Saintly Melodrama at Prime Time

A sign of how deeply entrenched is the reach of competitive melodrama in Indian television journalism can be seen in how, even to counter it, you have to offer your own self-righteous melodrama. This was evident in the blackenedscreen that Ravish Kumar, Executive Editor of NDTV India, used to raise a sense of sanctimonious alarm about what he projected as the darkness that has set in the debates conducted and news coverage done by TRP-chasing news channels (his rival channels, of course).

The visual metaphor of darkened space, a cliché borrowed from the ‘blank space’ editorials carried by some dailies during the Emergency to protest against press censorship was used to produce a melodramatic effect which appeals to his channel’s core viewership: people who like to be seen as the saviours of educated civility, liberal values (which implies agreeable values, for all practical purposes), ‘progressive’ fiefdoms, and refined literary tastes.

There are clear dangers in assuming and arrogating to yourself the divine right to superior or ‘real’ journalism. However, what is even more insidious is how media critics have been using different yardsticks for different forms of melodrama – preferring one over the other and, in the process, exposing certain blind spots of their own.

There are obvious reasons why the Ravish Kumar school of media critique will not subject his own channel to the same process of critical scrutiny. As a practising professional (read interested party) in a competitive media universe, it’s expected that he will develop selective amnesia about the inconvenient past that haunts the media group he works for, be it the Radia tapes, compromising the safety of security personnel in the reporting of the 26/11 Mumbai terror attacks, and his own partisan line of questioning and coverage, especially in the recent assembly elections in Delhi and Bihar.

He should consider himself lucky that nobody has started asking him, as fashionable media conspiracy theorists often do these days, who funds NDTV India and whether the ‘R’ word would surface as a major lender. It’s a detail that Kumar himself would have pounced on if the beneficiary had been a rival media house. His selective case for media vigilantism rests there, but what explains the blinkers of people who are judging from a distance as uninvolved entities of media theatre? If not objectivity, which anyway is an inhuman expectation, can fairness be expected in how they judge prime time histrionics?

That takes us back to the question: what shapes the different benchmarks which media critics have for different forms of melodramatic journalism? It seems that it has more to do with ingrained assumptions, or you may call it  inherited ‘common sense’, about civility, public reasoning (an euphemism for convenient ‘liberal’ posturings) and educated ‘refinement’ which defined the terms on which news and views were expected to be delivered.

When an assortment of melodramatic performances in television news is collectively dubbed as ‘meet the mob in our TV studios’ or a particularly loud anchor (I too have cringed at his histrionics) is charged with ‘manufacturing nationalist outrage’ or constructing ‘moral panic’ (last year Outlook had a coverstory with a headline which even accused him of ‘killing TV news’), the running thread is as much about the aesthetics of prime time performances as about who is at the receiving end.

After all, we didn’t see any critical dissection of the manufacturing of intolerance outrage which facilitated the sideshow of award wapsi by people who are good at getting awards and better at returning them. Why is one type of theatrical journalism so agreeable and another type so alienating for the intellectual custodians of the media space?

One way to look at it would be through the cultural prism of embedded Nehruvian aesthetics which serves as the default critical yardstick by which to gauge the ‘civility’ of media debates. As an echo chamber of their aspirational and perceived civility, a certain kind of television performance gains traction for such sections of media consumers.

Kumar and his ilk, for instance, can get away with their stuff with generous doses of literary flourish to please this section. Sometimes they do this with red herrings when the immediate question is deflected in order to impose a hierarchy of questions – the kind of questions that they supposedly address and which have some intrinsic status as  superior or ‘real’ journalism.

When Kumar takes potshots at a type of prime time show by giving a laundry list of what it does not cover (deciding effectively what the ‘real’ news list should be) or when Rajdeep Sardesai indulges himself with a polemical tirade or when Barkha Dutt resorts to the old-fashioned theatrics of ‘Letter to the Prime Minister’, they are sure that they will not be subjected to the same critical scrutiny that is reserved for the ‘rabid, uncouth and dim-witted rabble rousers’ who perform in the alternative theatre, located slightly to their right.

