A JOURNALIST FRIEND I have known for long once told me that after the fall of the Soviet Union, he was so depressed that he did not venture out of his university hostel room for a week. My friend, who supports every sub-nationalism movement in India, has never got an election prediction right, though he takes great pains to travel around, especially in the hinterland. Just before the results of the Uttar Pradesh Assembly polls were to be announced, we met at another friend’s house. I asked him who he thought would emerge as the winner. He said, “First you tell me, since you have travelled a bit as well.” I said I thought the Bharatiya Janata Party would win; I added that I also felt that Mayawati stood a fair chance if her ‘silent’ supporters had really come out in strength to cast their vote, as many Dalit intellectuals claimed to me. With a sagely smile on his face, my friend leaned towards me and said, “No, the Samajwadi Party-Congress alliance will win.” He issued a volley of data which I couldn’t really follow, after which he loudly declared: “Modi dhul jaayega (Modi will be washed out)”.
I have not met my friend since March. But, recently, during a protest meet at the Press Club in Delhi after the Bengaluru activist Gauri Lankesh’s murder, I discussed with a young friend the failure of many senior political journalists in correctly predicting the UP outcome. Journalists cannot, of course, indulge in crystal ball gazing, and in a diverse country like India, it is altogether more difficult to predict electoral results. But while relatively young journalists got UP right, where did seasoned journalists like my friend falter? The young friend offered a reason that I felt was quite accurate. Referring to my Left-leaning professional colleague, he said that many like him had this basal need to believe in revolution, and at a time when Narendra Modi is at the peak of his power, that the Sangh Parivar will be defeated is the stuff of these revolutionary dreams. “Your Leftist friend will die the day he stops believing in revolution,” he quipped.
Journalists often aim to change things through their work, which is also a revolution of sorts. My Leftist friend considers the Sangh Parivar his enemy and wants to see it routed, at least democratically. But when this desire starts clouding one’s judgement as a media professional, then it becomes problematic. The visceral hatred for one man who is now the Prime Minister of India is making many observers of politics lose their objectivity and sense of proportion. In their desperation to see Modi on his knees, they find meanings where none exists. They experience unwarranted euphoria over insignificant victories such as the ABVP losing a seat in Delhi University student’s union election; they are even willing to hear bugles of war in Rahul Gandhi’s Berkeley speech.
It is not as if before 2014 the roads in India were paved with gold and that milk flowed through its rivers. It is not as if previous governments had done wonders for the welfare of the poor and marginalised. Of course this government has problems and one of them has been intimidation in the name of cow vigilantism. Of course the Modi dispensation needs to be called out on promises that have turned out to be hollow. In other words, roads in India are not paved with gold and no milk flows through its rivers even after 2014. But reporting this has to be done realistically without spelling a constant sense of doom and without conveying this impression that Modi is personally supervising an imagined Armageddon. Biases and hate crimes against Dalits, for example, have existed since the very beginning; farmers have committed suicide for years; law-and-order has been non-existent in many parts and continues to remain so; there has always been tension with Pakistan. Nobody, including Modi, has a magic wand to make these things disappear even if he and other leaders before him have given us such an impression. Journalists doing their job must nevertheless highlight the failings of this government. But it should not feel as if we have his voodoo doll inside our drawers into which pins must be stuck every day. It is sometimes vital to take a step back and look at how certain things have worked for Modi even as most of us predicted that they would prove to be his Achilles heel.
It is okay to be anti- authority, but that should not be only because there is a particular man at the helm of affairs. The idea is to write about the wrong policies of any government, not to hold meetings on how to bring it down
CONSIDER DEMONETISATION. We have written and spoken about it extensively. We have shot videos of long queues outside banks and of marketplace gloom with our cellphone cameras. We still don’t know the long- term effects of this decision, but it also needs to be recognised that Modi’s BJP has scored a spectacular win in UP despite the disruption caused. This should make us pause and wonder if we are disconnected from how the people of this country think. Somehow Modi has managed to convince people that this is going to pinch the rich more than the poor. He has managed to impress upon them that he seeks no personal gain, that he has no Robert Vadra in his family who requires fancy bikes and cycles and expensive SPG cover, but only a mother who wears a worn sari and whom he goes to meet occasionally. Instead, some of us seem to have turned antagonism towards Modi into a sort of spectator sport without realising that Modi would not be who he is if he was not hated so much. A journalist friend speaks of her colleague who, while travelling through UP, would ask for her driver’s opinion on demonetisation and when told he had a good feeling about it, shouted at him for being so ‘ignorant’.
Earlier in September, Pratik Sinha, founder of AltNews, a website that exposes fake news, published a clarification over a post put up by former police officer, Sanjiv Bhatt, a known critic of Modi. Bhatt had claimed that believers were stopped from offering prayers at the Sidi Saiyyed mosque in Ahmedabad when Modi accompanied Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe there on a visit. Presenting evidence that no such thing had happened, Sinha writes: ‘It is absolutely irresponsible on part of those who circulate such rumours on social media without cross-checking facts. Such rumours lead to communal polarisation. As it is, we are living in times when the strife between various religious/cultural communities is alarmingly high. We do not need social media rumours to further magnify this divide.’
