During a discussion on his recently-published book "2014: The Election That Changed India”, senior journalist and television anchor Rajdeep Sardesai was very critical of the working of the Indian media, not only in the run-up to the general election but also because of the unquestioning attitude of many journalists who praise Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The discussion, organised by the book's publisher, Penguin Books India, in collaboration with the Maulana Mohamed Ali 'Jauhar' (MMAJ) Academy of International Studies at Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi, on 20 November, included a conversation with Paranjoy Guha Thakurta. Here are edited excerpts:
Paranjoy Guha Thakurta: So how did Narendra Modi and Amit Shah crack India’s first-past-the-post-winner-takes-all voting system ...to end up with 282 Lok Sabha seats...?
Rajdeep Sardesai: In 2011, Rajesh Jain, a Mumbai based industrialist who heads "Friends of the BJP" (Bharatiya Janata Party) and promotes the right-wing website Niticentral.com - apparently he also made some Rs 500 crore by selling a website at the turn of the century - wrote a blog wherein he suggested that the BJP should junk alliance politics and fight this election in the belief that the party could get 272 seats. It was Jain who coined the "Mission 272" slogan. He said that the BJP should focus its energies on 350 Lok Sabha seats in the country where the BJP had a fair chance of winning and forget about the other 200. These 350 seats stretched from Goa to Bihar and Jharkhand on one side and from Punjab and Himachal (Pradesh) ... to Karnataka in the south...
In 2014, large parts of India were looking for an Arnold Schwarzenegger sort of muscular man. In any other context, Mr Modi may have been seen as a divisive figure. But in 2014, given the leadership deficit on the other side, Mr Modi emerged as a macho leader, the right man at the right place and the right context. There are six "thank you" cards that he has to send for the BJP achieving this figure...(to Manmohan Singh, Rahul Gandhi, Akhilesh Yadav, Ajit Pawar, Mani Shankar Aiyar), the sixth being to the media.
"Under the Emergency, the government asked us to bend and we crawled. Now proprietors ask us to bend and we crawl."
If Narendra Modi was the Pied Piper, the media was the orchestra. Eventually, we were like a loudspeaker. We were able to create this surround sound. Sometime in the middle of 2013, we decided that Modi jeetne wala hai (is all set to win). Modi brings television rating points (TRPs). Chalo uske saath chalte hai (Let us go along with him). So at times, we were covering three or four of his rallies live, unquestioningly, uncritically. Before long, we had become cheerleaders. We lost the capacity to do what the media should be doing, that is question Mr Modi. Suddenly Mr Modi appeared larger than life. He was no longer the Chief Minister of Gujarat, but the man India awaited. He became a heroic figure....
Paranjoy: In your book, you quote an interview I did with Yogendra Yadav (psephologist and leader of the Aam Aadmi Party, for thehoot.org) where he says that the BJP got an additional vote share of five per cent because of the media. There was unprecedented voter turnout... (But was) it just the search for TRPs that drove the media? Was it just about good business, say, getting free news feeds from the BJP? Never before has the corporate sector - which owns a large section of the media - so overtly, so obviously, supported one candidate? Isn’t it evident that the corporate media played a huge role in the kind of (electoral) outcome that we saw?
Rajdeep: We cannot say that it was just one factor, that the corporate media decided that they were going to push Narendra Modi at all costs... Yes, there is little doubt, and you are seeing it even after the elections, (that) the media (in general) and the corporate media in particular have made its preferences so starkly clear. I mean you had the absurd sight I saw the other day in Haryana where the chairman of a media house was sharing a platform with Mr Modi, openly campaigning (for his party).
Paranjoy: You are talking about Subhash Chandra, Zee Group Head….
