The problem with having no conscience is that you’re left rudderless when the tide turns. If the Pied Piper decides to beat a retreat, where do the rats go? Something similar is happening with India’s right-wing media ecosystem over the last year. High on the ultra-nationalistic wave that has blinded most sections of India today, television news channels are suddenly clueless about how to find a balance as the Prime Minister takes a grand U-turn, all to suit political necessities.
Uncomfortable U-Turns & the Balancing Act
Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced on 19 November, Friday, on the occasion of Gurpurab, that his government will repeal the three contentious farm laws. It’s clear that for the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government, the announcement is nothing more than an electoral bait – indeed forced by farmers’ long and arduous struggle – to secure its vote base ahead of the Uttar Pradesh and Punjab Assembly election in early 2022. Were it an ideological ‘awakening’, what was stopping the government from taking this much-awaited step for a year? No, political exigencies do not need a moral compass – they need calculated politicking. And politicking often demands uncomfortable U-turns, both for the Piper and his rats.
After having demonised the protesting farmers for a year, after calling them ‘Andolanjeevi’, ‘Khalistani’, ‘terrorists’ in high-decibel propaganda on prime-time shows and on debate panels, news channels on Friday were at a loss. They were reduced to quoting reactions and the Prime Minister’s remarks from his own speech because the foul narrative so far being endorsed was suddenly turned on its head – by none other than Modi himself.
“Paksh Bol Raha Jeet, Vipaksh bol Raha Haar,” (government says ‘victory’, opposition says ‘defeat’) screamed a confusing (or confused?) title on one of India’s most prominent news channels.
“Anndata ke sammaan me sabse bada faisla,” (the biggest decision for our providers) said another.
“Haare nakli kisaan, jeeta ji Hindustan,” (the fake farmer loses, India wins) was all the irony a popular news channel could come up with.
A third, surprisingly, and very unlike itself, called out the reason for this ‘major’ step: “Chunaavo se pehle lacheele rukh ka sanket” (signs of flexibility ahead of elections).
Others couldn’t help but parrot Modi’s own grand climbdown – “Jo kar raha hu desh ke liye kar raha hu” (whatever I’m doing, it’s for the good of the nation), “Kisaano ke hit ke aagey kuch nahi” (nothing comes before farmers’ welfare), “hamaari hi tapasya me koi kami reh gayi hogi” (perhaps we were unsuccessful in convincing some farmers), were a few headlines plastered across news channels.
A Part of the Right-Wing is Unhappy
On social media, a user said on Twitter, “This is a masterstroke to ruin Rakesh Tikait’s peace. Modiji never lets his enemies sleep peacefully.”
Some were visibly rattled. “Even demonetization was a much-needed reform. It had its limitations when implemented. But we are reaping its benefits now. Farm laws would have given its benefits in the long run. There was no need to repeal it just because one state had an issue. The rest of the nation was ok with it,” said one.
“56" [inch] se 36" ho gya. You disappointed us,” said another Twitter user.
“Repeal of Farm Laws: Sad for democracy today, as mobocracy wins. Modi and the country are in for bigger challenges,” lamented a person.
Guarded & Tight-Lipped Reactions
What sets this government apart is the flexibility of its convictions. Shortly after Modi’s speech, it was reported that BJP workers in Delhi decided to organise citywide programmes to thank PM Modi for his decision. But it was later cancelled for the day, or perhaps postponed.
While last year, Amit Malviya, BJP's media chief, wasn't as guarded in accusing the protesters of having Khalistani or Maoist links, on Friday he said on Twitter, “ ‘Whatever I’m doing, it’s for the good of the farmers, for the good of the nation.’ These words define Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s decision to repeal the 3 farm laws, which were otherwise in the larger interest of small and marginal farmers, in particular. Let history judge his decision…”
When Indian Media Used Taliban to Demonise Muslims
A similar chain of events played out when the Afghanistan crisis unfolded earlier this year. The Modi government, so far having left no stone unturned to demonise Muslims, was suddenly faced with a paradox. As India was elbowed out by major powers in the Afghanistan arena, political arithmetic demanded that it reach out to the Taliban to regain its crumbling influence.
Indian media landed the Modi government in a pickle then by using the Taliban to further its domestic agenda of demonising Muslims.
From right-wing media to Modi’s own foot-soldiers in India, and even Modi himself, all couldn’t help but milk the return of the Taliban to paint all Muslims as ‘violent jihadis’, ‘savages’, or ‘tyrants’.
On the other end of the stick, India’s Foreign Minister and Foreign Secretary HV Shringla were forced to dance to a different tune. “There is a silver lining in the Taliban making the right noises and seeking international legitimacy which they did not the last time they were in power. The new regime in Afghanistan needs both trade and aid from India. We can work with a dispensation that is willing to look after the interests of the Afghan people,” said Shringla. His remark didn’t get much media attention.
Dear Media, Don't Underestimate Public Memory
India and Indians have a long but fraught relationship with news. A report by the Broadcast Audience Research Council (BARC) earlier this year stated that in 2020, in the year of extended lockdowns, TV viewership grew by 9 per cent, and of that, the news genre saw the highest growth, at 27 per cent. In the same year, as The News Minute reported, the time spent on digital news websites and apps surged by 40 per cent, even as revenue plummeted due to various factors.
While the digital news subscription model is still in its nascent stages in India, “broadcast television channels, like print media in India, are self-regulated and often have strong political affiliations and corporate ownership, with no regulations on cross-media ownership”, says the Reuters Institute Digital News Report 2021. The report also states, “the considerable popularity enjoyed by Republic TV’s online and offline platforms – which have both increased considerably since our last survey in 2019 – perhaps indicate the growing popularity of right-wing ideology propagated by the ruling party in India.”
Thus, India is a peculiar democracy – its politics and media can’t function in isolation. And when the latter becomes a minion for its ever-shifting political masters, it’s the country’s very founding principles that take the hit. When a large chunk of the country's political beliefs is subject to mainstream media’s political vagaries, the truth is bound to be twisted.
And U-turns are bound to be uncomfortable for the Piper and his subjects. India’s right-wing media ecosystem would do well to find its lost conscience and avoid such humiliation at the hands of its own masters.
Public memory is thin, but it bubbles up to the surface now and then, holding a mirror to society.