India’s Fall From Democracy To Electoral Autocracy

By virtue of its having a population of close to 1.37 billion and holding elections to Parliament and state assemblies every five years as required under the Constitution and on the basis of adult suffrage, India has logical claims to the status of the world’s largest democracy. Unfortunately, to popular concern, India is not faring well as a democracy in the eyes of independent global watchdogs.

These agencies use copiously collected social science data and feedback from a wide range of independent sources before they decide where a particular democracy finds itself in their indexes. The first blow for India came from Freedom House, a US based watchdog funded largely by the US Administration, which relegated the country to “partly free” status from the earlier “free” ranking.

Now a much harsher admonition for India comes from Sweden based V-Dem (Varieties of Democracy) Institute. In a major setback for liberal democracy, “the world’s largest democracy has turned into an electoral autocracy,” says the V-Dem report. The country’s 23 percentage point slide on V-Dem scale since 2013 makes “it one of the most dramatic shifts (read in terms of erosion of democracy) among all countries in the world over the past ten years.”

Elaborating how democratic values got eroded in India, V-Dem says: “Autocratisation process has largely followed the typical pattern for countries in the ‘Third Wave’ over the past ten years: a gradual deterioration where freedom of the media, academia and civil society were curtailed first and to the greatest extent.”

But Pranab Bardhan, professor emeritus of economics at University of California, Berkley, says much of Indian media, particularly the TV channels are found “shamelessly” ingratiating themselves with the powers that be. What freedom of the Press can there be when media owners and journalists who matter have on their own drawn the Lakshman Rekha in a way offering comfort to the ruling party at the Centre and in states like Uttar Pradesh and Karnataka. What is left of free media is some news and opinion websites run by some intrepid journalists and a magazine or two.

ALSO READ: A Tale Of Two Indian Protests In Media

Bardhan is surprised that BJP has the gumption to complain that the opposition is engaged in smearing the reputation of the country across the world. “But it is now imperative to say that the way democracy is being trampled in so many ways is giving the country a bad name. Let’s take the case of harassment of Disha Ravi (climate activist). Hasn’t this invited global criticism? I will say those who describe the protesting farmers and principled journalists as anti-nationalists are a blot on our democracy,” says Bardhan.

Bardhan, a global campaigner for equality of opportunity for human development, has strong distaste for doublespeak that BJP leaders indulge in. They, according to him, will say sabka saath sabka vikas (development for all) but when it comes to act they will spew hatred for the ones not of their faith. Why Bills are not discussed any longer and Acts are steamrolled through Parliament?

Bardhan thinks the fear of courting uncomfortable questions has made Prime Minister Narendra Modi not to hold Press conferences at all. The people are instead left with ‘Man ki Baat,’ a monologue that leaves no room for questions to be asked. (To put the record straight, Modi at least once sat for a long interview with the former Hindustan Times chief editor Sanjoy Narayan.)

Incidentally, Bardhan like many other front-ranking intellectuals is a strident critic of the NDA decision on demonetisation and the Covid-19 lockdown for the indescribable sufferings of the common man, millions of migrant workers and people dependent on the unorganised sectors. Now we learn from the periodic labour survey by National Statistical Office that the urban unemployment rate in the country shot up to 20.9% in April-June 2020 coinciding with the lockdown from 9.1% in the previous quarter. But what will go unrecorded are the physical, mental and financial pains millions of migrant workers suffered because of sudden declaration of the lockdown without giving them a chance to go back to wherefrom they came by train and long distant buses.

In a recent interview with the largely circulated Bengali newspaper Anandabazar Patrika, Bardhan expressed his anguish over disintegration of the country’s federal structure. As policy decisions are getting concentrated in the Prime Minister’s office (PMO), in a novel development New Delhi is regularly trespassing into areas reserved for the states. There are too many occasions when the centre without seeking the views of states are addressing subjects concerning education, health, agriculture, law and order and labour.

The winding up of the Planning Commission where the states could place their economic demands and subsequently get relief from the government was a blow to federalism. As for revenue mobilisation, every time New Delhi would impose a cess that will be a denial to states of their rightful share. This is not the case when revenues are mobilised by way of taxes.

