Anything that moves

A film cancelled, a TV interview canned: Competitive nationalism is eroding free expression in India

The BJP's authoritarian mindset has the potential to seriously damage the country's precarious freedoms.

As soon as I read that a previously obscure NGO was protesting the screening of a Pakistani film titled Jago Hua Savera at the MAMI Mumbai Film Festival, I knew the organisers would drop it from the schedule without a whimper. The festival is sponsored by Reliance Jio, never a firm associated with support of free expression, and one increasingly tied to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s agenda. A more worrying form of censorship occurred a little over a week earlier, when NDTV cancelled at the last minute a well-publicised interview with P Chidambaram, who was for years India’s finance minister and also served as home minister for a shorter period. The two incidents are not unrelated.

Around the time of the 2008 economic crisis, NDTV landed in a financial mess and sought a bailout. As this detailed analysis in Caravan makes clear, the final result was a loss of control to a white knight, whose identity was obscured by a fog of complex transactions, but who, the article alleges, was almost certainly Mukesh Ambani, chief of Reliance Jio.

It is still unclear why NDTV canned the interview, but external pressure seems the only explanation for the unprecedented act of killing a conversation with Chidambaram, who is not just a former minister but one of India’s foremost lawyers, extraordinarily cautious in his choice of words, ever careful not to overstep any legal bounds. The dropping of that interview felt like the beginning of India’s transition to a Putin-style democracy, where the broadcast media align in support of the ruling regime through a mix of genuine ideological sympathy, the quest for a higher viewership, and direct and indirect political machinations.

Stifling debate

The competition for ratings points among Indian news channels has turned into competitive nationalism, with the military being placed, perhaps for the first time in India’s independent history, at the core of the idea of the nation. Jai Jawan, Jai Kisan is now merely Jai Jawan, but not in the sense of civilians feeling genuine concern for the safety of soldiers, else the deaths of 29 people including Army, Air Force and naval personnel after their transport plane disappeared in the Bay of Bengal in July would have caused a little more grief than it did. No, today’s nationalism is defined by the deployment of a cult of the military as part of a wider attack on our freedoms, and nowhere is this more apparent than on news channels where the very act of discussion has morphed into a stifling of debate.

Part of me feels sad for the current state of NDTV. Who among those old enough to remember isn’t an admirer of Prannoy Roy’s role in transforming election coverage in India, starting with the 1984 ballot? On the other hand, NDTV engendered the television-propagated cult of the military with its coverage of Kargil operations and US-style programmes featuring celebrity visits to military camps. In that light, it wasn’t entirely surprising to read Radhika Roy’s intemperate response to questions about the spiked interview:

“Like all decisions we take at NDTV,” Roy wrote, “we are driven by editorial and journalistic integrity and the belief that the political mud slinging regarding the surgical strikes without a shred of evidence was actually damaging to our national security. We do not believe that we are obliged to carry every shred of drivel that has now come to pass as public discourse.” 

When national security is invoked to bar healthy scepticism by the supposedly liberal media, is it any surprise that openly chauvinist organisations like the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena can get away with threats of violence against exhibitors who screen Karan Johar’s Ae Dil Hai Mushkil because the film features Pakistani actors? This, even as its leader Raj Thackeray sends a birthday present to Amitabh Bachchan, delivered to the actor’s home by Thackeray’s son Amit and Amey Khopkar, the very man issuing the threats. Is it any surprise that Karan Johar has promised not to employ Pakistani talent in the future and began his defence of his new release with the line, “For me, my country comes first and nothing else matters to me but my country.” He even managed a salute or two in the taped statement.

Warning signs

The clampdown on discourse and on freedom of expression, worrying in itself, has been accompanied by the suppression of NGOs; a witch-hunt against activists considered unfriendly or threatening; the installation of unqualified foot-soldiers at the head of Indian institutions of learning and prestigious multilateral bodies like the International Law Commission; aggressive interference by student organisations affiliated to the Sangh Parivar within universities; a spurt in misguided vigilantism targeting Muslims and Dalits; and the shouting down of celebrities who express the merest doubts about the direction of our polity.

Previous Indian governments have hardly been friends of free expression or dissent, and the current one is far from being dictatorial, but what’s worrying is that, unlike the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance administration or the first National Democratic Alliance ruling coalition, the Bharatiya Janata Party under Modi has a distinct authoritarian mindset. Deployed in collusion with powerful industrialists, friendly media groups and an increasingly politicised military, assisted by a mixture of consent and apathy within India’ populace, it could seriously damage the already precarious and contingent freedoms Indian enjoy. These should include being able to enjoy a lovingly restored decades-old film from Pakistan on the big screen, regardless of whether Narendra Modi is feeling favourably inclined towards that nation, (as he was till very recently, even after militants from across the border killed Indian soldiers in Pathankot) or denouncing it as the mother-ship of terrorism.