Rajdeep: You can name names. I won’t. I get into trouble when I give names, nowadays (laughs). There is someone else who is opening a charitable institution with the Prime Minister (in attendance), someone who also owns a media house. It has now become clear where the corporate media’s interests are. Let me say this: our media, my media, your media has become amoral, not immoral, but amoral. We have decided that jo chalta hai, woh chalta hai (that which works, works). In 2011, Anna Hazare, who may have earlier been treated by the media as if he was a gram sarpanch (village head) was converted into a national hero. Wherever you looked...there were people (who had gathered to hear him)...we in the media said 50,000 are there. One channel said Anna is India, and India is Anna, almost reminding you of what Dev Kant Barooah (had said): Indira is India and India is Indira.
"Modi was the Pied Piper, the media was the orchestra."
We have this remarkable capacity now to create, what I said earlier, the surround sound, the hype, around every event. Mr Modi knew that. He was clever enough to realise that he would go with this townhall concept (of public meetings)...in a premier institution like, say, the Shri Ram College of Commerce in Delhi where one can give a speech which is carried by news channels and (he) doesn't have to answer any questions.
The one thing that Narendra Modi does not do anymore is answer any questions. Take the Diwali Milan this year hosted by the Prime Minister which various journalists attended. The journalists, instead of saying: Modi-ji thorisi sawal lijiye (Mr Modi, please take some questions), were more interested in Modi-ji hamare saath selfie lijiye (Mr Modi, please click a selfie with us). Journalists have moved from asking questions to taking selfies. This has nothing to do with corporate India. This has been done by journalists themselves. We have become amoral beings who have become cheerleaders and who are completely carried away by what we see around us. And Mr Modi was clever enough to realise that.
Paranjoy: On page 31 of your book, you talk of the time when Karan Thapar was interviewing Mr Modi for CNN-IBN’s Devil’s Advocate programme. You write that you had told Thapar that the Gujarat Chief Minister and the BJP's prime ministerial candidate was still very sensitive about the (2002) riots and maybe, the subject should be broached later in the interview.It’s not that the entire media has been unquestioning. There is Manoj Mitta’s book The Fiction of Fact Finding on the aftermath of the Godhra riots...You covered the Gujarat riots in 2002.
This side of Mr Modi has become an almost forgotten chapter among large sections of the media. It was always Modi the administrator, Modi who would replicate the Gujarat model of development, Modi who would get this country out of the quagmire of policy paralysis and so on... Even the section of media that used to be critical of Modi seems less so.What really happened? How did the media change in the decade or so since 2002?
Rajdeep: I don’t know whether the media changed. I think two or three things happened. I think a section of the media changed. Mr Modi changed, strategically. Mr Modi does everything strategically. He will even have his mother go and cast her vote in an auto if only to send out a message that the trappings of power have not changed him and he does not even give his mother special treatment. Mr Modi realised post-2009, once he started seeing himself as a potential Prime Minister, that he could not win India by practising the politics of 2002. From 2007-08 or even earlier, Mr Modi projected himself as a victim of an English media conspiracy. So he put large sections of the media on the defensive.
"The media has to ask itself very serious questions….about the way we are covering Modi’s foreign trips and whatever else that happens around Mr Modi."
I mean he made me sit on the footboard of a bus. I can live with that. It was probably his way of telling me what my station in life was. But that is Mr Modi for you. He does not forgive or forget. So Mr Modi changed. A section of the media changed for a variety of reasons,including the growing corporatisation of the media.The one thing that corporate interests wanted to do at any cost was to get rid of Manmohan Singh as Prime Minister. They needed someone else.
If the Congress in 2011 had brought in a Chidambaram who perhaps knew how to deal with corporate India better and perhaps had stronger links with them, one cannot be sure how corporate India would have reacted. Manmohan Singh, Sonia and Rahul Gandhi were seen as representing left of centre politics which was seen as slowing down the economy, in some cases legitimately so. Along comes Narendra Modi. So India changes, a section of the media changes, and Mr Modi himself strategically changes.
Paranjoy: One criticism of your book by Ajaz Ashraf (in thehoot.org) is that you have been too much of a reporter and less of an analyst. You yourself acknowledge that you are essentially a commentator and a reporter, not an academic and much less an analyst. You have not gone enough into Narendra Modi’s alleged role in the 2002 riots. Would you agree?
