Media

Backstory: Now, More than Ever…

A fortnightly column from The Wire’s public editor.

Writing this on May 24, a day after the verdict for 2019, was a bit like surveying a bombed out, post-war landscape.

Apart from giant cut-outs of Narendra Modi and Amit Shah – whom a Congressman-turned-BJP aficionado described with no obvious irony as “one soul in two bodies” – there is very little left standing. 

As the debris of broken political parties and ideologies scatter the field, as torn posters flutter in the acrid breeze and coalitions – failed or aborted – are caught in their death throes, let us take a moment to pause and consider a political project called ‘Achche Din 2.0’ (or what you will).

What is striking about this project – which has just entered its second phase with this election – is that it is very much a work in progress with no ostensible end in sight. Prime Minister Narendra Modi is of the persuasion that fear is good (‘A Test of Nationalism – Who Needs to be Afraid in Modi’s India?’, March 9).

Hegemony gets built on fear. The times remind us of Antonio Gramsci’s much cited dictum that hegemony is a process by which a ruling class naturalises its domination by ensuring that its own worldview becomes the common sense of society as a whole. 

As the piece, ‘A New India Has Emerged and Narendra Modi Is Its Voice’ (May 23), put it, “those who have voted for the BJP – and mainly for Narendra Modi – don’t merely think he will bring them whatever he promised, but also because they see themselves in him.”

BJP workers welcome Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Amit Shah at the party headquarters in New Delhi on May 23, 2019. Credit: PTI/Manvender Vashist

BJP workers welcome Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Amit Shah at the party headquarters in New Delhi on May 23, 2019. Credit: PTI/Manvender Vashist

The manner in which the previously unthinkable  has become mainstreamed indicates that the exercise of hegemony building  is successfully carrying on apace. Pro-Godse sentiments permeating mainstream discourse, or indeed the common sense that it is Hindus, not Muslims, who have been given a raw deal in post-independent India (‘BJP Experimented With Its Brand of Caste and Religion-based Politics in 2014 and Cemented it in 2019’, May 23), are indications of this.

Exactly two years ago, the former editor of The Organiser Weekly, R. Balashankar, had announced in an Outlook article, that “opponents have been vanquished, critics have gone mute and opinion polls are predicting a cake walk for Modi in 2019.”

Well, 2019 has arrived and it has indeed been a cake walk for Modi. Everything seems to have gone according to the master plan, and preparations are being made to ensure that this remains the case in the future as well.

Also read: Vijayi Modi? Yes. Vijayi Bharat? Not on Your Life.

We have already been provided a glimpse into this by a BJP general secretary. Writing in the Indian Express, he argued that the “pseudo-secular/liberal cartels that held a disproportionate sway and stranglehold over the intellectual and policy establishment of the country… need to be discarded from the country’s academic, cultural and intellectual landscape”.

This only means that now, more than ever, media persons who believe they are media professionals, need to stand by the principles that undergird journalism, including of course the most basic: that they are meant to represent an entire society, not just a section atomised by the market, or even “a majority” created by a political agenda; that distance from power centres is crucial for independent reporting; that all information received need to be rigorously fact-checked.

This may appear like Mission Impossible in these times of polarisation and muscular displays of power, but that should not be for the lack of our trying.

What I believe is helpful in order to hang on to good journalism is to understand how the ground beneath our feet has shifted over the last five years, even if this is only to ensure that we don’t lose our footing. 

When a political scientist observed in The Wire that “the future is deeply caught in the invocation of the past” (‘Are We in for a Foundational Shift in India’s Nationalist Imaginary?’, May 23), he was talking about the ideological underpinnings of ‘New India’, but in another sense, it would be fair to say that the future policies of NDA II will draw upon and emerge as a continuum of those of NDA I.

This means that now, more than ever, recalling the years of the first Modi government becomes crucial for intelligent, cogent responses.

Let me track six major media transformations – among many – that have occurred over these last five years. The first is the initial reportage  of mainstream media in the lead up to the general election of 2014 that systematically built the larger-than-life Narendra Modi imaginary as ‘India’s Man of Destiny’ – a trend unprecedented in the history of the media coverage of Indian elections.

The second is the great slide in media independence achieved once Modi was installed as prime minister. Through the exercise of executive will, the mainstream media quickly learnt to obey, learnt not to question, learnt to carry prime ministerial speeches as running commentary, learnt not to seek extraneous information from “sources” within government, learnt to be satisfied completely satisfied with one-way monologues and tweets from the PM as the basic foundation of their political coverage.

Also read: Backstory: Five Years of the Silence of the Lambs

Soon, the media were to display an uncommon appetite for tolerating and normalising communal violence, leading viewers and readers to believe that a lynching “here or there” were just stray incidents committed by the lunatic fringe. It can be no coincidence that the majority of hate crimes that took place over the last decade, took place under the five years of Modi rule under the watch of a supine media.

The third phenomenon is the creation of the chilling effect. By the second year of the Modi government, it had been deployed at a pan-national level through a combination of the deliberate withholding of information to journalists who are not embedded in the system; the crackdown on dissent and freedom of expression; the criminalising of university students as “seditious anti-nationals”.