In fact, far from any scrutiny, such tirades may win them critical acclaim, as is evident from media commentators who are in a hurry to adopt Kumar as the new left-liberal icon of the newsroom. It seems that these anchors are beneficiaries of an oligarchic hold on intellectual heft and the idea of political correctness.

In one of his recent columns, political commentator Swapan Dasgupta argues that lampooning of the right and the loneliness of the right in intellectual and artistic circles have a global pattern of prejudice. Identifying how this pattern monopolised discourse in India but has been challenged by the inroads made by the right in popular imagination, Dasgupta observes:

“The projection of the ideological ‘Other’ as stupid, socially regressive and aesthetically unsound has persisted. Indeed, it has made a dramatic re-entry into the public discourse in recent months following the outbreak of the culture wars. The editorial pages of newspapers are replete with outbursts against the simple-minded ‘Hindu Right’ that has failed to understand the metaphors of Hinduism, the complexities of the historical process, diverse food habits and the ‘idea of India’… That despite the absence of a level playing field, the Indian Right with a culturalist agenda (and commitment to economic deregulation) has grown exponentially over the past decades is significant.”

Along with media discourse, the fact that alternative narratives on Indian history are discouraged and no space is given to political conservatism as an ideological tradition in the social science curriculum of Indian universities (it’s taught as a well developed theory in some of the most well known universities across the world) further swing the terms of cerebral respectability, and obviously civility, in this country towards left-of-centre leanings.

One of the contributors to a general perception about selective outrage or selective indifference is how the nature of media reporting and commentary is seen as dependent on the religious identity of  the perpetrators in a communal flare up. Consumers of mainstream media in India now almost take it as an axiom of media reporting. The approach to covering the Malda violence in West Bengal, as Jyoti Punwani correctly identifies in a piece on this website or the arrest of Kamlesh Tiwari in Uttar Pradesh, are some recent examples of how such a perception gets reinforced.

It’s no coincidence that amid the din of the JNU controversy, the brutal murderof an RSS worker in Kerala went largely unnoticed. It neither ignited television debates nor provoked angry editorials. In fact, this discriminatory sensitivity to communal issues has, in a significant way, alienated the mainstream media from people carrying a particular religious identity because they have perceived that media professionals are more keen to prove their liberal credentials than to establish the facts.

In 2011, when I was hired to write for a start up media watchdog, I was told that their editorial outlook was ‘left liberal’. I knew that the start up had restricted its chances of critiquing the media to the same inherited and unexamined ‘common sense’ which permeates the mainstream media.

For all practical purposes, it meant that certain noises would be seen as lunatic rants and certain noises would attract a higher benchmark of tolerance and might even be amplified as exemplary journalism. The same blinkers were applied to melodrama too, Kumar being its latest beneficiary.

In fact, the responses of some people to any critique of his liberal and ‘realistic’ sainthood are no less dramatic. Well known writer Amitav Kumar, who somehow found in Kumar some tangential material for his slim book “Patna – A Matter of Rats” (2013), blocked me with a sarcastic barb on social media when I questioned the authenticity of Kumar as a cultural gateway to knowing Patna, and for that matter, Bihar.

It’s interesting to find that this quote from  ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ by Harper Lee, who passed away the same week in which Kumar converted prime time into a slot for sanctimonious melodrama, explains why the media commentary had a different response to it: “People generally see what they look for, and hear what they listen for”.

The Age of Alarmists

You could be forgiven for imagining that he was speaking from a hideout in the US (or even safer Ecuador) or had sought political asylum in Britain. And far from what he would like to believe (or make us believe), he has been free to do what he likes doing — anchoring primetime news show on a television channel, saying what he wants to say on social media  and of course, speaking at events to promote his new book.