Rajdeep: If you look at the first chapter, it reflects my view. One may argue that I have not gone into detail like Manoj Mitta did on the incidents of 2002 but his book, The Fiction of Fact Finding, is about 2002. My book is essentially about 2014. But that does not mean that it's not about 2002. To my mind, I tried as far as I could to speak about the Gujarat riots of 2002 without being judgemental. My fear was, given my past, the moment I went into 2002, people would say this book is about 2002. I did not want it not because of any fear about how Mr Modi would react, but because my book was not about 2002. I have written a lot about 2002 and I am happy to continue to write about it.
The best way, I believe, is to just tell the story, rather than have any judgement. To my mind too many of us tend to give our own analysis. Sometimes it is just best to tell your story so well that the other person has no answer to your story. That is the better way. That is what my purpose has been. (Rajdeep then read out a portion from his book in which he describes how he and his colleagues were accosted and threatened by a group of goons after he was returning from Gandhinagar to Ahmedabad after interviewing Narendra Modi in March 2002.)
Audience question: We all remember the famous quote by Lal Krishna Advani during the Emergency, 'When editors were asked to bend, they crawled'. What would be the punchline for the present media, on how it has been dealing with the present government?
Rajdeep: Paranjoy is here. He is a good example of what an independent journalist can or cannot do. But look, in the days of the Emergency, the government asked us to bend and we crawled. Now the only difference is that proprietors ask us to bend and we crawl. These are depressing times. It is not easy to be a journalist in India because you realise that it is not often easy to offer alternative narratives to challenge the orthodoxy and to raise questions. ButI do believe that the journalist community has enormous capacity to change. After 1977, the Emergency years, journalists did rediscover their spine.
Paranjoy: The same journalists whose voices were throttled by Indira Gandhi were also very critical of the Janata government led by Morarji Desai.
Rajdeep: I remain hopeful. However, the media has to ask itself very serious questions, particularly questions about the ways in which we are covering the (Prime Minister's) foreign trips and whatever else that happens around Mr Modi. It almost seems that we are cheerleaders. And I don’t think that anybody is asking us to do that.Yet, we are getting carried away by the surround sound around us.
Audience question: Do you think that for some journalists, their own individuality, their own imagination of India as a Hindu country, also plays an important role in how and what they are writing and reporting about? What do you say about journalists, and their personal politics?
Rajdeep: Do journalists wear their Hindu identity? This is a difficult question to answer. Some journalists do and I think that there is a growing practice among journalists, not just journalists, increasingly of all of us in society, wherein they get caught in what I call a ‘them versus us’ (phenomenon). There is a kind of polarisation that is taking place, either you are with us or you are with them and this is forcing journalists to abandon the middle ground, and not try to see every issue in a rational manner. Instead we are being boxed into corners and that can lead us into expressing our identities in not exactly a savoury manner. We seem to be wearing an identity where we juxtapose our identity against someone else's. I have no problem if someone feels strongly about his or her religious identity. It is when you use that identity to contrast it against the others, that your journalism gets affected.That is worrying.
Audience question: Does the media just go by TRP highs? What is the role of the media in the realm of saffronisation of education?
Rajdeep: I am no defender of my tribe anymore. I find it increasingly difficult to defend journalists or journalism anymore. Saffronisation of education is a big challenge.This issue does not come out on a day to day basis... who is being appointed as vice chancellor, how are syllabi being changed. These stories do not often make headline news and that is a concern. I just hope that journalists do not lose their power of questioning. I remain hopeful in the long run that there are enough journalists in the country, whether it is a Paranjoy or someone else, who will always raise tough uncomfortable questions. Modi wants to make India Singapore, but don't forget, in Singapore, journalists who question authorities can be jailed. We are a country where if you ask Indians to queue, they will always break the queue. In a strange way, our capacity to dissent is good.
Link to the audio recording of the full discussion: