Together with such efforts are of course online fact-checking organisations which have done a huge service to Indian citizens, especially in turbulent times like the pandemic. Independent media can gainfully draw from the arguments and evidence put forward by these institutions.

Finally to the fourth concern; the one institution that most influences election outcomes is, of course, the Election Commission of India (ECI) and the Indian media have tended to give it a long rope.

The ECI’s record in these elections has been far from reassuring. The scheduling of the Gujarat election in a manner that appeared to cater to the proposed rallies of the prime minister; the way in which the chief election commissioner Rajiv Kumar actually urged voters to vote in large numbers during the second phase of the Gujarat polls to make up for the sluggish turn-out during the first phase; the lack of response to complaints of the Samajwadi Party that its voters were being prevented from exercising their franchise in Rampur, certainly did not redound to the ECI’s credit as an impartial institution of oversight.

Two other issues should concern the independent media.

First is the disturbingly opaque manner in which Arun Goel was brought into the Commission – a move the Supreme Court noted  was done with “lightning speed”.

Second, its active espousal of linking voter ID to the Aadhaar card, supposedly to ensure greater accountability but which would in actuality leave elections wide open to manipulation.

As experts M.G. Devasahayam, Subhashis Banerjee and Jagdeep S. Chhokar have argued, this step is “defective, bad in law, in bad faith and liable to potential misuse by the state” (Electoral Democracy? An Inquiry into the Fairness and Integrity of Elections in India).

Every election has its teachable moments for the media, and the ones that have just concluded have them in abundant measure.

When the domes came down…

December 6, 1992, was a Sunday. That evening a friend called in to say, “The domes, they’ve gone –they have demolished it.’’

The sense of outrage those words conveyed cannot easily be described. When they felled Gandhi, Nehru spoke of the light having gone out of the lives of all Indians. It was really a bit like that when the masjid fell, not because it was a familiar monument to us but because it was for the first time in post-independent India that a major political campaign had taken shape and grown around the intent to destroy a place of worship of the minority community.

Three decades have passed since that day, and its tragic significance has not dissipated. Many journalists were witness to that destruction. Some came in support of BJP leaders, L.K. Advani and Uma Bharati, others to report on it. 

On the 25th anniversary of the Babri Masjid demolition, the Press Club of India, Delhi, organised a seminar in which journalists who were witness to the demolition talked about their experiences. 

Saeed Naqvi, who had resigned from the Indian Express in 1984 and was under no compulsion to file a story, still felt the need to be there: “I was left free to observe various aspects of that unfolding story. For instance, on the 4th of December I had met Arjun Singh in his home on 6, Race Course Road. He looked agitated and said, ‘I have just come back from UP and the mosque may be pulled down.’ I told him, you are part of the government, you can do something about it, but at that time the rivalry within the Congress between Arjun Singh and P.V. Narasimha Rao was intense. I believe this situation contributed to precipitating that demolition.”

Rising Hindutva consciousness was the essence of the sloganeering. Naqvi remembers people shouting, “Bomb girega Pakistan pe” (bombs will fall on Pakistan) and “We’ll now unfurl our flags in Pakistan.”

Photojournalist Praveen Jain, who was associate editor (photography) with the Indian Express, was the only one to carry images of a dummy run organised by kar sevaks of the demolition. His pictures, carried a day earlier, caused consternation but evidently did not wake up the slumbering Rao government. 

Jain recalled that as soon as the demolition began, the gathered mob began attacking journalists and it was the photojournalists who were the easiest targets because of their equipment. 

Ruchira Gupta, working for Business India, had the horrendous experience of being almost being strangled after someone yelled that she was a Muslim. She was roughed up brutally and it was only after someone identified her as a journalist and a Hindu that they allowed her to go. She revealed that when she had approached L.K. Advani thereafter, urging him to use his microphone to tell the mob not to attack journalists and women, he deflected the issue, offering her some sweets instead because it was a historical moment.

The BBC was represented by Mark Tully, who also spoke on the occasion:

“I was standing on the roof of Manas Bhavan, overlooking the place where the ceremony was taking place and everything was going on in an orderly manner when a group of so-called kar sevaks suddenly broke into the area we were and started attacking the press. Over to the left, I saw a vast assembly of people walking towards the mosque. There was no resistance from the police at all. After that I had to go to Faizabad to file my story for the BBC because all the telephone lines in Ayodhya had been uprooted.  I got back with considerable difficulty and some how I got into the area of the mosque. Eventually I found myself surrounded by kar sewaks, some of whom wanted to beat me up, but some others pointed out that BBC was influential and it would be very bad for them. As a compromise they locked me up in a dharmashala and I found myself with some Indian journalists, including the then editor of Jagran. They stood up for me and said that only when I am released would they leave. Eventually a mahant of a neighbouring temple sent someone who ordered the kar sewaks to release me.”