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During one of such event last month at Jamia Milia Islamia in Delhi to promote his book 2014: The Election That Changed India (a transcript of the discussion was published by this website), Rajdeep Sardesai wore the smug smile which mysteriously appears when journalists manage to come up with a book. The line he chose to take was fashionably alarmist. Replying to a question, he advised his fraternity to brace for persecution as he warned “Modi wants to make India Singapore, but don’t forget, in Singapore, journalists who question authorities can be jailed.”

Rajdeep Sardesai is still awaiting arrest.
Interestingly, a key figure in what Mr Sardesai sees as a potentially gagging regime, Union Finance Minister Arun Jaitley was present when Mr Sardesai’s book was released at Teen Murti Bhawan in Delhi on November 7.
Mr Sardesai seems to be part of the chorus which has been keen on announcing the arrival of an Orwellian state in India, something which The New York Times was in tearing hurry to do with an editorial carrying the suggestive headline “India’s Press Under Siege’’(NYT, July 27). It’s a type of imagined scenario which suits the script of free speech enthusiasts – a mythical demon (almost the Leviathan) versus the spirited fighters for democratic rights.
The crucial elements missing in the script are the facts, something important neither for fiction nor for polemics. It’s amusing to know that there are still people who believe that the hardware of a siege can work in times of multiple media platforms offered by technology and rapidly increasing connectivity. The NYT believes in a type of fiction which has little to do with the times we are living in.
If technology makes such alarmist claims anachronistic, statistics make them look lazy in waking up to some selective and convenient sense of alarm. There is nothing sudden about the ‘siege’. In her well argued blog post, Rupa Subramanya, a former columnist for The Wall Street Journal and co-author of Indianomix: Making Sense of Modern India, cites figures from  Freedom House Index of Press Freedom for India spanning 1993 to 2003 and Reporters Without Borders Press Freedom Index for India (2002-2014) to show that the perceived threat to media freedom has been constantly building up over a number of years, and there is no sudden jump in it.
She questions the timing of raising the bogey, remarking: “What exactly were those folks doing when India kept getting lousy scores from Freedom House and Reporters without Borders? Why the sudden interest in media freedom? India has a lot of work to do to improve the state of press freedom, starting with getting rid of colonial era laws which stifle free speech. But it’s disingenuous at best and downright dishonest at worst to suggest that these problems suddenly materialised. That’s a falsehood, and a usefully self-serving one, by those who keep chanting it.”
It would also be interesting to ask what Rajdeep Sardesai, as editorial head of CNN-IBN in 2010, did with the Niira Radia tapes? Could viewers of his channel depend on it to know that something making the news with that name was not a new chartbusting album or titillating video but some conversations (the authenticity of which could never be disputed) which had serious repercussions for what is now one of Rajdeep’s cherished causes — editorial independence? No, they couldn’t. Rajdeep Sardesai, along with a large section of the Indian media, acted as if the tapes didn’t exist.
Apart from invoking exaggerated fears of state authority muzzling press freedom, one of the bugbears quite popular with free speech polemicists in India is that of corporate censorship. The strapline for Salil Tripathi’s story on corporate censorship in the September issue of The Caravan unwittingly reveals how the shadow duels are scripted to create, and eventually benefit, the ‘victims’.
It says “Authors of three recent exposés take on the country’s corporate goliaths”. It’s precisely this romantic juxtaposition of the ‘David vs Goliath’ binary that the books discussed in the story seek to attain post-publication, viz. Gas Wars: Crony Capitalism and the Ambanis by Paranjoy Guha Thakurta, Subir Ghosh and Jyotirmoy Chaudhuri, Sahara: The Untold Story by Tamal Bandyopadhyay and The Descent of Air India by Jitendra Bhargava.
The legal recourse taken by some corporate entities, objecting to certain parts of these books, and the lukewarm response of mainstream media to these books have been conveniently overplayed by the authors. There is a type of victimhood which doesn’t go unrewarded in this country. Such ‘persecution’ often brings impish glee to the victims. If your voice isn’t considered important enough, the muzzling of it would certainly find its audience. Such profitable victimhood has worked well for these authors, some of whom are senior journalists (a term patented for the Indian media only), in more ways than one. Enhanced sales and visibility are not the least of them.
As the arrival of silly season has been announced with media coverage given to the loose talk coming from ‘illiberal’ quarters of the regime, there are more chances of free speech enthusiasts finding some mythical Big Brother watching, and of course, threatening them from random corners of the country.
This is always a convenient time to score easy intellectual victories against the regime, though it says very little about the quality of the criticism or, for that matter, the nature of the perceived threat.  As political scientist Pratap Bhanu Mehta perceptivelywrote in one of his recent Indian Express pieces: “As critics, we often define our identities by picking out the worst arguments and the worst characters to go after. This is not because of the magnitude of the objective threats they pose. It is because our intellectual victories are easy”.
Without being jailed, Rajdeep will be getting chances to score such easy points. He can rue the fact that going to jail for speaking his mind isn’t going to get easier in India.