Immediately afterwards, Sinha was trolled on social media, with many telling him that Bhatt and he were on the same side and that they should not be fighting among themselves but with their ‘common enemy’. One Modi critic went on to tell him that he was growing too big for ‘your boots’. Sinha had faced similar criticism for taking on the Left activist Shehla Rashid for asking a TV reporter to “get out” from the parking lot of the Delhi Press Club where she was making a political speech.
We have written and spoken about demonetisation extensively. We still don’t know the long-term effects of this decision, but it also needs to be recognised that Modi’s BJP has scored a spectacular win in UP despite the disruption caused
Modi bashers often use a term, ‘Godi media’, for those who they think sit in the proverbial lap of this government, doling out a favourable narrative of its efforts and achievements. But they sometimes forget that they themselves have become ‘Goop media’, turning to jelly whenever they try looking at the failings of non- BJP politics. Before her death, Gauri Lankesh had tweeted, ‘Ok some of us commit mistakes like sharing fake posts. Let us warn each other then. And not try to expose each other. Peace...comrades’ [apparently referring to photoshopped pictures of a Lalu Prasad rally which some had shared].
THE PROTEST HATE industry against Modi can be divided into two categories: the ones with ideological moorings which make them oppose the BJP and RSS no matter what they do. The other is that of the naïve lot who think that they are modern and rebellious if they harangue him. They use perfunctory Modi bashing to stay relevant. It is almost as if some are saying things just for the heck of it, pointing at themselves and shouting: ‘Look, look, I have also said things about Modi, now somebody threaten me, please.’ Just the other day, a journalist wished Modi death and the website for which he wrote banned him, sparking outrage among many in the Goop media. How is such a journalist being objective—or even acting in a manner appropriate to his job—when he tweets that since terrorist outfit Lashkar- e-Toiba planned to kill Modi, he is putting such and such information out there ‘in the universe for good luck’?
Another senior journalist posted a donkey’s photo on Twitter for Modi’s birthday, and when yet another journalist criticised her for it, immediately blocked him on that social media platform.
It takes rigour to not slot people by the Left or Right binary of politics, but that is what is happening day and night. Such an attitude reminds me of George W Bush’s ‘with us or against us’ dictum. It takes hard work to go somewhere and speak to a person and say, ‘Hey, you support Modi. I would like to know why.’ It is much easier to label a person a ‘Sanghi’ and then cast him out as an Islamophobe.
A friend of mine who lives near my house and has been exiled from Kashmir is agnostic and has never voted in his life. A day after cries of ‘Bharat tere tukde honge, Inshallah, Inshallah’ rent the air in Jawaharlal Nehru University, we met at a marketplace. He sounded very upset. He said, “I came so far away to escape being killed in the name of Allah. And now, so many years later, they are back, shouting in my backyard that India be broken into pieces.” He said in the next elections he is going to vote for Modi. But nobody in the Goop media will try and understand fears such as these; nobody will try and understand why many Dalits have voted for Modi. The Prime Minister’s bashers go on and on, ranting about him, making jokes about him. And with each joke, every meme, they are strengthening his hold on power.
The protest hate industry against Modi can be divided into two categories: those who’re ideologically opposed and the naive lot who think they are modern and rebellious if they harangue him
The country’s common people are sick of media. They are sick of propaganda and don’t want to see a corridor in Bogota being passed off for a corridor in Modi’s Gujarat. But they are also weary of this constant hate activism on social media. A scholar friend who is an admirer of Mahatma Gandhi said if he were alive, he would have surely called for a ‘media vrat (silence)’ for everyone to calm down for a day. Arvind Kejriwal has learnt this the hard way. In the last few months, he has not indulged in diatribes against Modi. He is instead focusing on making changes in the education and health sector and there are signs that he will reap the benefits of his quiet labour. The need is to drain the public space of bile and attain moral clarity on wrong-versus-right no matter who is on which side.
In a fine essay in The Wire, Monobina Gupta makes a case for journalists turning into activists: ‘If activism denotes resistance to violence in society at large, defence of rights—whether those pertain to the media or to individuals and communities—then this perhaps is the moment when journalists should consider not being shy of wearing that label anymore.’ I, for one, have argued for long that, yes, when you go to a place like Bastar, it is important for journalists to shun notions of neutrality and stand clearly with those who suffer injustice. It is a journalist’s duty to go out of newsrooms and travel and bring to light stories of violence against Dalits, the plight of farmers, corruption, the builder mafia, the police- politician nexus, environmental degradation and what all this has done to the lives of millions. But activism should not be confused with political activism. It is okay to be anti-authority, but that should not be only because there is a particular man at the helm of affairs. The idea is to write consistently about the wrong policies of this government, any government, not to hold meetings with others on how to bring it down.
‘The Left is schizophrenic and needs doctoring through pitiless self-criticism, exercise of the heart, close reasoning, and a little modesty,’ wrote Albert Camus in Socialism of the Gallows. It would bode well for journalists of all hues to listen to this advice. But before that, they should perhaps pay heed to Camus’ other advice in the same essay: ‘It is better for the intellectual not to talk all the time. It would keep him from thinking.’
Perhaps it is time to talk less and understand and think.