“Rahul Gandhi should answer for the past four years” is a peculiar statement repeated among those in my profession, while they face a prime minister, Narendra Modi, who refuses to fulfil his institutional role of being answerable t0 the people of India via a free press. Sections of the media who I call “panna pramukhs” are enthralled by Amit Shah’s shrill cry of “Rahul Gandhi should answer”.
Is Gandhi, the president of the Congress party with a scanty 45 MPs in the Lok Sabha, a surrogate for the prime minister of India? As Modi arrogantly evades his responsibility by morphing into Mute Modi – the first prime minister in India’s history not to have held a single press conference – has the free press failed in its first and only covenant, of holding power to account?
The panna pramukhs of the godi media, it seems, prefer to hold Rahul Gandhi to account.
They are terrified of Modi, who has unleashed a vendetta of tax raids against media proprietors, the latest being Raghav Behl, who had his homes and offices searched by the IT department last week. Earlier, the raids and punitive tax orders against NDTV ensured that Modi sent a message to the media that was heard, received and internalised: ‘Don’t ask Modi any questions.’
The message is also sharply underlined by the fact that the Modi government has refused to grant broadcast permission to half a dozen news channels, withholding uplink licences. All news channels which had applied, including Behl’s, were not granted permission. A telling exception was made for the news channel Republic, promoted by Arnab Goswami and BJP’s Rajeev Chandrashekhar.
As the fear of the Modi government grows, one favourite punitive method has been the denial of government advertising. The notable case was of Rajasthan Patrika, which had all government advertisements terminated by the Vasundhara Raje government reportedly for being critical of it, until the Supreme Court intervened.
But the panna pramukhs have to pretend, for public consumption, that they are fulfilling their main function of asking tough questions. So Gandhi is pressed into service. You have Roman-style gladiatorial shouting matches, where anchors bay for Gandhi’s blood. One gave herself away on a mass-watched Hindi channel in 2016, when she introduced herself by name and then added “Modi” to it.
The M.J. Akbar case
On social media the cry has been, “Why has Rahul Gandhi not said a word about #MeToo?” Shouldn’t we be asking instead about Modi, who has taken recourse to his famous silence again and is brazening it out in the case of M.J. Akbar, a Union minister accused by at least 13 women of sexual harassment? Should the press not be asking why Modi, who claims to be pro women with his much publicised ‘Beti Bachhao, Beti Padhao’, is mum on the grave allegations against Akbar?
Why has Modi chosen to back his junior minister, who is trying to intimidate and bully the survivors by filing a defamation case against Priya Ramani, the first journalist who accused him of sexual harassment. Why has Modi not asked his minister to step aside and allow an independent probe into the allegations? Incidentally, candidate Modi had in 2013 had asked voters in Delhi to remember Jyoti Singh (whom he insisted on calling Nirbhaya) before they cast their votes.
Yet the panna pramukhs are terrified to ask Modi why he has chosen to side with an alleged serial sexual predator. The Modi government reckons that it can ride out this storm as the Akbar allegations are the creation of an “elite leftist clique which hates Modi”. After all, a Modi-loving media will oblige by saying that “Rahul Gandhi should answer”.
The Modi government is exceptionally nice to the cheerleaders who speak in their saheb’s voice. Plum jobs, lucrative contracts and the obligatory “interview with Modi” – who holds forth at length and sometimes also helpfully asks questions when the overawed anchor forgets. No inconvenient questions are ever asked and it seems as if the interview is happening in a parallel universe. In fact, Modi should stop his radio monologue Mann ki baat, since the cowed channels allow him to share whatever he wants anyway – from “pakoda economics” to tall claims about the economy, it all goes unchallenged.
- No inconvenient questions are ever asked and it seems as if the interview is happening in a parallel universe.
Modi has never been asked about lynchings. And of course, his surrogate Gandhi should answer.
Take the Rafale deal personally negotiated by Modi. There is a deafening silence in the media on the daily revelations in the French media and earlier on the statement made by former President Francois Hollande. When Gandhi, who has to his credit taken up the scam in real earnest, holds a press conference, the godi media does not show it. Modi has stonewalled on Rafale for months now and the controversial partner, Anil Ambani, who he obliged with the juicy offsets sends out intimidatory “cease and desist” notices in bulk to the media still reporting the deal.
Modi clearly believes that he does not need to answer the taxpayers’ questions on the multi-billion-dollar deal. Yet when Nationalist Congress Party chief Sharad Pawar chief muddies the waters by saying “nobody will believe that Modi was personally corrupt”, the godi media rushes in with saturation coverage and ‘breaking news’ tags. Gandhi should answer for the Bofors deal negotiated when he was a child, but Modi should not answer any questions on Rafale, seems to be the media conviction.
So the cry goes up in the newsrooms – “Rahul Gandhi should answer”.
Are we really fooling our readers and viewers? You answer that one.