Deconstructing idioms

It’s not every day that a foreign visit by an Indian Prime Minister produces two different news reports on the same day, with one serving as a diagnosis and the other symptomatic of a disease plaguing the self-styled liberal media.

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First, the diagnosis, by the Prime Minister himself. On September 2, after gifting theBhagvad Gita to Japanese Emperor Akihito in Tokyo, Narendra Modi said something that correctly exposed how gate-keeping by secular fundamentalists  in the media has demonised the use of religious texts, symbolism and the vocabulary of the vast majority in a country which is predominantly religious in its outlook.

A PTI report carried by all the major dailies in India quoted Modi ‘taking a dig at his secular friends’ by saying: “For gifting, I brought a Gita. I do not know what will happen in India after this. There may be a TV debate on this. Our secular friends will create ‘toofan’ (storm), that what does Modi think of himself? He has taken a Gita with him that means he has made this one also communal. Today I went to the maharaja of Japan, I have given one to him because I don’t think that I have anything more to give and the world also does not have anything more to get than this.”

The proof that Modi wasn’t off-mark came the same day. A report (‘Modi waxes eloquent on women and goddesses’, The Hindu, September 2) filed by Amit Baruah was typical of the way the more-secular-than-thou section of the English media deals with religious symbolism, particularly its Hindu variant.

Unaware that such religious metaphors are part of everyday conversation for millions of Indians, Baruah thought it was newsy enough to begin his report with Modi’s use of such vocabulary.

“If the Hindu female pantheon was likened with a ministry, then education was with goddess Saraswati, money with Lakshmi, security with Mahakali and food security with the goddess Annapurna. Making this point while addressing women students of the Sacred Heart University on Tuesday morning, Prime Minister Narendra Modi said India was the only country in the world where god was conceptualised in the female form,” wrote Baruah.

Baruah’s report gives you a hint as to why some people respond the way they do when a government thinks of renaming Teacher’s Day as ‘Guru Utsav’.

The tone of such reporting exposes the failure to understand that ideas in India are often expressed in religious idioms and with reference to traditional systems of thought. The evident fundamentalism in the secular elite has been discrediting the religious texture of everyday life and, in the process, imposing the protocol of non-believers on a country teeming with believers.

In more ways than one, Narendra Modi has been an unsettling and defiant figure for this ‘liberal’ consensus. This defiance has been part of Modi’s appeal for many Indians who had been feeling de-legitimized by the secular thought-police.

In one of the most perceptive pieces written after Modi’s resounding victory (How Modi defeated liberals like me, May 26, 2014) social scientist Shiv Vishwanathananalysed this aspect of Modi’s charisma. In a more recent piece in Open magazine, (From chaos to control, August 28), Vishwanathan provided further insights:

“To understand the Modi regime, one has to accept that Modi was therapeutic for a generation that felt that elite modernisation was a hypocritical affair conducted by groups which used words like ‘secular’ to dismiss the thought processes of a middle class more rooted in religion. This new middle class wanted to feel at home in its home-cooked religiosity and its extension, nationalism. By articulating such anxieties, Modi soothed their wounded subconscious. And this ‘wounded class’, tired of pseudo secularism, elite cronyism and majoritarian hypocrisy, voted him to power.”

