Lost in translation: For Indian media obsessed with English, Modi's Hindi speeches lead to biased reportage

By Seema Kamdar

The other day, a high-ranking bureaucrat told me that a lot of weightage was being given to public grievances these days. I asked him if he meant his particular department. He said no, this was happening across departments. The Prime Minister, it seems, was cracking the whip. Apparently, Narendra Modi holds one or two meetings each month with all departments only to discuss their public grievances score. The pressure on them is intense.

It’s remarkable how many bureaucrats call the prime minister their prime tormentor these days. He grills them at meetings, demands results immediately, calls them back to meetings at midnight, drives them crazy with his zero tolerance for indiscipline and tardiness.

 Lost in translation: For Indian media obsessed with English, Modis Hindi speeches lead to biased reportage

Narendra Modi. PTI

But then, why is it that we rarely hear about these stories in the media and when we do, it is generally a negative portrayal of how babus are begging to be moved out of Delhi? A few of these do get into an Indian language news bulletin but, by and large, the coverage of Modi’s one-and-half year of government can safely be termed as negative. And that is to put it mildly.

What is it about Modi that makes the English media, in particular, so blind with bias? I have a theory about it. The first problem is his personality. When Modi is not aggressive, he is forceful. The sheer power of his personality can be rather overwhelming to deal with, especially in this age of 24x7 television. That partly explains the strong reactions he evokes among people. His pro-Hindu leanings are indeed a problem (which is woven into the second point) but not as much as his in-your-face passion for his job.

His overemphatic physicality too would perhaps be overlooked by his critics if only he had had the charm and sophistication of an Indira Gandhi - who incidentally did not haunt you from your television all day but probably peeked in once in a way. Or, most importantly, if he spoke English with the right accent. That brings us to the second problem, one that the likes of Mani Shankar Aiyar probably have. The Modi jacket may have become a fashion rage but the wearer is still seen as something of a poor man’s Nehru or Patel, if you prefer.

If modern Indian history is crisscrossed with stories of invaders and marauders, it’s partly because not only did Indians never invade others, we were also too embarrassed by our own existence to assert ourselves in the face of an outsider. There was this underlying acceptance of our inferiority to all foreign nationalities and races on the planet that made us crawl when asked to bend. Mostly. During British rule, the whiteness of their skin dazzled us, and we got sucked into the English tide without ever having looked back.

That may not have been such a bad thing if it weren’t for the kind of education that Independent India chose to continue with. Jawaharlal Nehru and his successors continued the Thomas Babington Macaulay system. There was some cosmetic refurbishing of study content - e.g. the Indian outlook on history and Indian history were somewhat incorporated even if rather misshapenly, and Indian languages found a staying place.

The absence of a strong cultural component and values in our education system robs us of a nodding acknowledgement with our own history or heritage, in the process depriving us of a sense of self-worth. Even though we have a rich repository of nursery rhymes in Indian literature, most of the nursery rhymes taught in playschools are in English and from the West, which simple reinforce the flawed belief systems we endorse. It works towards further consolidating the deeply entrenched feudal thinking that we are an inferior people, and our roots and traditions are best forgotten and ignored. We grow up struggling to find our feet in an English world, and subconsciously look down on anything that remotely connects with Indianness of any sort.

Before the polls, many believed Modi could not speak English well. After the polls, he stunned his detractors with his ease with the language, but while his language was fluent, his diction was not Doon school. Modi was not born in the right family nor did he study in the right school.

The looking down happens smoothly and almost subconsciously. There is a subliminal acceptance in each one of us of the superiority of the English language and of the superiority of the moneyed class. If you have neither, it becomes hard for the ‘possessed’ to accept you. It’s an outrage, a ‘how-dare-you’. Add to that Modi’s advocacy of Hindutva and you have the perfect package to drive most of the English intelligentsia to rant instead of simply criticise.

Updated Date: Nov 28, 2015 19:35:15 IST