This piece of mine was published on The Economic times on 15th September, 2015 over here.
The media does not seem to be particularly in love with the Modi government or the BJP
Meat Ban-Wagon Grows as Haryana Orders 9-Day Curb (NDTV), Under Siege for Others’ Failures, Modi Must Win Back Trust of His Core Constituents (New Indian Express), Empty chairs greet PM at rally venue (The Tribune), By basing asylum policy on religion, Modi government has set a dangerous precedent (Scroll), India’s only Muslim-majority state hit by beef ban (Financial Times) – These are some of the recent headlines pertaining to the Modi government in the mainstream media. After looking at these headlines and contrasting the broad narrative espoused by the media with what one observes in his day to day life, can you blame someone for coming to the conclusion that the media has a visceral dislike for the Modi government and for that matter, the BJP?
The media’s antagonism for the Modi government is taken for granted in social media circles, with several commentators regularly putting forward a counter-narrative that is lapped up by folks on Twitter and Facebook. In fact, OpIndia runs a series of monthly articles in which it highlights what it considers “lies” spread by the mainstream media, typically against the ruling Modi government/BJP. Let us try to analyze some of the reasons for this apparent “bias”.
- Ownership patterns of media houses
The reality is that a large number of media houses are owned by politicians/people close of politicians. For example, NDTV is owned in part by close relatives of Congress MP Navin Jindal as well as by the sister of the CPI(M) MP Brinda Karat. News X, India News and Sunday Guardian are owned in part by the son of former Congress leader Venod Sharma as well as by relatives of former Haryana Chief Minister Bhupinder Singh Hooda of the Congress. These facts are not very well known, though Newslaundry has put out a very interesting piece which highlights exactly this point. Further, it seems as if the Congress is much better entrenched in the media than the BJP, though the latter holds some sway with Hindi news channels.
Is it unthinkable that the ownership pattern of a news channel/ newspaper influences the narrative promoted by that channel/paper and substantially shapes its portrayal of the government’s work? Given that Congress leaders & their relatives own far more channels/newspapers, I don’t find it surprising that the mainstream media tends to favour the Congress over the BJP.
- Strained relationships with individual journalists/editors
During the course of my work over the last couple of years, I had a chance to meet several journalists/editors, some of whom are now friends. They tell me that the media’s levels of access to ministers, bureaucrats and other key policy makers has dwindled drastically since the Modi government came to power and that the ruling establishment seems to want to keep the media at an arm’s length. One journalist who writes more front-page articles in a leading newspaper than any other journalist I know, told me that her fraternity feels unwelcome in government offices these days and that senior decision makers often treat reporters with disdain, perhaps even contempt. Some leaders have openly refer to journalists as “presstitutes”.
Naturally, these strained personal relationships with individual journalists/the media at large reflects in the news stories/editorials that come out, thus negatively influencing the media’s narrative on the government’s work.
- A culture that doesn’t necessarily nurture long-term relationships
A fairly prominent South Indian businessman once highlighted to me, what he thinks of the difference in culture between the two major political parties. He recalled how Congress leaders remember even small favours done by him, whether it is a medium sized campaign contribution or something as simple as allowing party workers to use his vehicles or guest-houses during the elections. He lamented about how, in stark contrast, the BJP has completely forgotten all the help he has rendered to it, with leaders remaining largely inaccessible to him.
I have heard several people, ranging from stars, mediapersons, businesspersons and retired distinguished professionals, unaffiliated to the BJP, who I know for sure have contributed their time and spent money from their pockets to help the party during the elections, complain about what they perceive to be the lack of acknowledgment from the party. Many of these people would have been content with a phone call from a party leader thanking them for their contribution or an invitation to a party leader’s house for a cup of tea. Most of these people don’t expect government contracts, appointments or Padma awards, just a simple acknowledgement; though I would reckon that a cup of coffee with a leader would not suffice for many of the businessmen.
I consider this to be one of the key reasons for individual editors and journalists favor the Congress party. The argument is simple – “Why align oneself with the BJP and get nothing, when you can align yourself with the Congress and be treated well when they are in power?”
Is it possible that while the Congress has nurtured relationships over the decades, including with the media, the bureaucracy and with the business fraternity, the BJP has largely ignored personal relationships and maybe even alienated its natural supporters by not acknowledging their efforts? I think it is not only possible but also likely.
- The loss of articulate spokespersons to government roles
One of the key strengths of the BJP when it was in the opposition was its articulate & effective de-facto spokespersons like Nirmala Sitharaman, Ravi Shankar Prasad, Smriti Irani and Piyush Goyal who would make liberal use of data, statistics and anecdotes to support their arguments while exposing scams and puncturing feeble counter-attacks from the Congress . Leaders like Arun Jaitley and Sushma Swaraj would step in when required, with their oratorical skills to take down what was left of any of the Congress government’s credibility, under the leadership of Modiji, who would enthuse the cadre and independent voters alike.
But now, the tables have been turned. While the most effectual communicators of the BJP are in government, the best of the Congress’s arsenal i.e. the likes of Manish Tewari, Abhishek Singhvi and Jairam Ramesh are interacting with the media almost on a daily basis and are overwhelming the massively depleted spokesperson corps of the BJP which looks hapless on TV debates.
A case in point was the failure of the BJP spokespersons to effectively highlight, on TV debates, the fact that the Beef Ban (context- Maharashtra) is mentioned in the Directive Principles of State Policy in the constitution of India, that the meat ban in Mumbai on Jain festivals pre-dated the Fadnavis government and that UP (a non-BJP ruled state) too has such a ban in place. They looked helpless as TV anchors seemed to mercilessly rip them apart (metaphorically) and paint the Modi-led government as the new fascist game in town, out to turn Hindustan into “Banistan. It took an intervention from Nirmala Seetharaman before the record was set straight and some semblance of sanity was restored to the debate.
Perhaps it is time for the ruling establishment to recruit more effective spokespersons, rebuild old relationships and start taking PR more seriously before what many (including me) consider misinformation and a disingenuous narrative put forth by sections of the media erode popular support that the government currently enjoys?
(The author was formerly a Founder-Member of one of India’s leading socio-political organizations that is credited with having helped change political campaigning in India. He can be followed on www.twitter.com/ashkronos and https://ashwinianand.wordpress.com )