Drawing an analogy with Germany in the 1930s where the Communists and social democrats locked in political bickering helped in Hitler coming to power, Bardhan strongly recommends that the Left, the Congress and Trinamool Congress should not allow their past differences, often quite bitter, to come in the way to stop BJP from wresting power in West Bengal.

ALSO READ: Battle For Bengal Is The Election to Watch

Bardhan says if the Left truly believes that ‘Ram in 2021 and Bam (that is left) in 2026’ then it is indulging in self-delusion. The left apparently doesn’t want to have any kind of understanding with Trinamool since its members and supporters had suffered a lot in the hands of ruling party members in the past ten years. But he says in the past ahead of the Left Front rule, the Communists were given a hellish time by the Congress. The left, according to him, will be showing wisdom if it is found ready to bury all such hatchets to stop the BJP juggernaut. He at the same time wants the Matua and Rajbangsi communities, which are befriended by BJP, to stay clear of the party with strong Brahminical leanings.

People from different parts of the country have over centuries made Bengal their home and in the process they have made rich contribution to the local economy and culture. Many Bengalis are uncomfortable that BJP is described by incumbent Trinamool as a party of outsiders.

Bardhan has an interesting take on this: “BJP has tenuous links with Bengali culture. Since the party doesn’t have a great Bengali intellectual to boast, it is busy paying obeisance to Bankim Chandra, Rabindranath, Swami Vivekananda and Subhas Chandra Bose. But it is impossible to reconcile BJP’s Hindutva with what these great Bengali minds wrote and said.”

Bankim Chandra will not accept that the country has made any progress unless the Muslims and everyone else have a share in it. Vivekananda wanted everyone to read the Bible and the Quran along with the Gita. Subhas Chandra was secular to the core. His strong disapproval when Syama Prasad Mukherjee joined Hindu Mahasabha is well known. Finally, the world has known Tagore as a well wisher of both Hindus and Muslims and as someone desirous of their brotherhood.

Why Do Indian Media Treat PM Modi With Kid Gloves?

Assume for a moment that Mr Donald Trump, President of the United States, was in the habit of changing his clothes four times a day; assume also that he was extra fastidious about what he wore, carefully coordinating colours, choosing headgear to suit an occasion, and always paying obsessive attention to his sartorial appearance. If all of that were true, how do you think America’s media—mainstream or otherwise—would have portrayed these attributes? Yes, they’d have a field day. Late night talk show hosts would lampoon him with delight; cartoonists would go to town; and, in general, the media would get enough fodder to go berserk.

America’s media, like Britain’s, enjoy degrees of freedom and the constitutionally protected right to express one’s views like few do in other countries. In many places, undemocratic or simply authoritarian governments clamp down hard on what the media can say. In others, such as in India, the censorship is less visible yet quite effectively imposed. Take the stories about the sartorial obsessiveness of India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Unlike Mr Trump who favours bland and boxy Brioni suits and doesn’t change his clothes four times a day, Mr Modi’s penchant for wearing carefully considered clothes is quite well known. In 2015, when the then US President Barack Obama visited India, Mr Modi wore a custom-tailored suit (which was later auctioned for a reported sum of Rs 4.3 crore) with pinstripes that were inscription of his name embroidered in gold thread. And later that year, while visiting the US, in Silicon Valley, he changed his clothes, choosing different ensembles, four times in a day.

It’s more than a little ridiculous that the executive head of a country as vast and as beset with complex issues relating to governance and development to grapple with is seemingly obsessed with the way he dresses. Yet, the response in India’s mainstream media is typically one of fawning. This month, on Independence Day, when Mr Modi addressed the nation from the ramparts of New Delhi’s Red Fort, one report in a leading Indian newspaper gushed about how “he swapped his typical white short-sleeve kurta for a crisp full-sleeve kurta pyjama set and finished the thing off with a complementary stole and a vibrant saffron and red turban, once again proving he knows his way around bright Bandhini print headgear. Modi’s latest Independence Day attire is a refreshing way of dressing like a prime minister and a masterclass in festive Indian dressing”. No irony; no satire. Only unbridled adulation.

