BOOK EXCERPT

Rajdeep Sardesai: Why are India’s political leaders unwilling to be held accountable to the press?

This June 2017 column is part of the journalist’s book about news in the Modi era.

“We don’t need to be told by media or Opposition what we need to do for farmers. We would rather listen to farmers and not to carping, negative Opposition or ‘know- all media’ that knows little of grassroots realities”: GVL Narasimha Rao, BJP spokesperson, during a TV debate in June 2017. When one of the more affable voices of the ruling party chooses to launch a diatribe against the media when asked a simple question on whether demonetisation is one of the causes for growing farmer unrest, you realise how easily power can accentuate hubris and reduce serious issues to an echo chamber for the ruling class.

But why blame Mr Rao, whose nightly task is to defend the government on prime time TV. The disdainful attitude towards the media begins right at the top. The Prime Minister has chosen to virtually bypass the mainstream media, preferring instead the one-way communication offered by routine messages through Twitter or a feel-good monthly “Mann Ki Baat” on radio.

No press conferences and only the odd pre-scripted interview, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who was once an extremely popular and communicative BJP spokesperson himself, has now chosen to make himself mostly inaccessible to media scrutiny.

As a result, there hasn’t been, till date, any serious questioning of the Prime Minister on the single biggest move undertaken by his government. Why, for example, do we still not know how much of the old demonetised currency is back in the system? Or what exactly happened to the government’s “war” on black money or on counterfeit currency? Is it not legitimate to ask for at least a White Paper on demonetisation? Unfortunately, with the narrative being spun in a manner where any questioning of authority is now seen as “anti-national”, influential sections of the media are being pushed on the defensive, forced to oscillate between self-censorship or else get fully embedded as cheerleaders of the “establishment”.

But why single out the Prime Minister? The Congress president Sonia Gandhi has been in public life for almost two decades but has never shown a willingness to answer uncomfortable questions on contentious issues like political corruption. In November 2016, I had the rare chance of interviewing Mrs Gandhi. Just ahead of the interview it was made clear that only questions related to Indira Gandhi on the occasion of her centenary celebrations could be asked. “No political questions!” I was told in no uncertain terms. When one of the country’s most powerful politicians won’t take “political” questions, isn’t that indicative of the skewed nature of our democracy?

This unwillingness of those in public life to be held accountable has now spread like virus through the political system. In 2015, Mamata Banerjee chose to walk out of an interview because I raised the issue of the Saradha chit fund scam. Mamata at least agreed to an interview; Mayawati hasn’t given one in a decade, so we still don’t have answers to allegations of disproportionate assets. An imperious Jayalalithaa refused to step out of “Fortress Poes Garden” to meet the press, Naveen Patnaik follows a similar “no questions” policy in Odisha, while in Kerala, Pinarayi Vijayan has never hidden his open hostility towards the media.

Sadly, rather than defend the media’s right to dissent and speak truth to power, there are many who choose to applaud an opaque, authoritarian leadership. It wasn’t always like this.

When Indira Gandhi muzzled the media in the Emergency period in the mid-1970s, those who stood up to her were celebrated. In the late 1980s, when Rajiv Gandhi introduced the defamation bill, the media rose in one voice to protest. In almost every instance of arbitrary use of state power against the media, the citizenry has been on our side. Not any longer – now, when a politician takes on the media, there is a sizeable audience which cheers from the sidelines, perhaps reflective of ideological cleavages in the society.

Maybe, we in the media also need to introspect as to why we have allowed this to happen to us. When sensation replaces sense on TV news, when political alignments determine news priorities, when ownership patterns are non-transparent, then we make it that much easier for the netas and their hired armies to chastise us as “presstitutes”. Actually, we aren’t a “know-all” media as Mr Rao suggests; maybe we are just a media which has lost its moral spine to fight back.

Postscript: In June 2017, the BBC, in the spirit of true democracy, had both the prime ministerial candidates in Britain face the general public with no choreographed questions. How many of our political leaders are willing to subject themselves to a similar no-holds-barred interrogation?


Author’s note: Mr Modi has still not done a single formal press conference in India since taking over as Prime Minister and refuses to take the media with him on his travels. His predecessor, Dr Manmohan Singh, who was routinely chided as “Maun-mohan” Singh by Mr Modi, used to regularly do press meets every time he travelled abroad. Dr Singh also held at least three unscripted, open press conferences, including a live TV interaction with editors at his residence.

Excerpted with permission from Newsman: Tracking India In The Modi Era, Rajdeep Sardesai, Rupa Publications.

Support our journalism by subscribing to Scroll+ here. We welcome your comments at letters@scroll.in.
Sponsored Content BY 

Decoding the symbolic threads and badges of one of India’s oldest cavalry units

The untold story of The President’s Bodyguard.

The national emblem of India; an open parachute and crossed lances – this triad of symbols representing the nation, excellence in training and valor respectively are held together by an elite title in the Indian army – The President’s Bodyguard (PBG).

The PBG badge is worn by one of the oldest cavalry units in the India army. In 1773, Governor Warren Hastings, former Governor General of India, handpicked 50 troopers. Before independence, this unit was referred to by many titles including Troops of Horse Guards and Governor General’s Body Guards (GGBG). In 1950, the unit was named The President’s Bodyguard and can be seen embroidered in the curved maroon shoulder titles on their current uniforms.

The President’s Bodyguard’s uniform adorns itself with proud colours and symbols of its 245 year-old-legacy. Dating back to 1980, the ceremonial uniform consists of a bright red long coat with gold girdles and white breeches, a blue and gold ceremonial turban with a distinctive fan and Napoleon Boots with spurs. Each member of the mounted unit carries a special 3-meter-long bamboo cavalry lance, decorated by a red and white pennant. A sheathed cavalry sabre is carried in in the side of the saddle of each trooper.

While common perception is that the PBG mainly have ceremonial duties such as that of being the President’s escort during Republic Day parade, the fact is that the members of the PBG are highly trained. Handpicked by the President’s Secretariat from mainstream armored regiments, the unit assigns a task force regularly for Siachen and UN peace keeping operations. Moreover, the cavalry members are trained combat parachutists – thus decorating the PBG uniform with a scarlet Para Wings badge that signifies that these troopers are a part of the airborne battalion of the India Army.

Since their foundation, the President’s Guard has won many battle honors. In 1811, they won their first battle honor ‘Java’. In 1824, they sailed over Kalla Pani for the first Burmese War and earned the second battle honour ‘Ava’. The battle of Maharajapore in 1843 won them their third battle honor. Consequently, the PBG fought in the main battles of the First Sikh War and earned four battle honours. Post-independence, the PBG served the country in the 1962 Indo-China war and the 1965 Indo-Pak war.

The PBG, one of the senior most regiments of the Indian Army, is a unique unit. While the uniform is befitting of its traditional and ceremonial role, the badges that augment those threads, tell the story of its impressive history and victories.

How have they managed to maintain their customs for more than 2 centuries? A National Geographic exclusive captures the PBG’s untold story. The documentary series showcases the discipline that goes into making the ceremonial protectors of the supreme commander of the Indian Armed Forces.

Play

The National Geographic exclusive is a landmark in television and is being celebrated by the #untoldstory contest. The contest will give 5 lucky winners an exclusive pass to the pre-screening of the documentary with the Hon’ble President of India at the Rashtrapati Bhavan. You can also nominate someone you think deserves to be a part of the screening. Follow #UntoldStory on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram to participate.

This article was produced by Scroll marketing team on behalf of National Geographic and not by the Scroll editorial team.