Journalism as hagiography


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AN old ditty about English journalists – with the mere change of a single word – can perfectly fit their counterparts in India today.

There is no way to bribe or twist

Thank God, an honest Indian journalist.

But if you knew what he can do

Unbribed – there’s no occasion to!

Indian editors and journalists, even ‘unbribed’, can go to any extent to flirt with and toady to the powers that be, barring a few honourable and courageous individuals. The motivations may range from self-proclaimed political convictions to stakes in the status quo that provide them with privileges.

The editorials and commentaries on the 2004 elections – as well as their aftermath – in large sections of the Indian media provide a revealing illustration of the trend described above. More important than predicting results – which have surprised not only the psephologists but also the contesting parties themselves – was the need to provide reliable information and a wide range of informed opinions on, and critical analysis of, the important political and economic issues over which the people were likely to vote. It is in this respect that the Indian media elite betrayed the public.

Editorializing and political commentaries were marked by a scant knowledge of the ground reality and an excessive gullibility in accepting the slick propaganda handed out by the media-savvy spin-doctors of the BJP. One national newspaper, The Indian Express, even offered regular columns to the BJP minister of disinvestment, Arun Shourie, giving him an opportunity to shoot off his mouth about his achievements! Given such abject surrender to the ruling party, is it any wonder that the media would internalize the loud drumbeat of BJP propaganda and abet a national adventure in self-delusion on the eve of the 2004 election?

This internalization was to a large extent made possible by two factors: first, the electoral mascot chosen by the Sangh Parivar, and second, the media elite’s identification with the interests of the corporate sector. The BJP campaign was highly personalized, projecting Atal Behari Vajpayee as the successful incumbent and future prime minister, who was supposed to provide all the grease to make India ‘shine’. The attributes woven around him by the BJP’s spin doctors turned him into a versatile hero – a great poet to impress intellectuals; a statesman to woo Washington; a warrior fighting Pakistan and soon after offering it an olive branch; the dove of the Sangh Parivar reaching out to befriend Muslims, and so on.

One wonders what the cold-blooded, wily old politician felt at being adorned with all these virtues after a lifetime spent in trying to be something entirely different – a faithful swayamsevak of the RSS. As he confessed in his classic declaration at a function of non-resident Indians hosted by the Overseas Friends of the BJP at Staten Island in the USA on 9 September 2000: ‘I may be a prime minister today, but not one tomorrow. But one thing nobody can rob me of is my being a swayamsevak.’



The making and unmaking of Vajpayee: The image of this dyed-in-the-wool swayamsevak of a rabid Hindu communal organization had to be refurbished by his party’s whiz kids to turn him into a man of all seasons in order to enhance his marketability as a prime minister. There was no dearth of accomplices outside the party to construct and sell this new image. The Indian media contributed in large measure to its construction and propagation. When Vajpayee had to be sold as a poet, a bureaucrat from the Indian Foreign Service offered to translate his puerile rhymes into English, and the national media in turn reproduced them to build him up as an intellectual. When he had to be projected as a warrior, the editors in the mainstream press trumpeted his valour in deploying troops along the border and his readiness to go to war with Pakistan (following the terrorist attack on Parliament on 13 December 2001). But when after a full ten months of war hysteria, it ended in a whimper with the withdrawal of troops, few highlighted the ‘gains’ from the massive expenditure on their deployment during that period.



Similarly, when from April 2003 onwards Vajpayee started singing a different tune (announcing from Srinagar his willingness to talk to Pakistan), our media commentators lapped up his overnight transformation, boosting him up as an original thinker and prophet of peace – refusing to explore other factors like Washington’s overt pressure to renew dialogue with Islamabad. Thanks to these ever-obliging media managers, Vajpayee’s image approximated that of a Filmfare award-winning actor. Reporters and columnists began to dissect and analyze every comment by him – including his rambling ‘musings’ from Kumarakom or Manali – and discover important implications even in his long and tiresome pauses with which his speeches were interspersed.

When one goes through the acres of newsprint wasted on Vajpayee on the eve of the election, one is amazed at the credulity of grown-up men (and women) who could allow themselves to be deluded by such super-kitsch and add to its embellishment. An editor of a financial journal for instance discovered a ‘Vajpayee revolution in Indian politics’ and held him up as a reincarnation of Nehru! ‘The reason why Vajpayee looks so winnable today,’ he wrote, ‘is that he has taken the BJP to the Nehruvian "middle" by pursuing the economics and politics of "inclusivism", recalling the Nehruvian dictum of "unity in diversity".’ (Sanjaya Baru: ‘Vajpayee’s Nehruism’, Indian Express, 25 February 2004).