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Some of the worst decisions made in history

From the boardroom to the battlefield, bad decisions have been a recipe for disaster

On New Year’s Day, 1962, Dick Rowe, the official talent scout for Decca Records, went to office, little realising that this was to become one of the most notorious days in music history. He and producer Mike Smith had to audition bands and decide if any were good enough to be signed on to the record label. At 11:00 am, either Rowe or Smith, history is not sure who, listened a group of 4 boys who had driven for over 10 hours through a snowstorm from Liverpool, play 15 songs. After a long day spent listening to other bands, the Rowe-Smith duo signed on a local group that would be more cost effective. The band they rejected went on to become one of the greatest acts in musical history – The Beatles. However, in 1962, they were allegedly dismissed with the statement “Guitar groups are on the way out”.

Source: Wikimedia Commons
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Decca’s decision is a classic example of deciding based on biases and poor information. History is full of examples of poor decisions that have had far reaching and often disastrous consequences.

In the world of business, where decisions are usually made after much analysis, bad decisions have wiped out successful giants. Take the example of Kodak – a company that made a devastating wrong decision despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. Everyone knows that Kodak couldn’t survive as digital photography replaced film. What is so ironic that Alanis Morissette could have sung about it, is that the digital camera was first invented by an engineer at Kodak as early as 1975. In 1981, an extensive study commissioned by Kodak showed that digital was likely to replace Kodak’s film camera business in about 10 years. Astonishingly, Kodak did not use this time to capitalise on their invention of digital cameras – rather they focused on making their film cameras even better. In 1996, they released a combined camera – the Advantix, which let users preview their shots digitally to decide which ones to print. Quite understandably, no one wanted to spend on printing when they could view, store and share photos digitally. The Advantix failed, but the company’s unwillingness to shift focus to digital technology continued. Kodak went from a 90% market share in US camera sales in 1976 to less than 10% in 2012, when it filed for bankruptcy. It sold off many of its biggest businesses and patents and is now a shell of its former self.

Source: Wikimedia Commons
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Few military blunders are as monumental as Napoleon’s decision to invade Russia. The military genius had conquered most of modern day Europe. However, Britain remained out of his grasp and so, he imposed a trade blockade against the island nation. But the Russia’s Czar Alexander I refused to comply due to its effect on Russian trade. To teach the Russians a lesson, Napolean assembled his Grand Armée – one of the largest forces to ever march on war. Estimates put it between 450,000 to 680,000 soldiers. Napoleon had been so successful because his army could live off the land i.e. forage and scavenge extensively to survive. This was successful in agriculture-rich and densely populated central Europe. The vast, barren lands of Russia were a different story altogether. The Russian army kept retreating further and further inland burning crops, cities and other resources in their wake to keep these from falling into French hands. A game of cat and mouse ensued with the French losing soldiers to disease, starvation and exhaustion. The first standoff between armies was the bloody Battle of Borodino which resulted in almost 70,000 casualties. Seven days later Napoleon marched into a Moscow that was a mere shell, burned and stripped of any supplies. No Russian delegation came to formally surrender. Faced with no provisions, diminished troops and a Russian force that refused to play by the rules, Napolean began the long retreat, back to France. His miseries hadn’t ended - his troops were attacked by fresh Russian forces and had to deal with the onset of an early winter. According to some, only 22,000 French troops made it back to France after the disastrous campaign.

Source: Wikimedia Commons
Source: Wikimedia Commons

When it comes to sports, few long time Indian cricket fans can remember the AustralAsia Cup final of 1986 without wincing. The stakes were extremely high – Pakistan had never won a major cricket tournament, the atmosphere at the Sharjah stadium was electric, the India-Pakistan rivalry at its height. Pakistan had one wicket in hand, with four runs required off one ball. And then the unthinkable happened – Chetan Sharma decided to bowl a Yorker. This is an extremely difficult ball to bowl, many of the best bowlers shy away from it especially in high pressure situations. A badly timed Yorker can morph into a full toss ball that can be easily played by the batsman. For Sharma who was then just 18 years old, this was an ambitious plan that went wrong. The ball emerged as a low full toss which Miandad smashed for a six, taking Pakistan to victory. Almost 30 years later, this ball is still the first thing Chetan Sharma is asked about when anyone meets him.

So, what leads to bad decisions? While these examples show the role of personal biases, inertia, imperfect information and overconfidence, bad advice can also lead to bad decisions. One of the worst things you can do when making an important decision is to make it on instinct or merely on someone’s suggestion, without arming yourself with the right information. That’s why Aegon Life puts the power in your hands, so you have all you need when choosing something as important as life insurance. The Aegon Life portal has enough information to help someone unfamiliar with insurance become an expert. So empower yourself with information today and avoid decisions based on bad advice. For more information on the iDecide campaign, see here.

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