There's an old line from a Bollywood movie that rings true in today's India: "A clever enemy is better than a stupid friend."
That line comes to mind in a month during which India officially put itself on the map of emerging world powers by hosting a G20 summit of the world's elite nations in a spanking new hall that mixed the ancient with the modern and successfully completed a journey to the moon by its space agency.
But is India's reality matching the image put out by Prime Minister Narendra Modi's media machine that does not tire of saying that India is the oldest democracy on the planet?
We may yet not challenge that very claim to join quibbling historians but this much can be said: It takes more than an elected government chosen by a majority of citizens to make a modern democracy really shine.
Looking at a large chunk of the news media that favours the Modi government that in turn favours them, it seems that some of its misadventures would be comic were it not for the fact that it paints a tragic picture of the world's most populous democracy.
Modi Government's Patronage of 'Godi Media'
Variously described by critics as "Godi Media" (lapdog) or "North Korean media" (for its pro-government excess) this media led by a growing number of me-too bandwagonist TV news channels is competing to levels of absurdity that brings down the image of the media as a whole both in terms of credibility and independence. And then it goes to hurt the country.
The world is watching. If democratic claims buttressed by claims of ancient wisdom wrapped in a Vishwaguru label are to be taken seriously, it is time for the powers-that-be to make sure that its stupid friends do not become worse than smart enemies.
The latest diplomatic row between India and Canada coming within days of the G-20 bonhomie seems to have brought out the worst in media excess.
But first, let us give credit where it is due.
Speaking on the margins of the United Nations General Assembly after Canada's outrageous accusation of Indian agents' involvement in the killing of Canadian citizen and Sikh extremist Hardeep Singh Nijjar last June, external affairs minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar made a logical, articulate case for India, pointing to a dangerous cocktail of extremism, crime, and politics against his country on Canadian soil.
Sadly, however, a country is not assessed solely by speeches at the United Nations but also by how its government and society as a whole behave on its native soil. In this aspect, the Modi government's patronage of questionable media entities and conduct on social media by ruling party supporters and members are often considered of a piece.
One TV panelist supporting the government on a Hindi TV channel actually said the Modi administration could send submarines to nuke Canada (I kid you not). Another Hindi TV channel had a speculative story about how Modi could dismember Canada in an act of geopolitical chutzpah.
With loyalist friends like that, who needs enemies? There is a limit to which a hunt for television rating points can justify ridiculous conduct.
True, the government can distance itself from such muck by citing media independence and the general tendency in democracies to accommodate all kinds of nonsensical statements and eccentric entities.
But the hard fact is that such channels do enjoy the privilege of government and ruling party advertisements that fund them and access to honourable ministers whose honour would be in international jeopardy if they are seen giving friendly access to channels that see no difference between hard news and morbid imagination.
Living in the age of the Internet, social media, and the instant virality of information, the line between domestic and international audiences is increasingly blurred.
Foreign diplomats in India watch what is going on and the whole world can make up its mind on key issues by weighing Internet inputs that range from critical newspaper comments to comic memes that land in their buzzing WhatsApp buckets.
A nation's image is now an amalgam, in which everything from show business to the judiciary matters. News media conduct certainly falls plonk in the middle. What is the meaning of the rule of law when the sanity of media is in serious doubt?
Mainstream Media's Delusions of Grandeur
There is a continuum of perception in which government officials, ruling party spokespersons, social media handles, and mainstream media are weighed collectively. If they all speak in one voice or are seen in dubious harmony, the country as a whole can suffer.
Washington Post has this week done an elaborate story after weeks of research in which it describes the BJP and Hindu nationalist groups as "using social media for political aims." It goes on to say: "They have perfected the spread of inflammatory, often false and bigoted material on an industrial scale, earning both envy and condemnation beyond India’s borders."
The BJP and its supporters routinely see Western media as biased towards their countries of origin, but it is tough being a Vishwaguru when you see conspirators in those whom you describe as strategic partners.
Well-sourced stories in international media cannot be discounted. Jingoistic domestic media suffering delusions of disproportionate grandeur will not be ignored either
A well-intentioned democracy respects its institutions and that includes the media, But the media itself has to earn the respect it wants and seeks by maintaining credibility in its processes and narratives where people can tell the difference between fact, opinion, interpretation, and what we might now aptly dub as manic imagination.
Takedown orders on social media content demanded by the government, fake news, Internet shutdowns, degrees of freedom of dissent, implementation of laws concerning freedom of expression, and processes of media coverage — all weigh on the country's image abroad. Feverishly jingoist mainstream media that puts imagined nationalism ahead of real journalism is clearly a liability for the country's image.
(The writer is a senior journalist and commentator who has worked for Reuters, Economic Times, Business Standard, and Hindustan Times. He can be reached on Twitter @madversity. This is an opinion article and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)