Having pre-judged the new regime as “majoritarian”, the liberal media has followed the usual script, ignoring Modi’s Independence Day call for a ten year moratorium on divisive issues and for everyone to dedicate themselves to making development a national movement.

The evidence for the media’s majoritarian hypothesis has come instead from certain vocal elements within the ruling party who tried to express some of the anxieties of the Hindu majority with the issue of ‘love jihad’. The standard response has been either to dismiss this anxiety as trivial or ridicule it as hate propaganda.

Instead of rigorously scrutinising the subject from the perspective of both Hindu and Muslim, it was dismissed in three ways.

First, through opinion-mongering on the edit pages or TV discussions by bleeding heart liberals whose idea of Hindu-Muslim romance is limited to Bollywood courtships and the cocoon of selective academic studies.

A classic example was Sagarika Ghose in her piece ( Ishq, Ishq, Ishq, The Times of India, September 7) and Mukul Kesavan’s article pretending there is no other side to the story (The BJP and Hindu-Muslim Romance,ndtv.com, September 12). Or Charu Gupta with her ready conclusions as though she knows other aspects of the issue could be inconvenient (The Myth of Love Jihad, The Indian Express, August 28).

Second, the major English dailies published a series of reports debunking the concern about ‘love jihad’ as alarmist and even a hoax. The same energy was not put into talking to a lot of people in western UP, Jharkhand and Kerala who think that it’s a genuine concern.

Having talked to some people from these regions, I can say that giving space to such voices – which are neither political nor associated with any fringe religious outfit – would puncture the pet assumptions and selective reporting on which many stories have been based.

Third, there have been attempts at academic obfuscation by framing the issue of ‘love jihad’ in terms of feminist discourse, making it a question of patriarchal control over choice (as does a recent piece by Jyoti Punwani on this website).

These attempts are escapist in that by pitching it as question of gender freedom, they tend to create a hierarchy of group grievances in which one set of anxieties should have precedence of other equally valid sets of grievances.

Moreover, this obfuscation is selective because ‘patriarchal control’ is somehow not a problem when the controlling male hands are of a different religion and because gender freedom morphs into a question of protecting the ‘cultural freedom’ of the minorities.

Liberals pointedly ask why such concerns are being highlighted now that the BJP has taken office. In doing so, they fail to understand that perhaps these concerns were merely awaiting a chance to find legitimate articulation and might have found it under the new dispensation.

Presumably, giving legitimate expression to grievances is a function of a democracy. Sweeping the anxieties of a community under the carpet is not.

Another example of this skewed approach was evident in the way the results of the recent by-polls were interpreted by almost all the major English dailies as a vote against ‘communal polarisation’ and the triumph of ‘secular’ India   (Hindutva  Smackdown, The Times of India, September 17. A Note of Caution, The Hindu, September 17, Bypolls Message for BJP, The Hindustan Times, September 17).

This interpretation ignores the strong possibility that the ‘communal consolidation of votes’ might have worked the other way this time but somehow, this other way (the consolidation of Muslim votes) isn’t ‘communal’ for the ivory tower guardians of secular India.

They continue to sell the myth that identity politics is unnatural to Indian society when in fact it is natural in all complex societies. Moreover, by reading too much into these results and making them a binary contest of pro-secular or anti-secular forces, the analysts have ignored the simple fact that any election result is a combination of many factors. Some are local and some are organisational, for example, factionalism within the competing parties.

In a country where the vocabulary of public life has stretched political correctness to political prudishness, it’s important for liberal opinion in the media houses to show a better understanding of everyday India.

This would help to address their disconnect with the average Indian psyche. It would help them understand what grievances the average Indian can legitimately articulate as a group. And it would help them realise that he tends to express his ideas with religious imagery that is harmless and purely a matter of habit.

While it would be too much to hope that the self-appointed secular guardians will remember Narendra Modi’s words about patriotic Indian Muslims in his recent interview with CNN’s Fareed Zakaria, let us hope at least that he can conduct hisNavratra fasting for nine days without being asked why he doesn’t fast during Ramadan.

