A lay observer of the political situation in India would conclude that Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government ought to be relatively confident about where it stands. After all, Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party has now posted two successive electoral landslides and has the benefit of a dysfunctional Opposition as well as a mainstream news media that is more than willing to parrot its talking points daily.
Yet the report of a Group of Ministers who met six times over June and July 2020 – when the Covid-19 pandemic and the resultant migrant crisis was still raging – reveals an insecure, paranoid government that seems more concerned with headlines and narrative than the underlying reality. It also shows a government with no concept of a wall between state and party, which fails to understand that journalists are not meant to be unthinking cheerleaders for politicians or their ideologies.
In most democracies, a document like this would be considered a major scandal and an embarrassment for all involved:
- There are high-level ministers, like Prakash Javadekar, Ravi Shankar Prasad, Anurag Thakur and others talking of the need to “neutralise” independent media, of pulling in “right-wing parties of other countries” into propaganda efforts, of the need to “track” those who ask questions and of ways to rope in “productive and supportive journalists”.
- There are senior journalists allegedly saying that “around 75% of media persons... are ideologically with the party”, calling on the government to stop interactions with the foreign media because these have turned out to be “counter-productive” and recommending tactics on propaganda for both government and party.
- There are ideologues and analysts, like Swapan Dasgupta, Nitin Gokhale – who has denied the comments attributed to him by the document – and S Gurumurthy, allegedly saying news should carry a “mix of truth and untruth”, recommending that the state should employ “spin doctors,” giving suggestions for storylines that could be used to attack the Opposition and calling on the government to colour-code journalists based on whether they are supportive of the state’s political agenda.
- And there are representatives of pro-government websites like OpIndia who complain about the “vicious” activity of fact-checkers like Alt News or neutral services like Wikipedia and plead for help in getting their articles re-tweeted.
In ordinary times, a government effort to improve its communication strategy would be a good thing. Indeed, the last 12 months have revealed many reasons for the government to re-evaluate its approach towards public outreach.
From the discriminatory targeting of Muslims during the Tablighi Jamaat incident that was later called out by the judiciary to the indecisive and often insensitive rhetoric around the migrant crisis in the face of the horrendously planned Covid-19 lockdown to the deeply disturbing endorsement of an unscientific Covid-19 “cure” by the health minister to the prime minister falsely claiming there had been no Chinese intrusions along the Line of Actual Control, there have been numerous episodes that quite evidently could have been handled better with more astute communication.
Unfortunately, none of these find mention in the report, except for a few complaints about the media not toeing the government line on things like China or the Covid-19 lockdown. Instead, the entire document is shot through with a sense of paranoia that sees critical coverage – by news organisations like this one, which is mentioned by name – and online questioning as a “confrontation situation”.
None of this should be surprising from a government that has embraced illiberal tendencies, sought to portray any criticism of the political leadership as being anti-national and arrested or filed police cases against activists and journalists who have had the temerity to ask questions. Nor should anyone be shocked at the participation of numerous journalists, analysts and ideologues in the process in a country where the mainstream has for the most part completely capitulated to pressure from an unrelenting political leadership that brooks no dissent.
The fact that these discussions about how to set the narrative were taking place in June and July 2020, as Covid-19 numbers were peaking, migrants were walking home and the economy was going through a historic contraction, should also give you a sense of the priorities of the government.
Outside of more efforts to “neutralise” those asking questions – as has been evident from the arrests and police cases filed by authorities against activists and journalists and its new rules for social media and digital news – as well as a state-run fact-checking operation that was called out for a falsehood by another government department, little appears to have changed in terms of government communication since those meetings.
Instead, the only thing the document appears to have conclusively done is revealed that, no matter how politically stable the government may be, it appears deathly afraid of allowing any criticism or questioning and feels the need to use every lever possible to control the narrative, regardless of facts on the ground. What does that level of insecurity and paranoia tell us about a government that billed itself as the decisive, strong and honest option for Indian citizens?