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  

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