 

Budget analysis in the Hindi press

Naya Arthik Adhayay (New Economic Chapter) is how the Sunday column of the editor of the country’s most-read newspaper has chosen to describe the most awaited speech in the financial calendar. The emphasis on ‘naya’ is the flavour of the season and the dreary world of financial news is hoping that it has the same kind of luck that the political arena has enjoyed of late.

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Politics, and more precisely political contests, needs ever changing frames to remain box-office material because the media is grappling with ever shortening attention spans.
The Hindi media got lucky as recent political developments in the country, including the build-up to elections and their outcomes, kept the news cycle moving for the dailies and the news channels. Now a similar sense of anticipation has set in over the economy but the only problem is that number-crunching and jargon don’t lend themselves easily to a large section of Hindi readers and viewers.
So how did the Hindi press view the budget? Did it share the general editorial verdict of the English dailies, namely that, although the budget  avoided  big ticket announcements, it tried to present a cautious, balanced and an inclusive roadmap for the country’s economic management?
Even with the highest number of readers in the country, Dainik Jagran has no place for the pull of economic populism. The daily in its edit (Aarthik Uthaan ka Budget, Budget of Economic Uplift, 1 March),  praised the government for steering clear of populist measures.
 It said: “It was expected that, like the  rail budget, the Modi government’s first general budget won’t be inspired  by populist politics. What’s needed today is to give an economic direction to the country from scratch. Finance Minister Arun Jaitley has tried to do precisely that through this year’s budget. He has taken many significant steps to give momentum to growth, create employment avenues, facilitate a strong base for investment and do whatever is required to improve the condition of the agricultural sector.”
The paper also anticipated the usual criticism that such a budget would face, as the edit goes on to observe: “For fulfilling selfish and narrow political interests,  it’s blatantly wrong to project development programmes as anti-people. Concern for the poor doesn’t mean to just provide them certain concessions and exemptions, and leave them to fend for themselves. This is what has been happening in the country. At least now the old style of political posturing should be abandoned.”
Interestingly, despite giving space in their opinion pages to the build up to the budget,Dainik Bhaskar and Jansatta chose not to have an editorial comment on it. It would have been particularly intriguing to see what Jansatta had to say about it given its tirades against the present government ever since it was sworn in.
One grew more curious as one of the English dailies, The Hindu, known for a similarly critical viewpoint on the government’s economic policies, somehow revised its views to praise Jaitley’s budget as ‘imaginative’.
In sync with the editorial verdicts of their flagship English publications, Hindustan(from The Hindustan Times group) and Navbharat Times (from The Times of Indiagroup) found merit in the budget.
While identifying elements of coherence and consistency in the government’s economic outlook (Buniyaadi Dhaachein Par Jor, Emphasis on Basic Infrastructure, 1 March), Hindustan said: “Along with announcing many measures to encourage private investment in basic infrastructure, the government is also going to invest in it on a large scale. In this budget, the finance minister has given more importance to investment rather than checking the budgetary deficit.”
Navbharat Times (Kaale Dhan par Nakel, Acting Tough on Black Money, 2 March) was particularly impressed with the budgetary announcement of a new comprehensive law to curb the menace of black money.
As this column mentioned after last year’s budget, translators have been working overtime to cope with the views of commentators who continue to infiltrate the Hindi discourse from the English side of the turf. Nothing unusual or undesirable about this but it reminded the Hindi press once again of the fact that it suffers from a shortage of in-house economic analysis.
Interestingly, one translator, Prabhat Khabar, has been given credit for the translation of M. J. Akbar’s piece (Nayee Arthvyavashta ka Pehla Khaka, First Draft of a New Economy, 2 March). Akbar, who is a BJP spokesman, dwells on how this budget has immense potential for employment generation.
Amar Ujala hasn’t extended same courtesy to the translator of Paranjoy Guha Thakurta’s budget piece in which there is a weird lament about  the budget trying to please the poor along with other sections of the population.
Interestingly, the daily’s own editorial comment hasn’t fallen for the blinkers of either Thakurta’s analysis or Nilanjan Mukhopadhayay ‘s take on the budget in the same paper. The paper (Sudhar ki Umeedon ke Beech, Amid Hopes of Reform, 1 March) hasgiven a thumbs up to the budget for its skilful financial management, laying out a solid roadmap for the years to come and fulfilling expectations in the necessary areas.
For a government that is yet to complete its first year in office, the Hindi editorials in different dailies showed a willingness to let the Finance Minister roll out an economic roadmap without giving him too much flak.
By striking such a positive note, irrespective of ideological perches, the Hindi press has played its own small role in detoxifying ‘analysis’ at a time when blinkered views are so widespread.