This after Gujarat, where the dictum of ‘unity in diversity’ was burnt to ashes! What sort of ‘inclusivism’ did he find in economic policies that ‘excluded’ starving farmers and retrenched factory workers? Not satisfied with all this accolade, he added for good measure: ‘…any objective analysis of the economics, politics and foreign policy of Prime Minister Vajpayee has only one story to tell: his undisputed leadership of the Indian "political centre".’ And then the icing on the cake: ‘There is no other national leader of any stature who can challenge him in this intellectual space today’!

(I learn from newspapers that this erudite gentleman is now the media adviser to the new prime minister. Has he already changed his opinions, to make himself worthy of this post? Upton Sinclair way back in 1919 in his book The Brass Check, defined a journalist as: ‘a man who holds himself ready at a day’s notice to adjust his opinions to the pocket-book of a new owner.’)



Along with such grovelling, the media elite highlighted those events that would boost Vajpayee’s image and downplayed others that put him in a shadow. The treatment of his cricket diplomacy is an instance. The Indo-Pak bonhomie in Lahore and other towns after Indian citizens walked through the Wagah border, was made out to be as something happening for the first time, and that also due to Vajpayee’s benevolence.

The media ignored the fact that long before Vajpayee ventured out into the Washington-led path of Indo-Pak official friendship, on 20 November 1998, at a time when his government was bellowing military threats against Pakistan, a group of more than 200 Indian men and women walked through the same border to cross over to Pakistan to attend a convention in Peshawar held under the auspices of the Pakistan-India People’s Forum for Peace and Democracy, calling for peace between the two countries. Hundreds of Pakistanis stood on both sides of the road to greet them. But since there was no Vajpayee to bless the occasion, most of the Indian news reporters and television crew kept away from the Attari-Wagah checkpost on that day. The few who covered the occasion were allowed a wee bit of space in the newspapers and television broadcasts.



Such selective choice of events was accompanied by a cunning manipulation of memory in editorializing. During the 2004 elections for instance, the editors seemed to suffer from historical amnesia – forgetting how Vajpayee acquiesced in Narendra Modi’s continuation as chief minister after the genocide of Muslims in Gujarat, his silence on Murli Manohar Joshi’s saffronization of education, remaining indifferent to the suicide of starving farmers, even ignoring the death of women in a stampede in his own constituency, Lucknow, during sari distribution by his party leader – although all these were graphically reported in their papers. Was there a communication gap between the editors and the reporters, with the former not reading the latter?

None of these uncomfortable facts found adequate space in the editorials and commentaries, which were instead heavily loaded in favour of Vajpayee’s acts of economic concessions to the upper classes whose lifestyle was paraded by the BJP as ‘Shining India’. Funnily enough, while these editors and columnists were all too ready to rubbish the Communists by digging up their role in the 1942 movement, they barely sniffed at some of the political pamphlets and advertisements that were in circulation during the election campaign, which revealed – with photostat copies of Vajpayee’s past confession to the police – his dubious behaviour during the Quit India movement in 1942.



In their need for a messiah, the media draped Vajpayee in a prophylactic shawl – keen on disinfecting him from the ‘aberrations’ that his Parivar comrades might have committed in Gujarat and elsewhere, or from the troublesome memories of an unsavoury chapter from his past. As a result, the coverage of the 2004 election often reads like the hagiography of the paramount leader by his kept press. It rivalled the Indira-centric sycophancy of the 1975-76 Emergency period. But unlike those days, there is no official compulsion to force the media to sing the praises of the prime minister. The belching of adulation for Vajpayee by honey-tongued editors and columnists can, therefore, only be seen as a sign of the indigestion of money and power that has corrupted the profession since then.

