The Mainstream Media Is No Ally for Those Fighting the Cult of Narendra Modi

In the run up to the 2019 elections, the media failed to question either the government or the prime minister.

It is with great incredulity and amusement that one looks at post-election analysis in the mainstream media in India. We saw 2014 repeat itself, with the much of the media anointing Narendra Modi as the reigning deity of Indian politics. Last time was just a trailer, this was the real deal.

Elections in the largest and most diverse democracy in the world were again reduced to one man and his charisma. Even the much-touted welfare schemes, which supposedly won the incumbent government the elections, are, after all, the gift of one man to his loving subjects. And nationalism, another critical factor in the election victory, is also personified in one person.

We are bombastically told that this victory is also the end of caste-based politics in India. This is in a country in which around 27% of people practice untouchability, a number which goes over 50% in some Hindi belt states. Similarly, Modi’s win is being seen as the resounding defeat of dynasty entitlement, and a victory of merit. This in a scenario when almost every dynast from the BJP has won the elections, and dynasts Naveen Patnaik, Jagan Reddy and M.K. Stalin have won resounding victories.

Then comes the expected mocking of the “liberals”, who are supposedly out of touch with reality and do not know the pulse of the people. Liberals are then conflated with the elites who go to Khan Market and live in Lutyens’ Delhi, who are also blamed for demonising Modi.

But the 55% of Indians who did not vote for Modi and the National Democratic Alliance do not live in Lutyens’ Delhi. Can they be called “the liberals”? More importantly, do these 55% also count as “the people”?

The problem with electoral first-past-the-post majorities is that they give the impression of a complete assent from the whole of the population, even when the majorities are in the range of 40%-45%. This does not at all delegitimise these electoral victories, but the attempt to silence the actual majority who did not vote for the winner is thoroughly anti-democratic. “The people have spoken, so you cannot raise questions about Modi,” goes the mocking admonishment.

Also read: Modi Cannot Be Combatted Through Politics as Usual

The question here is not whether Modi’s personality had an impact on the elections, as the media narratives tell us. Indeed, it did. Modi is the most powerful national leader after Indira Gandhi. But the fundamental issue is that the media itself has had a colossal role in building this personality cult, by unquestioningly pushing the narrative of an infallible and incorruptible leader who is supposedly above not only his party, but also the people of India. Using circular reasoning, the same media then marvels at the “Modi magic” in the elections.

The breathless recital and recounting of this magic only reaffirms this cult further. It has grown precisely because the hardest questions have remained unasked. Despite the myth-making around Modi, it is important to keep challenging it.

Consider how, for example, in January 2019, just four months ago, Modi’s popularity had reached an all-time low, and stood at 46%, opposed to 34% for Rahul Gandhi, his all-time high. This despite the fact that Gandhi is, in terms of stature and experience, the weakest national opponent that a sitting prime minister with full majority had to face in the history of India.

Jawaharlal Nehru had to contend with towering leaders like B.R. Ambedkar, J.B. Kripalani, Ram Manohar Lohia, A.K. Gopalan and S.A. Dange; Indira Gandhi with C. Rajagopalachari, Jayaprakash Narayan, Morarji Desai, Chandra Shekhar and Charan Singh; Rajiv Gandhi with V.P. Singh, L.K. Advani and Atal Bihari Vajpayee.

Despite this, and the propaganda against Gandhi, the contest between Modi and Rahul was getting tighter even after the December assembly elections, reflected in the fact that in seven opinion polls conducted between December and February 2019, the average total seat count for the NDA was 241. This shows the vulnerability of even a mythicised political personality like Modi, which has been obscured in the post-election analysis.

The most important question here is this: how is it that despite the famed welfare schemes, Modi’s popularity reached its lowest after nearly five years of governance?

The most significant event since February were the Pulwama attack and the Balakot airstrikes that followed, which completely changed the narrative of the elections, and derailed the opposition challenge, which was highly fragmented to begin with. But the point is that the change of narrative was made immensely possible by the media, which simply failed to question the government on the failure in Pulwama, or its response in Balakot; instead, it went along with what the government told it, a catastrophic failure for fourth pillar of democracy (contrast this with the clinical dissection of Balakot by reputed international media and strategic think tanks).