Tully guesses that the attacks were driven by the fact that the mob did not want the news of the demolition to get out and the mood against the media was visibly hostile.  

Danish Siddiqui’s photograph could help in the search for justice

An advertisement in a newspaper of December 7 carried a familiar photograph that captured perfectly a moment of communal hatred during the northwest Delhi violence of February 2020.

The Wire in fact had carried a piece on it in 2020: ‘Photo of Muslim Man Being Beaten in Delhi Riots is Reuters’ India Pick in ‘Pictures of Year’ List’.

Now over two years later, the Delhi Police, which has been quick to arrest Muslims alleged to have committed hate crimes, but dragged its feet when it came to punishing the perpetrators of horrendous incidents of the kind captured in these images, is now asking for “information or any clue about this wanted person(s)”.

We now wait to see if they are successful in this quest. Nevertheless, the photograph below is a reminder of the great eye and quick reflexes of the immensely talented Danish Siddiqui who was tragically killed in July 2021 while documenting for Reuters the war waged by the Taliban in Afghanistan shortly before the fall of Kabul.

A group of men chanting pro-Hindu slogans, beat Mohammad Zubair, 37, who is Muslim, during protests sparked by a new citizenship law in New Delhi, India. Photo: Reuters/Danish Siddiqui

Readers write in…

Why does the media dislike Bolsonaro?

A London-based reader of Brazilian origin, Andrea Koumis, sent us the following letter:

“You may not want to take what I say seriously because I am only a 57-year- old housewife who was born in Brazil and has been living in London for the last 26 years.  This is more so since I am disputing an article carried by you (‘The Challenges Ahead for Brazil’s Lula: A Damaged Economy and a Deeply Divided Nation’, November 1).

“I am amazed to read this article which portrays the Brazilian economy as suffering. Brazil is one of the few countries that is doing very well economically and recovering well after Covid-19, and despite the Ukrainian war. I don’t understand why these kinds of articles are written to portray a negative image of Brazil and the Bolsonaro’s government. The Bolsonaro government had ministers who were technocrats. They were not political like those preceding them. He had the support of good Brazilians. Why did the media not show this? 

 “The Brazilian federal government comprises the executive, legislative and judiciary and from the beginning Bolsonaro had the legislative and the judiciary working against him. They undermined him politically with the help of the old media which did not profit under him.

“Remember, Bolsonaro lost by a very small margin despite being attacked by the media 24X7. Never has a president been under fire like he was and this was only because he stopped corruption in Brazil. Many articles I read, specially in The Guardian, carry anti-Bolsonaro articles. They take examples out of context – like when he told a Congresswoman he wouldn’t rape her because she was too ugly. They don’t mention that she had called him a rapist. He was  committed to making the law tougher for paedophiles and other horrible criminals. 

“During the run off to the election, many rightwing news media in Brazil underwent censorship. They were forbidden to say that Lula was an ex-convict, they even pre-censored a documentary talking about who tried to kill Bolsonaro. The old media claimed Lula was a loner. But how is it that an allegedly poor person had three top lawyers defending him? Who was paying them? 

“It makes me sad to see journalists become so corrupt. Since the late Dom Phillips and Tom Phillips started writing articles about Brazil, several journalists have functioned like a Leftwing militia!”


How can we help Yeminis stranded in India?

Basim Moqbel writes:

“I have read your report about a Yemeni family in Delhi (No Place to Go’: The Struggles of a Yemeni Family Seeking Refuge in India’). I would like to inform you that the UNHCR India should take up this matter seriously. Since 2015, many Yemenis have been registered as asylum seekers but no action has been taken to help them. Even after some found a chance to leave India and return to Yemen or some other country, the FRRO, Ministry of Home Affairs, asks them to pay a penalty for overstaying, which amounts to Rs 50,000 for each year depending on the type of visa they hold. They didn’t get any help from UNHCR in addressing this issue.

“The Wire should do a follow up piece, checking up on this situation. I would also like to have a WhatsApp contact also, so that such issues can be followed up.”

Write to [email protected].