National leaders, including prime ministers and presidents, even if they dress well, usually keep things simple in order to focus on other, more important things. Mr Obama, for instance, usually wore his trademark navy blue suits and sober ties; his successor, for all the ridicule and criticism flung at him otherwise by the US media, dresses in suits that are far from flamboyant.  CEOs of giant companies do the same. Apple’s late Steve Jobs was always clad in a black turtleneck, jeans and New Balance sneakers. It saved him the trouble and time everyday of thinking about what to wear. He had more important things to think about. Many have followed his example.

But Indian media’s indulgence for Mr Modi’s sartorial flair is only one example of how mainstream press, TV and other channels have come to treat those in power: with deference instead of a demand for accountability. That trend has intensified in the past few years and it is probably not coincidence that this has happened after Mr Modi’s government took charge in Delhi in 2014. But by no means is it a new trend. For long, India’s mainstream media have thrived on what is known as “access journalism”, a form where you do stories, articles and interviews in exchange for access to the rich and powerful, which also means that what you are able to publish or broadcast is usually approved by those who give you that access. Recently, there were several interviews with Mr Modi published in leading Indian newspapers, some of them via email with softball questions that were presumably pre-vetted by his office. Questions pre-approved by the interviewee, especially a powerful one, are a common phenomenon in Indian journalism. But what is inevitably lost in such an exercise is journalistic objectivity, which gets traded in for the all-important access.

India’s senior journalists and editors, particularly in the older, traditional media establishments, enjoy a hail-fellow-well-met familiarity with those they report or write about, or interview. Such familiarity is obviously not conducive to objectivity in what is published, which is usually weighted in favour of the people who ought to attract more journalistic scrutiny but because of the “relationship” with the journalists, don’t. An affable senior member of Mr Modi’s cabinet of ministers is known for his good relations with editors and other senior Delhi journalists, often hosting them at his residence for informal freewheeling discussions and trade in political gossip. Such coteries can and do effectively shape the course of political journalism and influence editorial opinion at some of India’s biggest media establishments.

Even a casual observer of the current state of India’s journalism can easily note the emergence of disturbing trends. India’s mainstream media—the newspapers, news TV channels, and magazines—abound with journalism that is roughly in line with what the government wants to project. Such “positive” treatment can be observed in the coverage of most issues—government schemes and projects; and Mr Modi’s speeches and utterances and those of his colleagues. There’s a varying degree of that “positivity”, of course. Some outlets, notably a few news TV channels, take it to a fan-boy level of adulation for the government in forms that can be downright harmful. Others resist from delving too deep into critiques of controversial decisions—such as Mr Modi’s surprise, and possibly hasty, decision to demonetise large currency notes. Or of whether there is some sleight of hand in his government’s claim of GDP growth and employment generation.

When it comes to investigative journalism—such as the non-transparent deal to buy Rafale fighter aircraft from France for billions of dollars—the mainstream media’s coverage is lukewarm, superficial, or worse. The instinct to play it safe and leave powerful feathers unruffled has sadly become the mainstay of the mainstream media. Indian journalists love to crow about and ridicule the shortcomings of US president Trump and his regime. But just look at the relentless and hard-hitting critique that his country’s established media metes out to him, scrutinising in detail every controversy that arises. There is not even a semblance of such scrutiny and diligence when it comes to controversies embroiling the government at home.

Yet there is a silver lining. The rise of small and independent digital media publications in India has filled the gap that old and established media conglomerates are leaving. In recent times, these are the places to look for if you seek objective, meticulously put together probes and analyses that hold the government and people in power to task. Many of these new media endeavours are refreshingly free of vested interests; neither do they seek “access” and bonhomie with those whose affairs they report and write about; and several of them have quickly won for themselves credibility and the trust of their readers. There is hope.

Sanjoy Narayan tweets @sanjoynarayan  ]]>

HAS INDIA’S MAINSTREAM MEDIA BECOME EMASCULATED?

