THERE WAS AN UNPRECEDENTED torrent of international criticism of the Modi government following the 2020 Delhi riots. Britain’s left-leaning The Guardian was incensed. It declared: “The immediate causes of events are the fallout from Narendra Modi’s unjust Citizenship (Amendment) Act, the dangerous rhetoric employed by the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party in Delhi’s city elections this month, and the mob incitement by BJP leaders like Kapil Mishra, to violently remove a group of Muslims who were blocking a road in the capital’s north-west to protest against the legislation.”
The Wall Street Journal’s three correspondents—all of Indian origin—reported: “(Intelligence Bureau officer) Ankit Sharma was returning home when a group of rioters started throwing stones and charged into the street near where his house is located, his brother said.”
The WSJ journalists then supposedly quoted Sharma’s brother Ankur Sharma: “They came armed with stones, rods, knives and even swords; they shouted ‘Jai Shri Ram’”. In an interview with India’s national broadcaster Prasar Bharati, Ankur Sharma disputed the WSJ report: “I never gave such a statement to The Wall Street Journal. This is a ploy to defame my brother and my family. The Wall Street Journal is lying.”
Most international journalists haven’t either read the Citizenship (Amendment) Act or haven’t understood it. The fault though lies at least partially with the Indian government. It phrased the CAA with a dog-whistle paragraph that mentions six religions eligible for fast-track citizenship, leaving Islam out. The reason for Islam’s exclusion has been laboriously explained by the government—principally that a law aimed at stateless non-Muslim refugees from three Muslim-majority countries, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh, already living in India (pre-31 December 2014) can’t obviously cover Muslims, persecuted Ahmadiyyas and Shias notwithstanding.
The CAA has nothing to do with existing Indian citizens, Muslim or non-Muslim. It has to do with non-Muslim refugees from abroad. The government’s intent though was always clear: To single out foreign Muslims from three neighbouring Islamic countries. And thereby send two domestic messages: One, to Indian Muslims; two, to Indian Hindus, the BJP’s voter base.
Matters now become more complicated. The sting in the CAA’s tail is meant to right a perceived historical wrong. For 500 years, Hindus have quietly (and often not so quietly) watched as first Mughal invaders and then British colonists subjugated them. They were punitively taxed, suffered constant public humiliation, and had violence inflicted upon them under both the Mughal and British Empires.
When freedom came, the Congress, in an attempt to unite a country wracked by communal riots during Partition, bent over backwards to appease Muslims who chose to stay behind in India. They were allowed to keep Sharia, their personal law, even as Hindu personal law was codified. The 80 per cent Hindu majority was too divided by caste, language and region to argue effectively at the time that India was the only country in the world where the majority community was discriminated against in jobs and education while minorities were favoured.
Moderate Hindus are slow to anger. But after 200 years of Mughal depredations, when thousands of temples were destroyed, another 200 years of British colonialism when India’s economy was severely damaged, and finally after 55 years of Congress governments that tilted towards Muslim-first secularism, even moderate Hindus had had enough.
That is the pathology of Modi’s landslide victories in 2014 and 2019. Moderate Hindus, who in the past had voted for the Congress, saw in Modi a Hindu leader who would deliver to them the justice and respect that was their due in their own country and which had been denied them not only by both Muslim and Christian invaders but by their own post- Independence governing elite.
In a sense, therefore, the rise of Modi is a quiet uprising of the moderate Hindu of Naipaul’s Wounded Civilisation. The frontlines may contain the extremist Hindu fringe. But the silent majority backing them is made up of the ordinary Hindu. That is why the BJP and its NDA allies collectively won 45 per cent vote share in the 2019 Lok Sabha election—higher than even Jawaharlal Nehru’s 44.99 per cent vote share in 1952.
The rise of Modi is a quiet uprising of the moderate Hindu of Naipaul’s wounded civilisation. The frontlines may contain the extremist Hindu fringe. But the silent majority backing them is made up of the ordinary Hindu. That is why the BJP and its NDA allies collectively won 45 per cent vote share in the 2019 Lok Sabha election—higher than even Jawaharlal Nehru’s 44.99 per cent vote share in 1952
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Four pillars are needed to hold up a structure. Take one away and the structure tilts. In a democracy, the four pillars are the executive (government), the legislature (Parliament and state assemblies), the judiciary and the media. Each of these pillars has had its moments of turbulence: the executive and the judiciary during the Emergency and now increasingly over the Supreme Court’s collegium system of choosing judges; and the executive and state legislatures through the decades when state assemblies were routinely dissolved and President’s rule imposed.
