The media has lost its moorings over Modi and his team, as seen in the gushing outpouring over Maharashtra Chief Minister Fadnavis. A critical distance needs to be restored between the media and the country’s rulers, says JYOTI PUNWANI




Pix: India News

Posted/Updated Wednesday, Nov 05 19:43:59, 2014

Jyoti  Punwani


Six pages, not counting Page One. That’s how the Times of India thought fit to report the swearing-in of Devendra Fadnavis as CM of Maharashtra. Fadnavis had never been a high profile leader; nor was he a man of the masses, nor had he won the Assembly elections with the highest margin. Why then?

True, Fadnavis is the state’s first BJP CM, and the BJP has won a record number of seats – 123 out of 288 – in the Maharashtra assembly polls, the highest won by any single party since 1990, and definitely its own best performance in the state. But the BJP is still short of an absolute majority, and its possible alliances are fraught with problems. Besides, Fadnavis himself had vocal rivals for the post of chief minister. (Incidentally, the Congress won 186 seats in 1980, the year of Indira Gandhi’s comeback after the Emergency defeat, 161 in 1985 and 141 in 1990. The BJP has a long way to go to match those performances.)

At any rate, the coverage wasn’t about the party’s performance; it was only about Fadnavis and his swearing-in ceremony. So why this lavish spread, including a gushing interview with his wife who said that her husband had very little time for the family, but also that he would listen to her sing for hours? Before this, the paper had carried another gushing piece on his five-year-old daughter having just won a fancy dress competition in school.

In all this, not a word was said about the 22 riot cases against the CM! It was the TOI which had front-paged a press release by the Association for Democratic Reforms (ADR) just three days before the swearing-in, on criminal cases against state MLAs, and highlighted the number of cases against the CM-to-be in its headline.

So the same TOI desk in Mumbai that decided the ADR press release was Page One news, and that Fadnavis’ cases had to be in the headline, decided not to mention it the day this riot-accused was actually sworn in. The original story had not spelt out the details of the cases. These details could have been a new story and carried as part of the swearing-in coverage. It would have made a great Page One anchor. Surely it’s news that cops who have filed charges against a BJP leader would now have to report to him as CM (and, as it turns out, home minister too). Would such cases continue? Would the CM have to appear in court? The story could have been done very easily, given that details of the cases are on the ADR website, that most of the cases are in and around Nagpur. (The cases do not just relate to rioting; there’s also one case against the CM about illegal payments related to an election.)

But such audacity towards our rulers is rare for the TOI. However, one wonders whether a CM from a smaller party, say the Samajwadi Party, the BSP, or AAP, would have been treated so benevolently by the same paper.

To be fair, the Times was not the only paper that decided the swearing in of Maharashtra’s first CM, which turned out to be a multi-crore extravaganza, deserved such a generous spread. Excluding Page One, HT devoted five pages to it, Indian Express four.  Only Mumbai Mirror and DNA didn’t go overboard.

Yet, amid all this, none of these papers reported the protests by activists outside the venue, over the recent gruesome killings of a Dalit family in Ahmednagar. BJP members reportedly threw stones and bottles at this small group of protestors. But when you have to report on how VIPs got stranded, and who wore what, it’s a bit tough to find space for this hooliganism by the   supporters of the man-of-the-moment. The only paper to report this was the eveninger, Afternoon Despatch and Courier. The website also did so.

Incidentally, the swearing-in came just a day after the Prime Minister spoke about austerity measures for the government. That the same man attended a show that was anything but austere, organized by his own appointee, was ignored by the press.

But why expect anything else when in the PM’s first interaction with the media, the capital’s press persons abandoned all dignity by rushing to take selfies with him? Forget his record in the Gujarat violence, and his incendiary speeches in the elections that followed. Forget the way he divided voters during his Lok Sabha campaign in Assam, Bengal and UP. Forget his benign silence as PM while his ideological affiliates spread communal hatred. Forget that he continues to have as his closest aide a man accused of murder, extortion, and kidnapping while abetting a fake encounter. Even had Narendra Modi been  as spotless a PM as Manmohan Singh, should the media want to take selfies with him? What happened to the critical distance we are supposed to maintain from those who rule us?

It’s not as if the media doesn’t know the meaning of critical distance. The 20th anniversary meet of the National Alliance of People’s Movements was held in Pune over three days – beginning Friday, October 31, the day the Maharashtra CM was sworn in, and ending two days later, on Sunday. 800-odd delegates from 18 states were there. But it may as well not have been held, given the media coverage. There was no way the first day would have got any coverage, for the swearing-in was on the same day. But Sundays are always lean days for news, so couldn’t the meet have been good enough for a 500-word news item?

