If Union Finance Minister Arun Jaitley is a fan of the 1980s British electronic pop band The Pet Shop Boys, he might be singing to himself “What have I what have I what have I done to deserve this?”

In fact, he committed two cardinal sins in one fell act, as far as Bharatiya Janata Party fans and followers on the internet are concerned. He appeared on the news channel NDTV and he criticised his junior ministerial colleague, the retired chief of army staff, VK Singh. Immediately, through this Tuesday, the phrase “Shame on Arun Jaitley” started trending on social media. Or more correctly, this phrase: #ShameOnArunJaitley.

Look deeper into Jaitley’s alleged crimes and the story gets very intriguing. Singh, while part of the Indian rescue mission in Yemen, made an apparently funny tweet calling journalists “presstitutes”, a term that was often used during the 2014 general election by the BJP and its supporters, targeting all those journalists who were not part of the Genuflect Before Narendra Modi Or Else Fan Club. Many members of the media objected, as did sex workers. Jaitley suggested to NDTV’s Barkha Dutt that he did not agree with Singh’s use of the term and that politicians should exercise restraint when faced with criticism.

High standards

That very reasonable response was Jaitley’s first sin. The second was to appear on NDTV at all. For years now, NDTV has been the poster-girl of everything that BJP supporters don’t like about the media. Some reasons for this are obvious. It did the first privately produced news show, Prannoy Roy’s The World This Week on state-controlled Doordarshan. In 1998, when it established the country’s first private news channel along with STAR, it set the standard. Most senior TV anchors and many TV journalists have been trained there. It is the first among equals as far as television journalism in India goes. “Dr Roy”, as he is known is still well-loved and Vikram Chandra and Nidhi Razdan’s shows are popular. Unlike most other channels, NDTV still does documentary shows on the “other” India.

But NDTV is also seen as a Congress-backed secular channel. This is ironic because in another avatar, NDTV was the only channel to have an embedded reporter – Barkha Dutt again – on frontlines in the Kargil war-like situation against Pakistan, during another Bharatiya Janata Party-led regime at the Centre. Dutt has also borne the brunt of much of the anger of the anti-NDTV brigade, not least because she featured in the Radia tapes.

Stories regularly make their way around the internet about how media houses, especially NDTV, are funded either by the Vatican or some Saudi and Dubai sheikhs. The implication is clear: the Indian media is part of a giant international conspiracy paid for by Christianity (or specifically Catholicism) and Islam to malign Hindus. This would be ludicrous except that the burgeoning internet has led to an exponential explosion of believers of such crackpot theories.

The Hindutva-led trolls of Twitter and other social media are infamous. Some have started websites to monitor the media and keep it in check. These are usually nothing more than a series of rants by ill-informed and suspicious supporters of Hindutva/the BJP/the RSS/Modi (not all are the same thing). But they feed the frenzy and hatred against people who profess to uphold secularism and minorities in India and provide apparent ballast to their own kind.

Journalists, by the nature of the job, are easy targets. But often they are being targeted for simply doing their jobs. Any media outlet will at some point of time or the other carry critical opinion or facts about political parties and governments. In these overblown oversensitive times, supporters get easily swayed ‒ and the BJP and Modi have a remarkable set of supporters.

Vicious trolls

So Jaitley, did not just insult a great Indian hero in VK Singh, he also did it while consorting with the enemy. He may be a fully paid-up member of the BJP, he may have hitched his wagon to the Narendra Modi train ages ago, he may be one of the few experienced members of the Modi Cabinet but shame on him who cannot win a Lok Sabha election, says the ardent Modi supporter. He deserves a hashtag.

This propensity to target one of their own only underlines the deep insecurity of the BJP and Modi supporter. They never mention Barkha Dutt’s enthusiastic coverage of Modi’s “rock star” performance in the US last year. Instead, we go back to the old narrative of a media that has been bought by vested interests, which are always inimical to India’s best interests.

Funnily though, for the media, it has got more attention through the social media than it has ever done. That might be cold comfort for NDTV, but as anyone in the media business knows, any publicity is good publicity. Hashtag that now.

 The writer is a senior journalist. Her Twitter handle is @ranjona.