The same was the case about the Indian friendly fire that killed seven Indian citizens, including six soldiers, in the conflict with Pakistan. This was never discussed in the media – despite being something that could have potentially caused huge damage to the government’s hyper-nationalistic pitch.

Also read: The Metaphors in Modi’s Victory Speech Give a Peek Into His Plans for ‘New India’

The media continued to fail in its basic task even after with its inability to question Modi for his repeated violation of the Model Code of Conduct, the shameful communal speeches, and the Election Commission for its shocking application of different sets of rules for Modi and Amit Shah only. It also completely failed in exposing the staggering amounts of resources that have gone into the making of the Modi image, as well as the BJP electoral machinery.

In just two months, March and April, Rs 3,622 crore were bought in electoral bonds. Considering that 95% of bonds had gone to the BJP before that, it is safe to assume the trajectory of these bonds as well. This kind of disparity between parties can kill democratic competition. Yet, this was hardly the topic of media discussion.

The most important issues, whether employment, farmers’ distress, the Goods and Services Tax or demonetisation, were not discussed by Modi and BJP on the election trail, nor did the media force them to do it. Therefore, it is ironic to see the latter talking about welfare schemes after the elections. But even these schemes have been projected much beyond what they have actually achieved (like the lack of water in Swachh Bharat toilets, or the inability to refill LPG cylinders given through Ujjwala) precisely through the thousands of crores spent on popularising existing and non-existing schemes.

The release of the unemployment data only after the elections, confirming a 45-year-old high, as critical analysts have pointed much before, reaffirms the central role that propaganda and fake news played in the last Modi government (in Bengal alone, there are 50,000 BJP WhatsApp groups).

And the most crucial aspect missed in media dissection of the election is the fact that welfare schemes and Modi’s image cannot just be extricated from the project of Hindutva, which has been a long time in the making. Modi is the greatest personification of Hindutva and Hindu nationalism.

Consider this: if the welfare schemes were enough, then Modi would not continue to indulge in the naked attempts to – unconstitutionally – speak the Hindu majoritarian language, from no Hindu being a terrorist to Wayanad being a Muslim-dominated constituency. The Kedarnath meditation was the crowning glory of this in the election campaign.

Data from post-poll survey by CSDS shows the emphatic success of this permanent strategy: a substantial increase in the Hindu vote (even among the Dalits) across almost all states in favour of the BJP, while the Muslim vote for it is the same as last time at a mere 8%.

So, are we to conclude that Muslims did not get any of the much-touted welfare benefits that supposedly reached 22 crore people?

We cannot blame ordinary people and the impoverished masses for the electoral choices they make without understanding the material and cultural conditions under which they make their choices. These conditions are now increasingly, with the help of the most servile media in independent Indian history, hegemonised by the BJP.

The conditions, in any case, have been the result of the spectacular failures of the opposition in building economic and social equality, and secularism on the ground (one can see the results where there is relative success in Kerala and Tamil Nadu).

Yet, in these circumstances, when the Congress is at its weakest, for example, what the media will not tell you is that it has 12 crore votes, compared to the BJP’s 22 crore. This is not to take smug comfort in the fact that 55% people voted against Modi, but to argue that this could be the building blocks for a genuine democratic and secular politics.

The biggest threat to India’s democracy from the Modi moment is not just the obvious dangers of Hindutva and Hindu nationalism, but the less obvious one of a mode of politics which has been taken to a stratospheric level by Modi, what I have called as “politics as hologram” – a superficial, personality-based and centralised politics which conceives of development as popular sops handed out by a benevolent patriarch. Here there is a complete destruction of the idea of democratic politics as debate, discussion and dissent, and the empowerment of every individual as a citizen, not as a mere subject. 

Nevertheless, it is clear that the forces that will struggle to fight against this morass cannot have as their ally the mainstream media, which in thrall and fear of an individual, has reduced 1.3 billion people to it.

Nissim Mannathukkaren is with Dalhousie University, Canada and tweets @nmannathukkaren.