The Big Story: Optical illusion
Slate’s Joshua Keating used to write a wonderful series called “If It Happened There”, which covered American politics with the tone that the US media reserves for dispatches from far-away countries. It is a conceit that we have managed to occasionally use at Scroll.in, such as when describing Donald Trump’s victory in American elections or the specifics of Mother Teresa being declared a saint.
When Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi was re-elected in 2019, we considered using the same approach – except by treating the past as a foreign country. Although the series never quite materialised, the formula would have been simple: “How would _X_ be covered by the media if there had been another government in charge?”
This week offered three sets of stories that would have fit right into that series:
- India and China step back from the brink of further conflict, with New Delhi claiming victory in “taming Chinese expansionism” – so described in a 15-item talking-point handout sent to journalists – even as reports make it clear that Beijing’s troops are still on Indian territory.
- A politically connected gangster with scores of criminal cases manages to kill eight police personnel who were sent to capture him. (It would take a whole week for him to be arrested in another state and then be killed by Uttar Pradesh Police in a rather implausible sequence of events).
- Fuel prices skyrocket, with diesel at an all-time high, because the government has been increasing taxes on them.
In an earlier time, each of these would have easily been a story powering several days of coverage and loud news debates on Indian TV. Yet now, if there have been any tough questions, they have mostly been directed at the Opposition.
Sky-high fuel prices are widely credited as being among the main reasons the Bharatiya Janata Party was able to draw in votes in the 2014 elections. Yet they aren’t considered a vital story to be debated today.
When Bihar and Uttar Pradesh were not run by BJP governments, they were widely derided as “Jungle Raj” and “Gunda Raj” – lawless lands run by criminals. However, the media’s response to the deaths of eight police officers on July 3 was to question the gangster’s prior political connections – not the lawlessness and extra-judicial murders that have been commonplace under Adityanath.
Note: If you only follow Indian news online, you may believe that this doesn’t matter, because social media seems to be full of people and news organisations arguing both for and against the government.
But the internet manages to flatten our perception of the news media, making it seem as if those willing to actually ask tough questions of the government get as much space as those who simply accept the official line.
In reality, Twitter is an inordinately over-estimated drop in the ocean and the English-language digital space is a small portion of India’s larger news universe – and even in this segment, there is tremendous pressure to fall in line.
Part of the reason why the mainstream media is not terribly critical of the government is opportunism: chest-thumping Hindu nationalism appears to be popular with the masses, and so news organisations offer what they think the public demands.
But market forces don’t explain everything.
In 2019, the Central government temporarily cut off advertisements to three major newspaper groups – a major source of revenue to the Indian news media – reportedly in retaliation for unfavourable coverage. Journalists in Uttar Pradesh have been hounded for reports that show the government in a bad light.
Editors have lost their jobs for shining a spotlight on hate crimes. In 2017, an outspoken journalist was shot dead in Bengaluru, with much rejoicing on pro-BJP social media accounts afterwards and a police case that points a finger at Hindu nationalists. This year, a TV channel was told to shut down for two days because it, among other things, criticised the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh – the parent organisation of the BJP – before the order was hurriedly reversed.
And this year, the situation will undoubtedly get worse.
India’s economy was already slowing before Covid-19 hit. The pandemic and lockdown have hit the news industry hard, making journalists and organisations even more vulnerable to government pressure than before.
That is, obviously, not a good development for Indian democracy.
But if you put the civic concerns aside, having so much control over the headlines is an obvious political advantage for the BJP, one that deepens the party’s moat. Coupled with the opaque political funding system of electoral bonds that Modi introduced, it makes the entry barrier for a genuine contender that much more cumbersome even if the Opposition wasn’t as incompetent as it currently seems to be. With control of the media nationally and inordinate access to funding, it is hard to see how anyone else can even enter the fray unless the BJP shoots itself in the foot or collapses under internal contradictions.
In many ways, that advantage should translate into the BJP being relatively free to make policy moves that may be unpopular, such as raising taxes on petrol and diesel.
While that has certainly been the case, in practice it has also meant the government appears deeply afraid of losing the narrative, and has increasingly been willing to go to great lengths to control the headlines.
It also leads to emperor-in-new-clothes situations, where the government insists that all is well, even when it emphatically isn’t. See for example: GDP growth or demonetisation or the migrant crisis.
While it may work to keep down the Opposition, former National Security Advisor Shivshankar Menon explains how it is a major weakness in the face of a different kind of adversary (emphasis added):
“We are actually teaching the Chinese the wrong lesson. This started with Doklam, where we negotiated withdrawals by both sides from the face-off point in 2017. The Chinese then proceeded to establish a very strong, permanent presence on the plateau, leaving the face-off point itself free…
Frankly, [China] learned the lesson that as long as the Indian [government] could walk away with a propaganda victory, they could actually make gains and change the outcomes on the ground in their favour. And I think the risk is that we see the same kind of thing happening now here in Ladakh. I’m not saying it has happened yet, but there is a real risk here.”
Now go back and read that 15-point triumphal note about what the government says it achieved at the Line of Actual Control.
Rajasthan royal mess
After the BJP toppled the Congress-run Madhya Pradesh government earlier this year, many expected Rajasthan to be next. The state has two major Congress factions, led by Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot and Deputy Chief Minister Sachin Pilot, that are constantly butting heads.
To simplify, Gehlot is the old Congress hand with prior experience as chief minister and a deep understanding of the state. Pilot was the young dynast who had become close to former Congress President Rahul Gandhi, much like Madhya Pradesh’s Jyotiraditya Scindia, whose defection to the BJP led to the toppling of that government in March.
Gehlot appears to have been trying to assert more control over the last few months. According to some he manufactured a controversy about a defection threat around the time of the Rajya Sabha elections in June and then had police order Pilot to come in for questioning for allegedly seeking to topple the government.
On Sunday, Pilot said he had the backing of 30 lawmakers and that Gehlot’s government was in a minority. Earlier in the day, a number of those legislators were not nearly as emphatic about leaving the Congress.
Manoj CG has a useful explainer on how this is different from the Madhya Pradesh situation from earlier this year.
Expect more developments on this over the week.
Flotsam and Jetsam
If you missed Friday’s links email, we brought you the latest reports from the India-China disputed border plus a Q&A with Santosh Mehrotra, editor of Reviving Jobs: An Agenda for Growth.
Eighty one-year-old poet Varavara Rao’s health is deteriorating in jail. Uttar Pradesh has ordered complete lockdowns on weekends to prevent Covid-19 spread. The National Investigation Agency has taken charge of a politically explosive case of gold smuggling allegedly involving staff of the UAE consulate in Kerala.
A number of Opposition parties have complained about new Election Commission rules expanding the use of postal ballots for elections going forward. Shivraj Singh Chouhan, chief minister of Madhya Pradesh, has had to give up space to Jyotiraditya Scindia’s picks in his Cabinet. The BJP is going into its Bihar campaign with 72,000 WhatsApp groups. It is also facing some squabbling between coalition partners Janata Dal (United) and the Lok Janshakti Party.
That’s all for today’s The Political Fix. Send feedback to email@example.com, and if you enjoy this newsletter please do share it.