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SHANTANU BASU | 23 SEPTEMBER, 2016

India's National Media: Unashamed, Unparalleled Political Surrogacy


NEW DELHI: An alarming phenomenon is fast emerging in the contemporary political discourse in India.

Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar’s world seems to have ended with Shahabuddin’s release from jail, or so the media informs us. Bihar will plunge into Hades, an Art. 356-like situation, with no escape as if Nitish does not exist on the firmament. Even a trillion-Rupee election package cannot save Bihar from perdition.

Likewise, a single rape or assault in West Bengal is blown beyond all proportions by the media. And, of course, WB merits no consideration for its historic debts. It doesn’t end there. Have you noticed how TMC’s governance in WB has been swept away from national headlines? Never mind it was governance that won the landslide victory for Mamata Didi.

Is it any different for Uttar Pradesh? Is the Chacha-bhanja tiff in UP just a family affair? Or was it that the Chacha had offers of Chief Ministership under a different regime, something that Samajwadi party leader Mulayam Singh Yadav has perhaps realized belatedly. And that his best friend, the rotund bespectacled middleman, was the Trojan horse in the SP’s ranks and the bridge with the BJP? Chief Minister Akhilesh Yadav may not have delivered, or have been allowed to deliver even a quarter of his 2012 promises. But have any of these achievements ever found their way into the so-called mainstream media? How many corruption cases in UP have been reported nationally? How many videos or photos of the Agra-Kannauj highway and other state highways have been published in the national media? Instead, Azam Khan’s buffalo-hunt and PM ambitions merited national coverage. This is when UP remains India’s largest state and economy.

An identical narrative plays out in Orissa too. It is a pestilential land, infamous for disease, hunger, famine and homelessness. Yet there are no reports of scams, development projects taken up by Naveen Patnaik’s government and its low tolerance of corruption in government ranks. That Orissa is one of the few states (maybe the only one) that has switched over to a fully digital accounting system that plugs leakages and affords real-time budget monitoring, remains unknown to the outside world.

To the contrary, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu are portrayed almost as saints in the pan, notwithstanding their huge corruption, maladministration, dowry deaths, kidnappings and abductions and much more. What is conveniently forgotten that except for Bombay and Madras states, no other state witnessed the kind of chauvinistic violence over language before new states came into being. The anti-Hindi agitation in Tamil Nadu and open hostility toward Hindi that included blacking out Hindi versions of even railway station names prove an insuperable centuries-old regional mindset.

Did Bengalis beat up Biharis or did UPwallahs thrash Biharis and Bengalees or stop them from speaking in their respective mother tongues? Even Malayalees have not thrashed Assamese workers that throng to Kerala for work. Bengalees and Biharis did not close their night clubs, banned miniskirts or merrily assaulted women in ‘revealing’ apparel, en masse, as in Mangalore. Few, if any Sikhs, died or were assaulted in 1984 in West Bengal. Does the national media even remember?

Interestingly, while the media has generally steered clear of Amma in Tamil Nadu, in Karnataka, it had a field day in reporting ‘successful’ attacks on Tamil businesses and Volvo buses, public thrashing of Tamils and creating an Art. 356-like situation till the Supreme Court intervened. In fact, the impression was one of sheer delight at Bangalore’s discomfiture and feudal mindset. How many national dailies have ever carried features on that city’s infrastructure that is perhaps worse than many small towns in Northern India?

Delhi, of course, has been the US, French Open and Wimbledon combined, right from potholes to mosquitoes, hospitals to roads, and schools to environment, myriad more. Yet new state schools, teacher accountability and a record 25% budget allocation mohalla clinics, first-time profits of DJB, thievery by private discoms in tariff fixation, etc. are seldom, if at all, reported. Media coverage has all but made Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal into a traitor with a complete breakdown of administration warranting application of Art. 356.

In contrast, Vyapam has disappeared from national headlines as has the mining scam in Rajasthan, the meal contract scam for kids in Maharashtra and release of funds disproportionate to physical work done by NHAI’s contractors.