The media, before and after independence, has faced several challenges as well. Under colonial rule, mainstream newspapers often toed the British Viceroy’s line. Many others though were nationalistic and suffered colonial anger. After independence, the Emergency marked a new low point. Most newspapers lost their nerve and bent their spine.
The late 1970s and 1980s were the golden period of Indian media. The Emergency was gone. New publications were launched. Specialised Sunday papers made their appearance. So did specialised magazines. In the 1990s, television was nascent but neutral. News had not yet fallen hostage to vested political and business interests. When did the media’s fall begin? The seeds were sown in the late 1990s when the first BJP-led government took office. It was around this time that Sonia Gandhi displaced Sitaram Kesri as Congress president.
In 1984, the BJP had two MPs. In 1999, it had 182. In 1984, the Congress had 414 MPs. In 2014, it had 44 and in 2019, 52. It is within these numbers that lie clues to the schisms that have developed over the decades. The media was drawn into this political vortex. Senior editors in the 1980s and 1990s were politically (relatively) neutral. The concept of paid news was notably absent. I launched my first media company, Sterling Newspapers Pvt Ltd, in the 1980s. Our journalists researched, interviewed, wrote and edited without fear or favour and without government interference. Very few editors in the country during that period fell prey to external influences: political parties, business houses, foreign intelligence agencies and power brokers.
The real change came in the 2000s. By then the Indian Express group had acquired Sterling Newspapers with our staff of nearly 100 editors, writers, designers and marketers. I set up a new media firm soon after that and began recruiting a new generation of young editors and correspondents.
But things had changed. In 2004 the Congress-led UPA government returned to office. More and more journalists had begun to cosy up to politicians and business houses. Between 1998 and 2004, when the NDA was in power and LK Advani home minister and then (from 2000) deputy prime minister, it did not occur to me to seek an appointment with him though he had been a regular columnist in one of our publications for over ten years. That was the arm’s length approach to politicians we had always maintained.
Shortly after the Congress-led UPA government took office in May 2004, we found ourselves receiving invitations to interview UPA ministers. Finance Minister P Chidambaram conveyed to our Delhi bureau chief that he would be happy to accede to our request for an exclusive interview. We did the interview in Chidambaram’s North Block office. This was followed in the next few months and years by exclusive interviews with then industry and commerce minister Kamal Nath, former petroleum minister Mani Shankar Aiyar and the then chief minister of Jammu and Kashmir Mufti Mohammad Sayeed, who hosted us to lunch at his Srinagar residence along with daughter Mehbooba. Not once did we attempt a further meeting with any of them beyond what was professionally required.
Modi is the archetypal executor. Give him a project and he will pursue it to completion with frequent reviews and micro-management. The results across domains have surpassed critics’ expectations. Modi believes a combination of welfare benefits for the poor, large-scale infrastructure projects, foreign policy leadership and muscular Hinduism will deliver him a third term. He may be right. The Opposition privately thinks so too. Hence the anger
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But on every trip to Delhi—and Srinagar— from 2005 onwards, I noticed a distinct change in the interaction between journalists and politicians. It is around this time that the scourge of paid news became an epidemic. Many journalists became PR intermediaries for political leaders. It was inevitable that PR would overwhelm journalism. The Radia tapes were recorded in 2008-09. Unofficial versions were circulated in early-2010 and finally published by two weekly magazines, Outlook and Open in November 2010. They revealed the nexus between politicians and journalists.
The nexus has only grown stronger. It has also—since Prime Minister Modi took office in May 2014—become more toxic. The masks have slipped. Pretence has been dropped. Embarrassment at violating the principles of ethical journalism has evaporated. Paid news and private treaties are not the issues any more: they are far too common to even bear mention. The real cancer is the politicisation of journalism. Several television channels have become mouthpieces of the government.
MODI HAS NOT been the perfect prime minister. Far from it. Early in his premiership, I wrote this: “The most successful leaders surround themselves with people smarter than themselves. Modi, in contrast, is surrounded by people who are not smarter than him. That is, perhaps, the biggest failing of his prime ministership.”
