As early as the Gujarat Assembly election campaign of 2017, it was evident that Prime Minister Narendra Modi no longer proactively crafts political narratives. In that campaign, he was touchy and reactive – complaining about personal attacks from the Congress, and floating a wild conspiracy theory (since quietly dropped) about his predecessor plotting with Pakistanis to commit treason.

The elections to five state Assemblies in November and December this year confirmed that the prime minister remains unwilling or unable to run on his record or project optimism about the country’s future. His speeches were more focused on the Gandhi family than on his four-and-a-half years in office. On December 11, counting day, Swapan Dasgupta, a nominated member of Parliament and effectively an unofficial government spokesperson, predicted that the Bharatiya Janata Party’s general election campaign for 2019 would rely on fear rather than hope: on the contrast between stability under Modi and chaos under Congress president Rahul Gandhi.

The two weeks since then have shown that while the prime minister may no longer set the political agenda, the national media does it for him, by perpetuating a set of narratives that lack a factual or ethical basis, and work to undermine the republic while benefiting only Modi.

Winners and losers

The most persistent of these narratives is the framing of the 2019 general elections as “Narendra Modi versus Rahul Gandhi”. This alone disproves the notion, still strangely popular on the Right, that the Delhi media takes their marching orders from 10, Janpath, the official residence of former Congress president Sonia Gandhi. For the Congress has sought to avoid precisely this framing, by sharing the credit for its three victories as widely as possible. The Congress knows that the prime minister remains more personally popular than either his policies or his party, and that he would start strong favourite in a presidential contest against Rahul Gandhi.

A similar tendency was at work in the coverage of the election results in Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh. Once it was clear that the Congress would form governments in these three states, the sole matter of press interest was the contests for chief ministership. The major newspapers and television channels were unconcerned with the Congress appointing a chief minister who has been accused of leading a mob in the 1984 anti-Sikh pogrom. Indeed, many carried fawning interviews with the man.

Nor was there much interest in what the changes in government would mean in administrative terms. Political journalism in India has become a branch of sports journalism – concerned only with winners and losers, with rising and falling stars and “men of the match”. Elections, like sporting contests, are zero-sum; one candidate’s victory is another’s defeat. Governing, on the other hand, can be positive or negative-sum; we can all gain or lose from it. What the press chooses to scrutinise helps determine which it is.

What India needs

Ours is a parliamentary democracy, and there is no compelling public interest in presidentialising it. The evidence of four-and-a-half-years shows that it is the opposite: by presidentialising parliamentary politics, the press is actively failing the citizenry. “Modi versus Gandhi” trivialises the immense human consequences of elections by presenting them as a winner-takes-all circus. Worse still, presidentialisation reduces the complex business of the Central government to the personality of a single leader. It legitimises the capture of independent institutions – such as regulatory and investigative agencies – by that leader.

In many state elections, presidentialisation – what can also be called Caesarism – has been the norm for decades. The vast majority of political parties in India are now dominated by a single individual or family. But in national politics, the two-and-a-half decades that followed the defeat of the Congress in 1989 saw a series of elections that could not be reduced to a presidential contest. Each produced a coalition government that was socially representative of the republic’s ethnic and religious pluralism, and never dominated by a single personality.

To describe the governments of the coalition era as imperfect would be too generous. They were responsible for corruption that varied in degree but was never less than egregious. They presided over rising inequality, every kind of environmental collapse, and three of the republic’s most shameful episodes of communal violence – the expulsion of Kashmiri Pandits, the destruction of the Babri Masjid, and the Gujarat riots of 2002. They made glacial progress in remedying their predecessors’ failures in public health, nutrition and learning outcomes.

But they also delivered modern India’s greatest rise in living standards and its most rapid improvements in infrastructure. And the republic seemed to retain its ability to self-correct; to recover, however slowly, even from something like Babri. They generated a near-universe surge of material expectations – a surge that Modi, back when he was the candidate of optimism rather than fear, successfully rode to power. Our republic, unlike our neighbours to the north and west, was still more or less plural and democratic.

The experience of those years, by comparison with what came before and after, ought to establish definitively that what the country needs is not to empower a single charismatic leader – be they Jawaharlal Nehru or Indira Gandhi or Narendra Modi – and ask them to deliver us to greatness. But the mythical need for a strong leader persists – so too the belief that a majority government is preferable to a coalition, or that for all of Modi’s flaws, there is “no alternative” (in a country of 793 MPs, 30 chief ministers and 800 million voters). Like “Modi versus Gandhi”, these narratives have no truth-value. They have been allowed to pass unexamined for far too long.

Some journalists will respond to these charges by saying that this – presidentialisation, a focus on winners and losers – is what viewers want. What they mean is that these narratives are necessary to generate ratings and clicks. But this is a case of the cart driving the bullock. Media organisations need reader or viewer interest in order to survive – they need to generate clicks or TRPs so that they can keep reporting the news, rather than to report the news so that they can keep generating clicks. Otherwise they are like any other business, and can claim no special protections or public function.