“Conferences tend to be a little pointless,’’ a newsman told me when I wanted to report it. But annual “conclaves’’   hosted by newspaper groups make it to Page One. “Chintan baithaks’’ of the BJP get a lot of media attention too.

So what is it about groups such as the NAPM which makes the media stay away?

Class composition is one – tribals, working class people, slum-dwellers and villagers are not your usual English press readers. That’s understandable. The usual rhetoric against globalization, Hindutva, etc. that such conferences generate is also old hat. But beyond the rhetoric, isn’t what these groups feel about Narendra Modi as PM important?

The media has gone along with the BJP in projecting Modi as a man of the masses, of “aspirational India’’, whose appeal cuts across caste, religion, region and class.  What do sections of these masses think about him as PM, about his government’s policies? Will he fulfil their aspirations? Isn’t it worth finding out?

The NAPM is known to oppose the kind of growth-oriented development that is Modi’s pet theme. Isn’t that all the more reason to find out what its members feel about `Make In India’, `smart cities’ and `adarsh grams’? These are the very people who will be affected by these grand plans. And instead of having to go to the villages to get their views, here they all were, 800 of them, articulate and ready to talk, in one venue. What more could the media ask for?

For this reporter, the conference was like a breath of fresh air. No phony patriotism that’s so de riguer these days; no doom and gloom about “secularism-is-dying’’ and “the-environment-is-finished’ either. The slogans were new; the spirit in which they were raised was astounding. To see the dozen-odd 70-plus ideologues and activists on stage, being honoured for their contribution to society and the NAPM, was both educative and humbling.  Every one of them could have yielded a news feature.

Despite his 70-odd years, Dr Anil Sadgopal, whom media persons know as an uncompromising fighter from the days of the Bhopal Gas Disaster in 1984, was planning to lead a nation-wide yatra on the right to education from Imphal two days later. Here was a scientist from Caltech who started his career with pioneering work in the TIFR, and then gave it all up for drawing up a new education system in MP’s villages, a system that was accepted across the State. Considering the inordinate publicity given to the slightest sneeze affecting our great IITians, didn’t a man like him deserve space?

Couldn’t writer and editor Vidya Bal, among the oldest feminists in the country, have been interviewed about the growing violence against women? Then there was Dayamani Barla, the tribal activist who had been jailed for anti-government protests in Jharkhand, and had fought the Lok Sabha elections as an AAP candidate. With polls in Jharkhand due, and the BJP’s claim that it would sweep the state, wouldn’t her views from the grassroots have been interesting? Finally, Yogendra Yadav’s presence, if for nothing else then as a respected psephologist and AAP’s chief spokesperson, should have merited coverage given the BJP sweep in Haryana (where Yadav had contested Lok Sabha elections) and the fluid situation vis-à-vis Delhi’s poll

Now that the Delhi polls have been announced, Yadav, and AAP, will be in the news again. But the issues raised about AAP at a national meet attended by many of its supporters and members, didn’t make news. Is it that issues aren’t worth reporting? But then why do issues raised by the PM – FDI, swachhta abhiyan, etc – occupy so much news space? Why is it that everyday, we see celebrities surrounded by hangers-on wielding brooms at the same spot, sweeping leaves towards one another? Why, the PM has even thanked the media for promoting his Swach  Abhiyan.

Or should we conclude that the common man’s take on these issues don’t make news? Even that’s not so. Random quotes from “citizens’’ are carried. It’s not even that critiques of these issues aren’t fit to print – everyday, oped writers criticize the PM’s schemes.  What then? The common man is ok, the English-speaking intellectual is ok. But slogan-shouting organized groups are not fit to be interviewed about programmes that are going to change their lives? Then why do we interview those who gather at party meets? They too are slogan-shouting hordes.

Aruna Roy, whose organisation  was largely responsible for getting the government to enact the Right to Information Act, under which all of us, including the media, have benefited, recounted how she was continuously asked by sympathisers whether people’s movements had died away with the Modi wave., “It appears that unless the media projects us, we don’t exist. That’s the kind of mental onslaught the electronic media has successfully wrought even on people who support us. How do we get our voices – and there are lakhs of us – heard in a media which does not give us space?” Medha Patkar spoke of the need for an alternate media. “Gandhi had to bring out his own paper, the Harijan, to get his ideas across to fight the British. We should now think of doing so too.”

Are we in the media going to heed these opinions?


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