Modi has failed to get the law ministry to speed up prosecution of allegedly corrupt opposition leaders. Cases are allowed to meander because government-appointed public prosecutors either don’t turn up in court or advance weak arguments at hearings. What does all this add up to? Wilful delays by an old ecosystem that still has the power to block Modi’s anti-corruption agenda? Complicity between that old, corrupt ecosystem and the new ecosystem that Modi has created but lacks full control over? Or something even more sinister?
Whatever the truth, this state of affairs can’t go on. Modi believes that macro-economic policies matter less electorally than micro-economic schemes. He is the archetypal executor. Give him a project—new or old—and he will pursue it to completion with frequent reviews and micro-management. The results across domains have surpassed critics’ expectations.
Modi’s attention is fixated on the 2024 Lok Sabha election. He believes a combination of welfare benefits for the poor, large-scale infrastructure projects, foreign policy leadership and muscular Hinduism will deliver him a third term. He may be right. The Opposition privately thinks so too. Hence the anger. The vitriol comes from the top: Rahul Gandhi who stands to lose the most from Modi’s continued electoral popularity.
The Indian media meanwhile remains divided: on one side is the supplicatory media that constantly flatters Modi; on the other is the viscerally hostile media that rages at him. A critical eye obviously needs to be cast on the Modi government’s performance but an eye free of bias.
Amartya Sen, the Nobel laureate, wrote in a leading daily shortly after the BJP-led NDA’s landslide victory in the 2019 Lok Sabha election: “There has been widespread criticism in the news media across the world (from The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, The Guardian, The Observer, Le Monde, Die Zeit and Haaretz to the BBC and CNN) of the ways and means of securing the BJP’s victory, including instigation of hatred and intolerance of groups of Indian citizens, particularly Muslims, who have every right to be treated with respect (as under the Gandhi-Tagore understanding).”
Modi has failed to get the law ministry to speed up prosecution of allegedly corrupt Opposition leaders. Cases are allowed to meander because government-appointed public prosecutors either don’t turn up in court or advance weak arguments. What does all this add up to? Wilful delays by an old ecosystem that still has the power to block Modi’s anti-corruption agenda? Complicity between that old, corrupt ecosystem and the new ecosystem? Or something even more sinister?
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Sen’s remarks reflect a mind that genuflects at the feet of Western opinion. It is in thrall to what the foreign media writes about Indian politics, Indian democracy, Indian elections and Indian society.
Since the advent of social media, readers and viewers have become real-time arbiters of editorial opinion. Ivory tower editors, long used to a one-way discourse, are unsettled by this democratisation of the media. Factual errors are called out online in hours, forcing newspapers like The New York Times and The Washington Post—and television networks like CNN and BBC—to apologise editorially and post corrections. And yet these still are the media that Sen and his ilk in India pay obeisance to.
In a healthy democracy, it is as vital to have two strong national parties as it is to have two strong, duelling opinions on the left and right. The problem India now faces is that the marginalisation of the Congress has left the BJP with a monopoly on governance and legislation. Regional parties act not as a check but as disruptors.
The BJP’s success can presage failure just as Indira Gandhi’s did in the late 1970s. Power is never permanent—nor should it be. The BJP, however, is not driven by dynasty. The leadership of the BJP or the RSS does not pass from parent to son or daughter. There is no Narendra Modi dynasty. There is no Mohan Bhagwat dynasty. That too, though, is not an adequate safeguard to protect democracy. India needs a strong Opposition. The Congress, as long as it is run like a family enterprise, can no longer provide such an Opposition, despite Rahul’s resurgence.
Mahatma Gandhi foresaw this when he said shortly before Independence that the Congress should be disbanded. What he meant was the Congress must abandon the pre-eminence of individual leaders which served it well to evict the British, but would not serve democracy quite as well. He was right. It needed to be recalibrated to serve independent India.
As India prepares to elect the eighteenth Lok Sabha in May 2024, Modi stands on the cusp of history. If he leads the BJP to victory, he will become only the second prime minister since Nehru to win three successive general elections for full five-year terms.
( This is an edited excerpt from Minhaz Merchant’s Modi: The Challenge of 2024)