But while the media tried to sell Vajpayee, the electorate refused to buy him. The pregnancy of ‘Shining India’ was finally revealed to be the sign of dropsy, and Vajpayee was shown the door. Nevertheless, the media’s crush on Vajpayee continued to ooze out in print exhibitionism even after the BJP’s defeat. A few samples of the mawkish sycophancy that appeared in some of the newspapers soon after the debacle would be enough to repel any sane reader. One lady, recalling Vajpayee’s achievements, wrote that he ‘brought more visible prosperity to rural Indians than they have ever known before!’ (Did she ever hear of poor farmers who committed suicide in Andhra Pradesh?) A week later, regretting that she had not paid adequate respect to her hero, she compared him with ‘another poet and ruler Bahadurshah Zafar’, all the time whining that Vajpayee was ‘left alone to recite sad poems away from the glare of flashbulbs and TV cameras.’ (Tavleen Singh in The Indian Express, 23 and 30 May 2004). Brave woman – undaunted by the thought of Bahadurshah turning in his grave!



The editor of the same newspaper went a step further while penning his farewell tribute to Vajpayee: ‘He packs just too much charm, old-world decency and dignity as also personal popularity and magisterial control over public opinion…’ (Shekhar Gupta, The Indian Express, 14 May). Another editor bemoaned: ‘The loneliest of politicians at this moment in India is Atal Behari Vajpayee… he bids farewell as a leader denied one more date with India that once indulged him.’ (Prabhu Chawla, India Today, 24 May). In all such outpourings, one notices the same old tendency to absolve Vajpayee of all wrongdoing, while blaming his party and colleagues for letting him down by creating havoc in Gujarat. Significantly, Vajpayee himself never admitted that the communal acts of his party had disturbed his political apple cart. On the contrary, in his first public reaction to the BJP’s poll debacle after its parliamentary party’s meeting in New Delhi on 1 June, he told reporters that the Gujarat violence was not responsible for his party’s defeat. Alongside, if we take into account his decision to retain Narendra Modi as chief minister in Gujarat, it is clear that Vajpayee in his new incarnation as the chairman of the BJP parliamentary party will return to his role as an RSS swayamsevak (of which no one can rob him, as he unambiguously stated at the Staten Island meeting) and preside over the demonstration of the same old policy of aggressive Hindutva by his followers that had marked his one-plus-five-year tenure as prime minister.



The media as the voice of the corporate sector: After having wailed enough over Vajpayee’s departure, the media personalities soon discovered a new cause. Since the left wields some power over the present government, the Communist parties have now become the proverbial red rag to the media barons who are ready to press the alarm button, blaming them for any economic disorder – whether real, imaginary or manipulated. Soon after the Mumbai sensex plunged on 14 May following the NDA’s defeat, the media rushed to target the left with screaming headlines (e.g. ‘Tame the bull, rein in the red’, The Indian Express, 15 May) and financial journalists pounced upon the CPI general secretary (e.g. Sanjaya Baru: ‘…the haughty contempt that the CPI leader A.B. Bardhan showed the markets on Friday driving the Mumbai sensex down 300 points’, in the same paper dated 17 May).

In their left-bashing zeal, they conveniently ignored other possible factors that could have led to the plunge. It is well-known that there are cartels which seek to profit by pulling the market down through manipulations whenever there are changes in the government’s economic policies. Expectedly, the editors forgot that only a few months ago, their darling Arun Shourie, as the disinvestment minister in the BJP-led government, faced a similar crash over floating ONGC shares, and had to threaten those indulging in bear hammering with investigation by IB and RAW. The threat worked and the market immediately stabilized.



The disproportionate attention given by mainstream media to the stock market betrays the same bias that privileges the interests of the rich minority over the priorities of the poor majority (who do not have money to invest in stocks). There was a bigger crash in 1974 (following Indira Gandhi’s imposition of restrictions on the payment of dividends), but it created less of a rumpus in the newsrooms at that time. Today’s Indian journalists, however, live in a different world. On the ‘black Friday’ of 14 May, many among them could have been frantically busy on the telephone lines to their brokers. Over the past two generations, journalism in the widely circulated mainstream media (and particularly television) has evolved from a poorly paid occupation to an economically attractive profession that is increasingly drawing younger people from the upper middle class – and even the academic world.

One should not envy their pay packets and perks – as long as they remain true to their professional responsibility of faithfully reporting the Indian ground reality and analyzing the options for change. But, barring a few, most of them are so well cushioned that it may be difficult for them to understand what it means for the peasantry and the urban middle and lower class people to reel under unemployment, unlivable housing conditions, inaccessible medical care, and poor facilities for the education of their children. They may occasionally write a few ‘human-angle stories’ on their plight, but their class background makes them internalize the values of those who own and control business. They seriously believe that the ‘devil-take-the-hindmost’ ethos, class inequality and consumerism, promoted by economic liberalization, are natural and even benevolent for India, and look at labour as an unruly force and hold left politics in suspicion. For them, it is axiomatic that socialism is bad, and capitalism the panacea.

