Days before the results of the 2019 general elections came in, and just 48 hours before his own constituency went to the polls, millions of Indians watched Prime Minister Narendra Modi, election campaign done, labour his way up the steep hills of Kedarnath, pray inside the temple’s sanctum sanctorum, meditate inside a cave. Television channels played the footage out incessantly, with commentators jumping over each other to unpack the significance of these extraordinary images.
But leaks on social media revealed to us another set of images, which showed how this spectacle was manufactured: the prime minister pretending to trek uphill for the cameras; cameras carefully planted in anticipation of spontaneous acts of piety.
There wasn’t one mainstream television station or newspaper, though, willing to call out this crude spectacle.
Ever since taking office in 2014, the prime minister has repeatedly made clear his contempt for a media establishment he believes is biased—and worse, beholden to a corrupt élite. “Today the masks are off all journalists,” the prime minister said in one recent interview. “That is why your reputation is on the line.”
Through his first term in office, Narendra Modi has succeeded in creating the most pliant, cowering media any leader since Prime Minister Indira Gandhi has enjoyed—graphically illustrated by the silence over the Kedarnath images.
Modi’s many, voluble supporters have mostly applauded his sentiments. But they need to ask themselves though, if this hostility towards the media is in their own interests—let alone those of the country, and its still-evolving democracy.
The election results have encouraged many to think otherwise, but there is no more ironclad law of politics than this: no-one rules forever. This is why all successful political systems are governed by norms: as you do to others, so shall be done to you. Through his actions and remarks, the prime minister is normalising the intimidation of the press, something which will have fateful consequences.
Prime Minister Modi’s contempt for the press isn’t—as his fans sometimes fondly imagine—an outlier in Indian political tradition. Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru was famously contemptuous of his critics the Indian press, and placed the earliest constitutional curbs on its functioning. Prime Minister Indira Gandhi imposed the Emergency; Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi’s battles with media were also legion.
From the Communist leader Jyoti Basu to Mamata Banerjee; from J Jayalalitha to Mayawati: bribery, intimidation and violence have been part of the politicians’ media-management toolkit.
Today, several people who experienced the lash of the Emergency first-hand—are among the Prime Minister’s cabinet colleagues. Yet, they are only too willing to accuse any journalist not in agreement with their world view of being biased and, worse, corrupt. In addition, an organised army of trolls, often endorsed by the prime minister and his cabinet colleagues have made abuse and invective the everyday currency of our political conversations.
The prime minister isn’t unique in disliking criticism: world leaders from Richard Nixon to Margaret Thatcher have often cast themselves as victims of dark media conspiracies organised by their opponents.
But even a Donald Trump engages with those he clearly despises: he holds regular press conferences, gives unscripted interviews, even if only to parry with and abuse ‘liberal’ American journalists.
Prime Minister Modi has taken his personal disdain for the media to bizarre levels. At his first press conference on the last day of the 2019 election campaign, after a full five years in office, he inexplicably sat—mostly silently—as BJP President Amit Shah answered questions on his behalf.
During Modi’s entire term, scripted interviews were conducted by journalists who seldom attempted to follow up or press the Prime Minster harder on uncomfortable questions he refused to answer—especially on the issue of violence against religious or caste minorities. Moreover, in few democracies, has a government so brazenly brought pressure to bear on private-sector advertisers or used its own financial instruments and cut off access, in order to ensure the media only tells those stories it wants.
The Indian media ought to, of course, ask itself hard questions about how it has ended up so beholden to government advertising. But that question does not legitimise the government’s actions.
Narendra Modi, the individual, may see no need to engage with, answer or account to his critics. But Narendra Modi is not just any individual: he is the Prime Minister of a republic, accountable to and representative for not just to those who voted for him, but those who oppose him too. The government is not a private entity. It, unlike you or I, ought not play favourites.
In fact, every time leaders of this government complain that the media’s reporting of rural hardship, or economic distress, or corruption in defence deals are erroneous or unfair—they ought remember that this very journalism played a key role in their own rise, and the defeat of the United Progressive Alliance in 2014.
It’s entirely conceivable that some media criticism of the prime minister is unfair, biased, or even motivated—but the answer to that is more openness, transparency and debate, not the backdoor Emergency that is now upon us.
“We are not at war. We are at work,” Washington Post executive Editor Mary Barton said in response to Trump’s assault on the US media. Roman Emperors, marching in god-like triumphs after military victories, had a slave whisper in their ear: “Remember, you are only a man.” That is the message the media brings to power—and its one that, Prime Minister Modi as he begins his second term with a resounding mandate, would do well to hear.
(This article was originally commissioned and written for FirstPost newspaper for the May 23 results issue, but remains unpublished by it, yet.)