India’s journalists have become irrelevant to electoral politics, an indication of the quality of our democracy.
Media has become powerful on insignificant things, like the rights of Indian parents in Europe, an entirely civilised place needing no hectoring from us.
But it has no clout in matters that actually matter to Indians – things to do with high policy and specific initiatives. That debate, if it is happening at all, is without reference to media.
In this election cycle, during which he has become India’s most significant non-Congress leader, Narendra Modi has done it without exposing himself to hard questions. My list of recent interviews of him shows one by The Economist, one by the Wall Street Journal and one where he gave access to CNN-IBN’s Rajdeep Sardesai (a superb display of Modi’s rudeness and fear of humiliation, and Sardesai’s thick-skinned reporter’s instinct).
In my opinion Modi is the most talented politician of his generation. He doesn’t need the media, and knows it. When he wants something communicated, he goes ahead and does it and the media will cover him. Such as appearing in dozens of places simultaneously as a 3D hologram.
But even lesser leaders than Modi have managed to get by without engaging journalists.
In the Congress, Sonia Gandhi has never been interviewed at length by anyone including those sympathetic to her. Those who have been given limited access are warned to lob only slow half-volleys at her about the family and its greatness.
Rahul Gandhi will become the Congress party’s executive president or some such thing soon, but also does not do sit-down interviews of the sort that even President Obama feels obliged to do every so often.
Prime minister Manmohan Singh has always been more comfortable with foreign journalists, especially those of the financial press. He does not do interviews with Indians. A feature of his Prime Ministership used to be a once-a-year press conference, and I’m not sure he does even those regularly. The last one I remember was chaperoned by an aide who snapped at an editor mid-question, because he thought the editor was being rude to the great man.
In the states, leaders like Mayawati and Naveen Patnaik have long refused access to reporters. They rule without reference to the media, which arrogates to itself the right to inform the public.
For more years than I can remember, the Lok Sabha has spoken to Indians through words like “uproar” and “adjourned”. Those who watch the British parliament in action, especially such things as the Prime Minister’s questions, will begin to wonder what is wrong. The answer here lies in the general population, rather than the politician, but what it immediately reveals is that what is on offer from our highest legislative body is signaling rather than debate.
I would say that much of the fault that things have come to this pass lies with the Indian media. It is true that media all over the world has become frivolous in the last two decades, but the problem in India is that it doesn’t balance the light stuff out. This is entirely the fault of editors. Proprietors do not insist on frivolity across the pages, only that readers not be bored and sensationalism be pursued to some extent. My longest job in journalism was as editor of a tabloid so I am not going to run down that sort of material, but where is the other side?
The blame for entirely vacating their pages of serious content can be laid on the journalists. There are not many Indian publications of repute that the outsider can consider if he wants to understand what’s going on here. The Times of India is hardly the New York Times, though it has four times the number of journalists.
I read in some book that the only place where India’s economic reforms were debated was the pages of the Economy and Political Weekly, a magazine that very few read. All the others publications were obsessed in that period by non-issues like Bofors and Babri.
This is no different from the way in which things stand today. Round-the-clock coverage of things like corruption in government is what passes for serious journalism today.
To bring themselves back into relevance, the media must improve itself unilaterally. This may also improve our politics.