All this directly and indirectly impacted media coverage and encouraged self-censorship within the journalistic community. We now saw that even published stories, if they happened to embarrass the powerful, were mysteriously withdrawn from webpages and screens within hours of their appearance.

The fourth is the rise of a new genre of journalism – ‘nationalistic journalism’ – with one prominent media personality, professing to be a “nationalist journalist’, stating publicly that being a nationalist is a prerequisite to being a journalist. He went on to say: “In our reporting and in our relentless pursuit of the truth, our nationalism is our strength, our nationalism is at our core.”

Many media houses began to vie with each other on who was indeed the most nationalistic of all. New wings like Zee Hindustan emerged which, according to its own publicity, “will step forward not only with politics but also with nationalism”.

Nationalist television helped to impart a rosy hue to everything the government did – even a highly controversial move like demonetisation could now be projected as a “masterstroke” with a straight face.

The fifth was the growing corporate takeover of media establishment. While this process did not begin with the Modi years, it certainly deepened in this interregnum, with media content suborned by the interests and agendas of some of the most powerful industrial houses in the country. Corporate money was also channeled into advertising – and never more so than during the election that has just ended. The writer of ‘Vijayi Modi? Yes. Vijayi Bharat? Not on Your Life’ (May 23), highlighted this disturbing collusion of political power, corporate power and media power: 

“It is these corporates who bankrolled the BJP’s lavish election campaign and advertising budget, including a 24×7 TV propaganda channel that came and went mysteriously without the Election Commission doing anything to restrain it from breaking the law. Since we don’t know who paid for the BJP’s campaign, it will be hard to pin down what the payback will be in terms of policies.”

Finally, there are innumerable ways in which the media themselves came under attack from state and non-state actors. These ranged from casual name calling – “presstitutes”, “you member of the Indian mujahideen”, “libtards”, and the like; defamation notices and dismissals from editorships; bombardments in the digital space from troll armies, to more direct action, including arrests and detentions, especially in zones of conflict like Jammu and Kashmir and Chhattisgarh.

With closer surveillance and policing, journalists were arrested for social media comments. According to one investigation, the Modi government tried at least seven times to hire private firms to monitor social media users during the years 2014 to 2018.

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

More serious were assassinations of journalists, many of which have been consigned to the silence of a tomb. Investigations into Gauri Lankesh’s murder in 2017, which was greeted with unapologetic glee by those whose Twitter handles the prime minister follows, remains inconclusive.

For all you know, even those apprehended so far may be quietly left off – and later rewarded with posts and candidatures as MPs.

Now, more than ever, we need to prepare ourselves for the prospect that the control, surveillance, manipulation, assaults and cooption of the media, which took place in the years from 2014 to 2019, could deepen in the half decade ahead, taking on new avatars and intensities.

Are those of us who regard ourselves as professional journalists up to the task of building a counter-hegemonic discourse?

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Shooting the messenger

I had, in an earlier column, commended the ground reporting that The Wire had carried out during this election season. But you cannot please all the stakeholders of an election, all the time, it seems.

Mohammed Salim, the CPI(M) MP representing Raiganj in West Bengal, appears to have taken time off from a frenetic electoral campaign to target the reportage of The Wire’s managing editor and question her sources in the piece, ‘CPI(M) Has Been a Major Force Behind BJP’s Mainstreaming in West Bengal’ (May 17).

His accusations were looked into, and found to be incorrect. What must have provoked him to shoot the messenger was an observation made by one Lab Sengupta, who was quoted as having said that the “maximum number of former CPI(M) activists are now with the BJP”.  

The verdict of May 23 has only confirmed the wisdom of this assessment. Not only have CPI(M) cadres moved over to the BJP in this election, even parts of its base seems to have shifted. This is not something that The Wire alone has captured, several commentators and reporters picked up this trend. 

The BJP went on to win the Raiganj seat.

Mohammed Salim certainly did not deserve to lose – he was in fact recognised just a few weeks ago for having been the state’s top utiliser of MPLADS funds – but sadly, he fell victim to the BJP surge and his own inability to read the writing on the wall. 

Reader responses

A reader, S.K. Masud Ali, makes an important suggestion with reference to the violence that accompanied Amit Shah’s rally in Kolkata (‘After Kolkata Violence, EC Curtails Campaigning for Last 9 Seats in Bengal’, May 15).

He wants The Wire to conduct an interview with Amit Shah on the vandalism that took place on Kolkata’s College Street, and ask him specifically that if, as he claims, stones were hurled at BJP supporters from within the Vidyasagar College, why was it that they were not hurt. That, of course, is a tall order.

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Amidst the hurly-burly of election coverage, this news portal turned four. So here’s a note from Chitra Padmanabhan wishing The Wire team a happy fourth birthday.

She writes: “Four years in which all of you relentlessly kept at it, creating a space that is valued by a readership spanning the country – a readership that has stepped forward to contribute monetarily to The Wire. To all of you, a heartfelt thank you. Here’s wishing more power to The Wire.”

Write to publiceditor@thewire.in

This column has been modified to remove a reference to another article on the site, which has since been deleted.