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.

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