The media has, in fact, allowed politics – in real life as much as on Twitter – to tame and control its journalistic instincts
Never has the Indian media – at least the English-speaking media – managed to so spectacularly lose control of the national conversation.
With a few notable exceptions, many of them independent journalists, the media appears to have given up any pretence at directing news editing and trying to arrive as close to truth as possible. It is behaving, instead, like a school of herring, flashing from one point to another, changing direction in a split second – millions of individuals reacting like one single organism twitching in response to some stimulus. Narendra Modi in the United States? Swachh Bharat? Firing on the Line of Control? Journalists pounce on each either fawningly or defensively, and drop it as soon as the next thing comes up. There’s insufficient insistence on an answer, on follow-up, or on contextualisation.
The media has, in fact, allowed politics – in real life as much as on Twitter – to tame and control its journalistic instincts. Its engagement increasingly reflects, or allows people to assume it reflects, the political polarisation of the electorate – for the Bharatiya Janata Party, or for the Congress. It’s stupid, it’s dangerous, and speaking of patriotism, it does nothing for the country.
The greatest casualty of the 2014 elections has been nuance, the death of which was long foretold by a cultural aversion to challenging authority without enmity, and, therefore, a long history of poor standards in critical thinking. The brightest students in the world tend to be Indian, and yet, paradoxically, amount to a country that holds rather dim conversations with itself.
2014 has left us a quiver of large, emotive words such as “patriotism”, “culture”, “society”, “pride” and “hurt” – each invoked unexamined and undefined, as if they were words of last resort. The media keeps trying to prove its own credentials in the context of these terms, thereby merely getting jerked around in a conversation that is not of its making.
The Constitution is the best of all our books, holding within itself the possibility of all other books, including all the holy ones, and the ones we keep trying to ban. It holds within itself the possibility of all religions and all cultural practices and individual rights, and the possibility of adjudicating any clashes between those three things. It even holds within itself the possibility of constructive amendment of itself. It is an inclusive, generous, pluralistic, secular document that already holds many, if not all, the answers to our dilemmas. It is the lodestone to which we should be returning again and again, not merely in the courts, but in our own individual thinking and private and public discussions.
Nowhere in that document does it say that India is a Hindu country. Nowhere does it imply that criticism of an individual or official or government amounts to offence or lack of patriotism; nowhere does it suggest that you should be arrested for an act in the nature of a Facebook “like” or for not standing up for the national anthem. Freedom of expression continues to be protected. An official can either “swear in the name of God” or give god the go-by and simply “solemnly affirm”.
Patriotism is an allegiance to the vision set down in the Constitution. It is that document, and that vision, to which elected leaders swear allegiance when they take office. If anything should be a clinching argument, the Constitution should be. Nationalism is the fairground mirror version of patriotism – an extreme, distorted, grotesque thing that bears little resemblance to the original.
The prime minister’s strategy is to direct the conversation – or, as we’ve seen in his entirely complicit silence in the face of an emboldened, Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS)-led or RSS-backed Hindu right taking over educational policy and institutions with a view to stamping out secular pluralism – to allow the amplification of a certain kind of ugly, untruthful, divisive conversation. But if he’s going to do that, he should be doing it on his own, via state-controlled radio and television broadcasts. The free press oxygenates conversations, and there is plenty of scope in the free press to remind him of the oath he swore to “bear true faith and allegiance to the Constitution of India as by law established”, and to remind the nasty fringe elements, all loudly self-professed patriots, of what is in that document.
We should be holding governments to the oaths they swear. Why are we allowing an informal socio-cultural grey market to determine the agenda and make the conversation about small squabbles located in flawed or irrelevant principles? The media needs to return to its basic functions: keep a critical eye on all, give credit where credit is due, and measure governments against their constitutional duties not against political affiliation or a zero-to-10 charisma chart.