New Delhi: A delegation of journalists calls on Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh in New Delhi on Oct 4, 2017. (Photo: IANS/PIB)[/caption] Yet the Sridevi episode and how 24-hour TV news channels breathlessly covered it is a symptom of a larger malaise that has begun affecting Indian media. For a better sense of what it is that has struck newsrooms across India, it would be wise to look for what Indian mainstream media are not doing stories on rather than what they are covering. Let’s take the print media. Even a desultory survey of publications will show that besides the stray op-ed pieces in some newspapers, stories that are even mildly critical of the government are strikingly rare. And when they’re published, they seem to be underplayed in terms of their prominence in the publications. In contrast, milquetoast stories on the government’s achievements, favourable interviews with its ministers, and platitudes, often in the form of the prime minister’s utterances are given bigger play. [caption id="attachment_24266" align="alignleft" width="463"] What happened after four Judges raised serious questions about Judiciary?[/caption] Last month when the president of the regime’s main political party, the Bharatiya Janata Party, took ill while touring a southern state, a newspaper earlier known for its indisputable credibility, ran a story that listed items that he ate while sick and how long he rested. And, not very long ago, when Prime Minister Narendra Modi, a man not particularly defined by his academic achievements, wrote a book for high-schoolers on how to tackle the challenge of exams, many publications chose to run a story replete with plaudits on their front pages. Compared to those, you’d be hard-pressed to find well-researched reportage on the plight of India’s burgeoning youth, millions of who stare at a bleak jobless future. Or the real effect that demonetisation had on small traders who eked out a living in a cash economy with little resources to fall back on when currency notes were abolished overnight. The same is true for issues such as the deep trouble that India’s institutions such as the judiciary faces. When four dissenting judges of the Supreme Court held an unprecedented press conference and raised serious questions about the functioning of India’s apex court, there was frenzied reporting about the event. And then it stopped with little or no follow up of what those senior judges had brought to the fore. There are scores of such instances where India’s mainstream media have appeared to hold back. Few of the channels that were exercised over knowing the “truth” about Sridevi’s death have shown similar zeal in investigating the mysterious death of a judge who was presiding over an alleged “fake encounter killing” in Gujarat in which one of India’s most powerful politician could be involved.  In a democracy that prides itself for having a free press and where one of the key roles of the media is to hold a mirror to authority and provide constructive criticism, India’s mainstream media every so often appear to pull their punches and look the other way when they ought to do the opposite. Curiously, this is true even in the absence of any formal governmental gag order to control India’s media. Last month, The Washington Post reported that India had slipped to 136 in 2017 on the World Press Freedom Index rankings, finding itself below Afghanistan and Myanmar (neither country a paragon of press freedom) and quoted the watchdog group Reporters Without Borders as saying that this was because of “growing self-censorship and Hindu nationalists trying to purge ‘anti-nationalist’ thought.” It is true that unlike in the era of “emergency” that was declared in the 1970s by the then Congress Prime Minister Indira Gandhi when press freedom was formally curbed and newsrooms subjected to rigorous censorship there is no government-sponsored ban on the press or other media. Yet, in recent years in many Indian states, as the Post story mentions, journalists have been subjected to threats, imprisonment, or worse. India’s ruling regime at the Centre is not known for its tolerance towards criticism and even mild censure of its actions by media has been known to cause displeasure of those who are powerful in government. Many of India’s media barons have interests in other businesses whose fortunes can be dented by official retaliation and it is not uncommon for the publications or TV news channels that they own to take extra care not to ruffle important feathers. [caption id="attachment_25483" align="alignleft" width="832"] Jaipur: Journalists stage a demonstration against Criminal Laws (Rajasthan Amendment) Bill that was tabled in the Rajasthan assembly in Jaipur on Oct 24, 2017. This bill amends the Criminal Code of Procedure, 1973, and also bars the media from naming the public servant till the Rajasthan government allows the case to be investigated. (Photo: Ravi Shankar Vyas/IANS)[/caption]   [caption id="attachment_25488" align="alignleft" width="416"] New Delhi: Conference of Senior Editors, (Photo: IANS/PIB)[/caption] Self-censorship or tacit pressure on media from those in power make for an unfortunate trend in a country where readers and viewers of news media run into hundreds of millions. If covering stories that raise questions about the government’s functioning, or the effectiveness of its policies, or the the truth about its achievements become no-go areas for media then media outlets will have no choice but to do grotesquely inane stories such as the ones they did when Sridevi died and reporters will, like the poor chap from the TV channel, have to clamber into bathtubs or do worse.]]>

