Balakot shows the mirror on Modi’s broken media ties

Balakot shows the mirror on Modi’s broken media ties

Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

Reporting the 2007 Gujarat Assembly election, I remember being taken aback at the hostility of some Modi supporters towards the English media, especially those from the television medium. It seemed to my out-of-town reporter eyes that they actually saw the English press as an enemy to their current and prospective CM. That fleeting encounter with Modi’s voters stayed in my mind long after I had left the gleaming highways and dirt-poor tribal hamlets of Gujarat. The special vituperation the average Modi supporter seemed to harbour towards a ‘biased’ English press and its journalists would be played out nationally less than a decade later. Chief Minister Modi would be Prime Minister Modi. And the English media, a pain in the neck for the Gujarat CM, long-criticised for his role in the 2002 communal riots in the state targeting Muslims, would not just be seen as ‘anti-Modi’ but, verily, as ‘anti-national’.

As the story of the Balakot air strikes broke on social media and then on TV on the morning of February 26, and the Indian and the world press anxiously awaited an official word from the Modi government that India had indeed dropped bombs deep inside Pakistani territory, I was struck by how panicked the media appeared to be. There was no information from the government through its official channels several hours after the event. The panic only mounted the following day as news of Pakistan’s retaliation against India for the Balakot strikes began trickling in by mid-morning. The sluggishness of the Indian government’s response in confirming the attack, and more significantly, the capture of an Indian pilot – Abhinandan Varthaman -- by the Pakistani side produced a niggling feeling that finally Modi’s policy of not engaging with the media, except on his own terms, had become an instrument of government policy.

On a day when, in effect, Indo-Pak hostilities were at their peak since the 1999 Kargil war between the two countries, the Indian media was left to fend for itself as Pakistan outdid India at the media seeding exercise by releasing footage of Wing Commander Varthaman in custody, showing him blindfolded first and later having a cup of tea with his captors.

Which reveals what the current stand-off with Pakistan illuminates vis-a-vis the state of the Indian media: Modi’s tendency to go over the head of the press, as it were, and engage with people directly has brought the government-media relationship to a pass where official press briefings are not held even at the most crucial and sensitive of times. Consider that the PM has not held even one press conference since he took charge and whatever interviews he has given have been only to a handful of media outlets. The situation begs the question whether the relationship between the government and a cross-section of media is completely broken.   

Thus the Balakot moment throws up some important questions, not just from the point of view of what the developments with Pakistan mean for India in the coming months and years diplomatically, but equally in terms of what they say about the state of the media. Does Prime Minister Narendra Modi believe the press to be dispensable? And has the role of the traditional media -- as far as the dissemination of the government line goes -- now been completely handed over to loyal social media voices and selected, hand-picked media outlets which broadcast a mix of fact and conjecture, attributing it all to unnamed, all-knowing “sources”?

Even as answers continue to be sought on the strikes – did or did not India actually cross the Line of Control with Pakistan, did Indian jets manage to find their targets, how many people were actually killed in the attack on a Jaish-e-Mohammad facility that India claims was at the heart of planning future terror attacks on India, did India actually manage to take down a Pakistani F 16 fighter jet and so on – there seems to be clarity on one front. Modi and the BJP have simply not bothered to engage with these questions, preferring instead to once again directly speak with the people through the medium of public speech. The problem with this approach is that not all communication with people can happen through political rhetoric alone. It requires to be filtered through a lens that critiques, verifies and analyses, in order to build credibility. That lens is the media.

If politics as electioneering is the language in which the fears and aspirations of people are addressed directly, Modi has decided to do just that. Engaging with voters through the medium of journalism seems to be for lesser mortals and garden variety politicians. Indian journalism couldn’t have seen a more difficult time, excluding perhaps the Emergency.

Its utility and even indispensability for governments to function effectively stand challenged. The Balakot strikes present a mirror to the people on the state of journalism today. It is now their time to choose wisely, understanding that their decision will affect not just who gets to occupy the seat of power post the Lok Sabha polls, but whether their democracy functions in a way that serves them best.

Get a round-up of the day's top stories in your inbox

Check out all newsletters

Get a round-up of the day's top stories in your inbox