Media

Backstory: Media Needs to Guard Itself (and the Country) from the ‘Chowkidar’ Charade

A fortnightly column from The Wire’s public editor.

In April 2014, after L.K. Advani had filed his nomination as the Bharatiya Janata Party candidate from Gandhinagar for the 16th Lok Sabha election – for the last time as it turns out, with Amit Shah now having snagged the party nomination for this safe seat in the coming election – he made a most prescient observation. Narendra Modi, he said, is a “brilliant and efficient events manager”.

This brilliance is once again in view, with all manner of people almost robotically swearing allegiance to the chowkidar brand in a series of money-fuelled events and initiatives. Modi has now metamorphosed into a security guard and the entire country is invited to seek the shelter of his 56-inch chest.

The efficiency with which this was done was obvious in the way random people were persuaded to prefix the word “chowkidar” before their names in their Twitter handles, and in the manner in which the prime minister addressed a “Main bhi Chowkidar” video conference with chowkidars at “500 different locations” – a development of such evident consequence for the country that its Union minister of law, using the full range of his sonorous pomposity, informed the nation that one crore people had taken the ‘main bhi chowkidar’ pledge”; that #MainBhiChowkidar had become a global Twitter trend; and that it is now a “people’s movement”.

What do these pledges amount to, especially when stories emerge of how Karnataka party president B.S. Yeddyurappa had showered BJP leaders with pay-offs (‘Yeddyurappa Diary Reveals Massive Pay-Offs to Top BJP Leaders, Congress Says’, March 22)?  What is this “movement” all about? How is the voter’s life transformed one scintilla by such social media-constructed spectacles? Not even the lowly chowkidar inhabiting the lowest rungs of the job market with long working hours, low salaries, no off days (‘Life of Labour: The Sad State of Real Chowkidars; An Inter-Jail Music Contest’, March 20) stood to gain from prime ministerial homilies about the value of hard work.

Yet smart event management ensured that this fuzzy, fluffed out campaign, was talked up to a point where it came to resemble a second independence struggle (‘Why Narendra Modi’s #MainBhiChowkidar Campaign Is Sheer Hypocrisy’, March 18; ‘Modi is All Theatre, and the Congress is Making It Easier for Him to Pull Off His Act’, March 19).

To expose this charade and jog public memory, all the media need have done was to replay scenes from the “chaiwallah” blockbuster of general election, 2014. During the last general election, too, the conceit of the tea vendor was employed with great brio, right down to the setting up of NaMo tea stalls, the organising of innumerable chai pe charcha discussions and the enlisting of a tea seller from Vadodara to propose Modi’s Lok Sabha nomination (a chowkidar may have already been identified to do the honours in 2019). The chaiwallah has now been junked like used tea leaves, and it is the chowkidar’s  lathi that is currently rounding up voters.

As for the many failures of Modi’s chowkidari – his stewardship in five years in power – that too have remained largely under-reported, with occasional exceptions such as the Indian Express report resurrecting the NSSO numbers on the workforce that the government had striven so hard to bury. The Wire was wise to have promptly curated this particular story for its own columns, with full attribution of course (‘For First Time Since 1993-94, India’s Male Workforce Is Getting Smaller: Report’, March 20).

Indeed, if the Modi government had guarded anything really well during its tenure, it was inconvenient data that exposed its many failings. The story of widespread joblessness assumes even greater urgency in present times when there is a patent lack of suitable employment, as the story ‘Graduates, Post-Graduates Among Candidates in Race to Become Helpers in Railways’ (March 19), so clearly flags.

Most media establishments chose to turn their backs on the NSSO data exposé. Unsurprisingly, too, they failed to inquire more closely into the appointment – in the dying months of this government – of the Lokpal. The Wire analysis, ‘How Not to Appoint a Lokpal’, (March 20) pulled no punches. Not only did it question this delay of a government that had ridden to power on a anti-corruption wave to actualise the Lokpal Act, passed in 2014, it rigorously critiqued the process of appointment on various grounds, ending with the words, “Under the leadership of the self-proclaimed chowkidar, an independent and credible lokpal has been sacrificed at the altar of short-term political gains.”

The only grouse I have with this piece is the failure of the desk to be consistent about whether ‘Lokpal’ should come with capitals or not.

Even holding the Modi government to the most basic standards of chowkidari seems to be beyond the media. Rafale has now been rendered just a seven-letter word, more or less (‘If I Had Got More Than a Minute to Speak: Arun Shourie on Rafale Proceedings in SC’, March 19), hardly bouncing off op-ed spaces or prime time chat shows anymore. The accused in the bombing on board the Samjhauta Express have been allowed to walk free despite actionable evidence, as an interview The Wire did with the former head of SIT, Vikash Narain Rai, in 2016 and republished recently  indicated (‘Here’s Why Investigators Saw Clear Hindutva Link to Samjhauta Bombing’, March 21). Rai and his colleagues had found that “each and every item of the bomb was bought from … Indore, and within a one kilometre radius of the suitcase store. It was established that the whole bomb was assembled there”.

I came across one sharp tweet, after the acquittal of Aseemanand and others, that said it all, “No one killed 68 people on February 19, 2007. They died on their own.” The majority within the media fraternity, in sharp contrast, found nothing amiss about this whitewash and placed the story in the ‘Out’ tray.

The BJP is of course is free to exploit the Pulwama attack to window-dress its own electoral narrative of being the only party that can be trusted to keep the country secure from external and internal threats of corruption and the like. But if the media brought an iota of the righteous scrutiny they have accorded to the innocuous comments of a elderly gent based in the US who is not, as far as I know, standing for elections – I am referring of course to perfect storm kicked up by one Sam Pitroda – into understanding BJP’s claim-making on its guardianship of India, it would have added some heft to their election coverage. But no, it’s not old fashioned newsworthiness and the desire to inform real people about real issues that decide what gets covered, it’s Modi’s Twitter feed.

The Wire, I notice, have introduced two new daily columns of aggregated content. One, aptly titled Poll Vault, presents a summary of the “most important political developments” of the day; the other is a daily round-up of “trends and patterns” on news television. Both are useful in a noisy poll season. They cannot, however, replace strong election reportage from the ground, and I hope The Wire will come up with well-researched and substantial election reportage before long.

Remembering Darryl D’Monte

‘In memoriam’ pieces on the late journalist, the Mumbai-based Darryl D’Monte, resonant with the many hues of memory, have been featured in various publications, including in these columns (‘Darryl D’Monte, an Inspiring Editor Who Always Made Space for Young Writers’, March 18; ‘D’Monte: An Editor and Gentleman Par Excellence’, March 21). D’Monte himself had written for The Wire a lively account of his days as editor of the Sunday Magazine for the Times of India between 1969 and 1979 (‘A Peek Into a Dalit Newspaper Supplement That Made Waves 45 Years Ago’, May 19, 2018).

While firmly rejecting the effete subjects that had once filled such spaces, he had as editor encouraged investigative journalism and what would today be termed as “citizen journalism”. His publication was in many ways the progenitor for a whole new journalistic genre in India – Sunday newspapers. Notable among them was The Sunday Observer, first edited by Vinod Mehta. It had proved so attractive and independent, that the Ambanis captured it to build what they had hoped would be their newspaper empire but which today lives on as a “think tank” (for a good exposition of this evolution, read the story, ‘Readiness and Reliance’ in the March edition of The Caravan).

To get back to Darryl, the piece he wrote for The Wire reminded me of the years in the later 1970s when I was a humble sub on his team in the old Times building in Bombay much glamorised as the Old Lady of Boribunder. I was thus witness to his earliest phase as an environmental journalist, deeply interested in themes like the threat posed to the Bombay residents by the Tata thermal power plant in Chembur, or the battle to save the Silent Valley. Writing in the second ‘State of India’s Environment 1984 – 85’, brought out by the Centre for Science and Environment, he saw the Silent Valley resistance as a ‘silent success’, the “fiercest environmental debate in the country (that) is likely to establish a precedent when ever any major development project – particularly a dam – threatens the ecological balance”.

His seniors at the Times, including the venerable Shyam Lal, often looked askance at the pieces D’Monte’s showcased in his magazine. Remember well how, when he carried a piece on a bus that fell into the Vaitarna River as a lead, he had to face sharp criticism from the boss. Sunday reading, it was argued, should be tailor-made for the leisurely classes, it was argued. D’Monte, however, successfully held on to his own brand of Sunday journalism, highlighting seemingly innocuous developments to capture the broader reality of people’s everyday lives and the scenarios in which they played out.

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Sometimes readers can perform the role of ad hoc correspondents by sending in valuable follow-up information on stories carried. I commend Arjun Bohtan for doing this by sending in images of the riot police in the campus of the Punjab Law University, including those of “jeep-mounted machine guns”. They were a valuable addendum to the LiveWire report, ‘Protest About Unhygienic Food at RGNUL Sparks Campus-Wide Rebellion’ (March 18), which focused on student unrest at the Rajiv Gandhi National University (RGNUL), Patiala. Thank you, Arjun.

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The article, ‘The Casteist Underbelly of the Indian Private Sector’  (March 15) drew praise from reader, a Lalit Khandare. He writes, “In a largest democracy in the world, it is long overdue to have adequate representation of SC/ST and other marginalised groups in private sector.”

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Received a fervent letter from a reader, Kayal, requesting that The Wire cover regional news more systematically. For instance, she points out, a burning issue in Tamil Nadu right now is the Pollachi rapes and no coverage has been done on it. Kayal seems to have missed a rather comprehensive piece on the subject that this news portal had put out quite early in this breaking story (‘If Stigma Against Sexual-Assault Victims Continues, so Will Cases Like Pollachi’, March 12).

Write to publiceditor@thewire.in

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