WHEN MEDIA PLAYS THE VOYEUR, JUDGE & DOCTOR

Long after Nargis and Meena Kumari died, a cinema actress in the person of Sridevi received fitting tributes when she passed away on February 24, suddenly, tragically. Her receiving “state funeral” with the national tricolour draped on her, perhaps in recognition of her popularity, as millions watched her funeral procession made the event memorable. This is not about Sridevi or about her contribution to cinema that she served for half-a-century before dying at 54. It is about the way media projected the event and the way it generally does with anything, on any issue that it deems will give it higher TRPs (television rating points). Again, this is not only about television, but also the mainstream media and the social media, since they all feed on and flirt with each other. And again, this is not about the media alone. It must include the government – any government irrespective of political hue – and the selfie-struck society as a whole. Tall order, but Sridevi sparks this concern. Without seeking to play the TV medium against the print, it is better to quote from The Indian Express editorial that sums up her death reporting. “Whether it happened under botox, or under the influence, or under the confluence of constellations, or none of the above, is speculation. The question of causality is addressed by forensic specialists, not by TV journalists trying their hand at amateur sleuthing. In this electronic version of the 19th century freakshow, digital wine-glasses are being stood on the rims of digital bathtubs, and real journalists are being made to slide into real bathtubs, while the dead actor’s height is being measured up against the length of products in sanitaryware catalogues. This is mumbo-jumbo journalism, a ratings game in which Mumbo is trying to pull ahead of Jumbo.” After the initial shocker that she died of “cardiac arrest” the TV talk shows and social media held lengthy discussions on the state of her health. Conjectures were based on ‘rumours’ about her consuming diet pills, having weight reduction surgery, adhering to a strict keto diet, among others. Value judgments were also passed about whether a middle-aged lady that Sridevi was ought to engage in these alleged methods to stay slim. Nobody thought that the decent thing to do was to wait for the official post-mortem report. When that report certified that Sridevi had died due to “accidental drowning after a loss of consciousness”, all hell broke loose. She was painted as someone too drunk to step into the bathtub for her bath. Was she drunk? Politician and a family friend, Amar Singh, volunteered that she did not consume ‘hard’ drink; “only wine, occasionally, like me.” But that did not help. Media turned anti-booze. The twitterati’s verdict was that she brought her own end. Some people suspected foul play: industry rivalry… husband Boney Kapoor… these filmy fellows are like that only…. Some channels simulated the scene of Sridevi’s death. One of them placed their reporter at the scene of her death, with the studio bathtub reading ‘Maut Ka Bathtub’, another thought it fit to photo-shop a comatose Sridevi in a bathtub. A channel added a wine glass for effect. And another thought the picture wasn’t complete without Boney Kapoor. And yet another even promised to take viewers through “Sridevi’s last 15 minutes in bathroom”. Kapoor being questioned by police is normal procedure. It was exaggerated as if he was a suspect and was being ‘grilled’. Channels forgot to mention that he was eventually ‘cleared.’ Did she take wine or vodka? What caused her to drink that evening? One ‘analyst’ surmised that one glass of alcohol and an antidepressant could have been fatal.  Extended discussions ensued on what ‘frustrated’ Sridevi, what caused her to drink that night, and so. Ah yes, the bathtub was not spared. Most Indians do not enjoy this ‘luxury’ and bathe using bucket and lota, someone observed. He forgot that she was in a luxury resort, without bucket and lota. The photo-shop of Sridevi’s body reminds of a TV channel in flood-hit Chennai last year. It stood its reporter in the midst of flood water gurgling around. It was a studio trick. Many believed, sympathizing with the reporter, others were angry at this subterfuge. In another photo-shop, Prime \Minister Narendra Modi was shown surveying those floods from his aircraft.  He had neither flown, not visited Chennai. The photo was officially released by his office that had egg on its face. One can go on. But lo! A blogger for one of the country’s largest newspaper chain accused those in the media critical of the TV coverage of ‘hypocrisy’. They would have done the same thing. Grapes are sour, etc., etc. Many TV celebrities get friendly print space in major newspapers to defend themselves and snigger at their critics. They enjoy best of both the worlds. It is incestuous relationship. Much of the fare is at personal, physical level. A top-line newspaper carried a picture of actor Deepika Padukone commenting on her cleavage.  “Yes, I am a woman. I have cleavage. Any problems?” she responded, She was trolled for several days by social media. The concerned newspaper carried comments justifying its initial action. She was accused of being squeamish, touchy, spoilsport and much else. Whatever may have happened to the actor’s sense of hurt and self-esteem, the newspaper enjoyed multiple-whammy. It argued – with its many takers, but many more critics, hopefully — that people in public life are public property and should be ready to face criticism. But was that criticism of Deepika or cheap comment by closet voyeurists? From social and filmy issues with obvious glamour content to be exploited, the Indians have in the recent years graduated to political trolling. Virtually all political parties have armies of trollers euphemistically called “cyber media cells”. Day in and day out, they are on TV network screaming at each other with the anchors screaming the loudest to ensure control over what is supposed to be a debate. What is astounding is that the ‘guests’ on the TV channels who otherwise belong to the political-social elite, turn into shouting brigades shedding all forms of public decency. They often get rudely told off by the anchors – but they still keep coming. Then, take India-Pakistan debates by some of the top channels. The shouting game has chest-thumping Indians versus pan/chewing gum chewing retired Pakistani military officers and experts who actually enjoy being bullied and called names from the safety of Indian studios. For all that derisive laughter and screams, one hears the fee is a good USD 500. Not bad at all for all the notoriety and fame among Indian viewers and quite possibly, pats on the back from compatriots. And why not? It is hardly surprising that the Indian media is not taken seriously abroad.     ]]>