Gujarat’s Patidar ferment is no longer prominently reported nor election meeting fiascos for BJP top honchos ranging from Ahmedabad to Jind and Lucknow.

Nor is investigation into the irrigation scam in Maharashtra or the innumerable ‘scams’ that brought the BJP into power in 2014. If one were to look closely at media reportage on the Arunachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand constitutional fiascos, these were very circumspect. Governor Rajkhowa’s firing merited a half square mention in obscure columns, safely tucked with news on daily suicides and rapes.

What is ever frightening was the shrill thirst for Pak blood that was built into frenzy, as if creating a national emergency situation, much like the instances listed above. An online newspaper even claimed that an Indian paratroop detachment carried out a ‘surgical strike’ killing 20 militants and injured 200 more on Sep 20-21, 2016. Surmise of Pak air space mysteriously shut down to PIA aircraft implied that this owed to the Indian ‘strike’. Much before India’s Defense Ministry denied such an operation, it was apparent that the story was fake. Predictably, nothing happened, nor did the online newspaper issue any apology, and nor did any journalistic body take it to task for patently false reportage.

It is also interesting that there are virtually no media reports on the individual performance of Union Ministries, save for carrying usually laudatory PIB (Press Information Bureau) press releases. The extensive ‘nationalistic’ coverage of the Pak-China-US-MTCR-NSG issues creates an impression that India exists only outside its national frontiers. Likewise, there is hardly any coverage of extra-budgetary cesses or how windfall excise gains on POL are being utilized.

Remember how the media bolstered the ruling regime’s stand on how land acquisition was the single biggest impediment in infrastructure development and then quietly buried the ‘story’? The national media has also widened a majority-minority rift, irrespective of caste, religion and gender, with its selective reportage. The list of media misdemeanors is too long to list.

Why is the ‘mainstream national media’ indulging in such unparalleled and unashamed political surrogacy for an incumbent national regime? For one, nearly all of them are involved in unlawful acts, from tax evasion to money laundering, inexplicable accretion to personal assets to murder and wheeling-dealing, much more.

Second, is the rapid M&A of all media companies under big industry-sponsored entities that derive financial benefit for their empires from government policies.

Third, taking over media space on the Internet by pushing out smaller, sometimes unbiased, operators.

Fourth, many prominent media men/women now dot the treasury benches in Parliament.

Fifth, the cost of non-compliance has increased manifold with several thousand media men/women being evicted from govt.-owned housing, denied travel with prominent politicians and withdrawal of hitherto generous govt. publicity expenditure.

Sixth, rising secrecy in governance has deprived the media of saucy news bytes and made them dependent on selective release of information by govts. to keep news wires buzzing. News today divides, rather than unites, the media. Owing to selective leaks to few media houses, the media often portrays the side of the story that is ‘convenient’ to both ruling regimes and their business backers and media owners.

Seventh, the quality of media HR is subpar. There is plenty of incriminating official information in the public domain that tells their own tales. However, there are few, if any, that have the capacity to mine this information and closely scrutinize and report it. For instance, the mostly unintelligible gibberish dished out on GST for the layman made sense to very few. Implementation issues and pros and cons were seldom discussed in comprehensible terms. The media even missed the background of the hidden story in Bollywood’s Rustom. Similarly, there is hardly any thematic reporting, i.e. on the lines of this feature.

Eighth, given rising M&A in the national media by major industrial houses, editors and reporters have become increasingly cagey about carrying any unbiased reportage.

The media is a major pillar of governance in all democracies. This casts the greatest duty upon the media to report impartially, stand up against their owners (barons need good reporters and editors too) and clean up their own stables. The specter of primacy of binary politics and the manipulation of the national media at will is a dangerous, even fatal, step for our already fragile democracy. Remember the Emergency and mostly supine media reaction to it, with the exception of The Statesman under Sir Biren Mookerjee and CR Irani with Nani Palkhivala’s legal support?

The Indian media evidently refuses to learn from the past.

(The writer is a senior public policy analyst and commentator)

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