The anti-left bias has become so visceral with journalists in the mainstream media that they suffer no compunctions in bringing down political commentary to the level of the uncouth rhetoric of the Togadias, Uma Bharatis and Bal Thackerays. A journalist of a reputed weekly, in a frenzy of venomous anti-left verbosity, described the CPI(M) general secretary in the following words: ‘…Surjeet, the bearded Jehovah of the Sonia-centric alternative.’ (S. Prasannarajan, India Today, 31 May 2004). (Would the weekly publish a comment like: ‘Vajpayee, the tall-talking pygmy of the Hindu-centric right wing.’) Sometimes, the anti-left rhetoric descends into a kind of senile dottiness over the threat of socialism, like the following: ‘…our bad old socialist days… socialist business… which means …constant talk of the poorest of the poor…’ (Tavleen Singh, The Indian Express, 6 June).

These are only a few samples of the increasingly shallow and sensationalist editorializing that fails to engage the readers in critical thinking on basic socio-economic problems and political decision-making, and is heavily biased against viewpoints that are critical of social injustice and economic inequality.



Towards a new sycophancy? There is unlikely to be any major departure from this trend in the corporate media’s coverage and commentary under the new dispensation of ‘reforms with a human face’ – barring a shift in the direction of sycophancy, the signs of which are already there. Soon after the election results were out, amidst speculations about Sonia Gandhi’s possible taking over as prime minister, one national daily devoted a special section to Italy and its tourist attractions! Derided only the other day as a foreign usurper of power and dismissed as a non-entity in Indian politics, her stature went up when she declined to become the prime minister – for reasons best known to herself.

Editors and commentators began to discover a new virtue in her – renunciation. They claimed that she had surely enough imbibed this traditional Indian value by being an Indian bahu! Such is the remarkable speed of fashion in Delhi that within hours of Sonia’s act of renunciation, she became an icon in the capital’s fashion-designing circles. Sonia-style dressing – ‘Sonia hairstyle’, ‘subtle mouth colour’, ‘well-pleated, pinned and tucked crisp cotton saris with bright borders’ – became the most preferred look this summer, according to the Times of India (26 May 2004).



The reporting style signalling the renewal of sycophancy towards a new ruling personality, dovetails well with the celebration of the elite lifestyle of fashion designers, beauty queens and film stars dominating the pages of the mainstream press. Along with show business glitz, business reporting accounts for the major chunk of newspaper columns, merging with general news which celebrates the triumph of market forces as the guiding light of Indian democracy. Thus tabloid journalism and business journalism mesh well in the corporate media. Just as the poor are vanishing from the view of the affluent, their news too will be brushed aside by front-page reports and centre page leaders that trumpet the virtues of neo-liberal economics and conservative politics.

We have been reared upon the assurance – thanks to chits from western monitors – that if nothing else, at least ‘freedom of the press’ remains protected in India. But, as evident from a review of its performance, the ‘freedom’ is rationed. It is the powerful coterie of ruling politicians and corporate businessmen which enjoy a disproportionately larger measure of freedom than its critics in the Indian press – to determine the choice of news, propagate its opinions and proselytize the readers.



In such a situation, the corporate media is singularly effective in generating the precise type of ‘public opinion’ and ‘consensus’ that allows the business-political elite cabal to impose its policies without facing effective popular resistance. ‘Public opinion’ is sought to be built in support of the policy of replacing command economy by a system where market forces become the guiding power. ‘Consensus’ is being attempted around the model of rat race under that system by indoctrinating the readers and the audience to follow the narrow acquisitive logic of individual interests over the concerns of the community.

There is an urgent need for a national debate on the long-term implications of this style of journalism. An Indian public gradually depoliticized by a staple diet – in the print as well as the audio-visual media – that valorizes private profit over collective prosperity and trivializes alternative perspectives of socio-economic change will, like a perfect glove, fit the interests of the proponents of liberalization. How long will Indian media practitioners continue to foster this insidious degeneration in the moral structure (whatever little is left) of our society, by legitimizing cash and casuistry as the only yardstick of success?