GOVT COMPLAINANT, ADJUDICATOR AND EXECUTIONER AGAINST MEDIA

pathankot-air-force-after-the-attack Pathankot Air-Force- base after attack[/caption] India Today Editor-in-Chief Aroon Purie said “Banning channels dangerous weapon in hands of government. Should respect well-established self regulation”. Another well known TV anchor Anchal Vohra tweeted : “NDTV india is by far the sanest Hindi news channel that has stuck to journalistic values when many others won’t. Banning it is shameful”. Thus, there was near unanimity that the punishment awarded to the NDTV was unjust and without any evidence in hand that its coverage had compromised national security. Perhaps the punishment was just a signal and warning to others in the media to be careful and toe the government’s line. While there can be no two opinions about the need for the safety and security of our armed forces personnel, particularly during a terrorist attacked, the manner in which the government singled out a channel and imposed a harsh penalty is condemnable. What is particularly jarring is the fact that the ‘punishment’ has been imposed by an inter-ministerial committee which came to the conclusion that the channel was guilty and should be punished. Such arbitrary decisions, particularly involving media, should not be left to the whims and fancies of politicians and bureaucrats. Investigations in cases where any section of media is charged with violating the law, should be done by the professionals or the courts. Ideally the government should have referred the issue to the independent self regulatory body, the News Broadcasting Standards Authority (NBSA) or filed a petition in the courts. Hopefully the Supreme Court, which has held out hope, would come out with guidelines and would not leave such decisions to politicians or bureaucrats. Perhaps the scope of the Press Council of India, formed in 1978, should be enlarged to include electronic media and it be rechristened Media Council of India and given more powers. The government, which has put the ban on hold till the ministry’s decision is reviewed following a request by the channel, must withdraw it completely. After all it is illogical and unfair for the government to be the complainant as well as the adjudicator and also the executioner. // ]]>