Hidden within Narendra Modi's masterclass to first-time MPs is a strong critique of the state of India's media
Modi himself provided an interesting window to his thoughts while addressing over 300 BJP MPs, many of them first-timers, at Parliament's Central Hall on Saturday evening. What emerged during the address has been lauded in many quarters as 'statesmanlike', 'inclusive' and 'empowering' but a key takeaway from the address was the prime minister's inherent distrust of the media.
It is rarely that we get insights into the mind of Narendra Modi, the politician who is redefining politics in our era. This might seem paradoxical since Modi has been in constant conversation with the electorate ever since he came to power at the Centre in 2014. Through countless speeches, interviews, tweets, monologues, dialogues and other communicative outreaches, Modi has been busy talking and listening to the people.
Yet, barring a few occasions, it has been impossible to peek into his mind to understand the thought process of a politician who is taking apart existing political models and constantly challenging us to rethink our axiomatic beliefs about India's politics and discourse. The just-concluded 2019 Lok Sabha elections offer a good example. Traditional political wisdom centred around caste identities and votebank politics has been swept away in favour of a new phenomenon — the Modi phenomenon — the nature of which we don’t fully understand yet.
Now that Indians have allowed him a bigger mandate in his second consecutive term and even more responsibility than in his first — with the result that Modi now possesses power rivalling a Recep Tayyip Erdoğan or a Xi Jinping — it may be worth noting what he stands for, and in which direction does he wish to take the country that has reposed untrammeled faith in him.
Modi himself provided an interesting window to his thoughts while addressing over 300 BJP MPs, many of them first timers, at the Parliament’s Central Hall on Saturday evening. What emerged during the address has been lauded in many quarters as “statesmanlike”, “inclusive” and “empowering” but what leapt out, during the address, is the prime minister’s inherent distrust of the media.
While advising first time MPs on the perceived booby traps laid by the mass medium, it was evident that Modi sees the conventional media (not social) as a ‘sold out’ entity that in the garb of questioning the government performs the role of a destabiliser. Modi believes that the media is perhaps inimical to India's interests and an obstacle in the path of the government in carrying out its duties and responsibilities.
He reminded the MPs that the enormity of the mandate places immense responsibility on their shoulders because "ab janta maaf nahi karegi” (the people won’t forgive anymore) if they fail in their tasks. And to carry out those tasks, said the prime minister, it requires single-minded determination and a concerted effort to stay away from needless controversies which are inevitable if lawmakers allow the media to 'seduce' them.
As he said, "god knows what magic lies in the TV boom that mouths open on their own, and words pour out that keeps their (media's) business thriving and puts the party in trouble." One may easily interpret Modi’s advice to MPs as a warning not to delve in controversies such as those created by Bhopal contestant Pragya Thakur (now an MP) who had to twice apologise for her controversial statements.
So, according to Modi, the media performs the role of a "seductress". Is this assessment justified?
Modi might not be against the concept of a mass medium, per se, that performs its role as the proverbial fourth pillar of democracy. If we assess his earlier speeches, Modi has batted for media scrutiny in government functioning and has repeatedly called for informed and constructive criticism. His grouse seems to be that the media’s current role (as opposed to its objective task as democracy’s watchdog) is subjective and deviates from that path owing to a corruptive influence.
What may be the corruptive influence that, according to Modi, has damaged media’s credibility? From his address to MPs on Saturday, it seemed as if the prime minister is hinting towards two impulses — media’s loyalty towards the ecosystem that nurtured it for 70 years and pecuniary interests that involve spinning perennially on the ‘controversy’ axis to sustain itself.
"They have been nurtured for 70 years by others… it is a folly to believe they would accept us," said Modi — the only occasion when he overtly criticized the media. His chief thrust of criticism was towards the lawmakers who have, as he said, repeatedly put the party and the government in a spot in the past not because they failed in their jobs, but because they couldn’t resist the lure of media.
"We may do very good work as a government but one wrong sentence from you can shatter the goodwill. Beware of two tendencies, which Advani ji (senior BJP leader LK Advani) used to warn about — Chhapaas aur Dikhaas (the addiction to be published in papers, and to be watched on TV),” he said.
#WATCH PM Narendra Modi addressing NDA Parliamentary meet says, "Media ke logo ko bhi pata hota hai ki 6 namune hain, vaha subah pahoch jayo, gate ke bahar khade raho, nikal ke kuchh to bolega." pic.twitter.com/dTtzu9uz6M
— ANI (@ANI) May 25, 2019
Modi also warned the lawmakers to not fall in the misconception of “off the record” conversations because, as he said, nothing spoken to the media ever remains “off the record”, even more so in the age of hidden devices that may record private conversations. This might seem verging on paranoia, but it gives un invaluable glimpse into the mind of a man for whom media remains an anathema.
He equally urged party spokespersons not to "react" immediately before gathering full information. "This business of reaction and counter-reaction make things go out of hand and buries the real issue. It is not the media’s fault but our enchantment with the medium."
Two things are worth emphasizing in lieu of Modi’s address. One, it gives us an insight into Modi’s obsessive self-discipline in public life. It also tells us something about his political strengths.
To dismantle the existing political models, demolish old ideas centred around consolidation of caste identities and create new consolidations that cut across caste and even community divides requires an extraordinary political acumen. Modi possesses that acumen.
As Pratap Bhanu Mehta, vice-chancellor of Ashoka University tells The New Yorker in an interview, "You cannot deny the fact he is an absolutely extraordinary politician, in terms of thinking about the aesthetics of politics, in terms of thinking about what communication means in politics, in terms of thinking about political organization…. What he does as a politician is to say, 'You can create a new reality. You are not trapped by inherited categories of thinking'."
This is easier said than done. To do what Modi has successfully done two times over requires talent, high degree of motivation, foresight, risk-taking abilities and self-discipline.
Modi's assessment may be harsh, but we in media have 'earned' the distrust and loss of credibility that plagues us. It would be easy to paint Modi as a media-hater and stop all introspection. Yet, if half of India has just voted for one man and reposed trust in his vision, it won't be illogical to suggest that his views resonate among majority of Indians.
We would do well, therefore, to introspect why we have seemingly deviated from our objective of working as the neutral watchdog of democracy. We should reflect on why sensationalism scores over hard-nosed reporting. Perhaps we have forgotten how to do our primary job — offer informed and reasonable critiques of the government, hold it accountable, diagnose and represent the will of the people.
Had we been doing our job well, at the very least we would have picked up traces of the Modi wave 2.0. Instead, we hyped up 2019 Lok Sabha polls as a “close contest”. Rahul Gandhi was launched (for the umpteenth time) as a knight in shining armour finally ready to meet his destiny. Media’s self-delusion arises from its laziness, but also because it chooses to remain in denial. The question is, why?
One possible answer could be the fact that the media, like everything else, had been controlled by a small group of elites who took grip of the country’s levers of power from the British.
As Tavleen Singh, writes in The Indian Express, "…believe me when I tell you that we controlled everything. Politics, government, business, foreign policy, the police, the military and the media. All this was possible because we were to some degree all courtiers in the court of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty since the British left. We knew that their 'socialism' and 'secularism' were as fake as their 'idea of India'."
It is easy to see why they saw in Modi an existential threat, and through one of their controlling arms — the media — sought to demolish that threat in inception. In effect, the media perhaps contributed towards making Modi the phenomenon that he is. In his distrust of the media, Modi may do well to acknowledge that (unintended) contribution. For us in the media, it is time for some reflection and going back to the basics.
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