A 100-day analysis

The Hindi press took the same stand as the English media on the Narendra Modi government’s first 100 days in office, namely, measured praise.
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When anniversary journalism turned old-fashioned, political stock-taking exercises found a shorter and numerically catchy periodicity of 100 days. However, what political commentators fear is a scenario in which a new government doesn’t falter enough in that duration or doesn’t  provide the usual quota of faux pas for them to pounce on. Their fears have come true.

As the Modi government seems to have settled down seamlessly on Raisina Hill, the political commentaries in the mainstream media feel disarmed, unable to find many substantive issues on which the government could be attacked.

This broad understanding about the 100 days performance of the new regime was evident in edits and opinion pieces in the English press. Did the Hindi press, catering to a large section of Hindi speaking voters in whom this government has found strong electoral support, concur? It has chosen either to give the government a thumbs-up or sit on the fence. It too has not found many reasons to give the government a negative report card.

Besides its clear editorial endorsement of the Modi government’s performance, Dainik Jagran relied on some well known names in the English media, like Pratap Bhanu Mehta (‘Shasan ki kasauti par sau din’, 100 days on the touchstone of governance, September 3), Neerja Chowdhury (‘Badlau ki Jhalak’, Glimpse of Change, September 2) and Swapan Dasgupta (‘Sau Din ka Safar’, Journey of 100 days, August 31) for the opinion pieces marking the occasion.

Interestingly, the Dainik Jagran has also published a piece (‘Vipaksh ke sau din’, 100 days of Opposition, September 5) by Hridaynarayan Dikshit ( a member of the  UP Legislative Council) in which he demanded  a 100 days report card from the opposition and attacked it for its ineffectiveness and failure in performing its duty as a constructive opposition.

Dikshit observed: “Optimism is on rise in the country. But, Congress seems despondent. Opposition has failed in its role… It didn’t accept the electoral mandate. It’s in a shock and opposition parties have not reported back to their democratic duty. As they suffer a dearth of alternative ideas and as they are devoid of any ideology, they are desperate to just gang up against the BJP”.

What’s significant is that Hindustan, known for its Congress-leanings, has given a favourable report card to the government in its edit. While doing so, it strikes a note of guarded optimism like its flagship English sister publication Hindustan Times (‘Modi tenure: Well begun, but far from done’, September 2). Hindustan concludes its editorial comment (‘Sau Din Sarkaar ke’, 100 days of Government, September 2) with the note: “If Modi continues to make the government efficient at this rate, it’s possible that we may witness administrative reforms on a scale which entire administrative reform commissions couldn’t bring.  This government has shown clear direction and power of decision-making. However, the government would face a real test after it completes a year in office when the results of its political, economic and diplomatic initiatives would be known”.

Such editorial consonance with the flagship publication of the group  was also seen in Navbharat Times  as its edit (‘Sau din sarkaar ke‘, 100 days of the Government, September 4) aligned well with the editorial verdict of The Times of India (‘The promise of achche din remains after 100 days of Modi Sarkar’, September 3).

The paper reserved special praise for the government’s  focussed approach to tightening the administrative machinery and bringing the derailed economy back on track, though it suggested that more needs to be done to rein in  the divisive forces threatening communal harmony.

Even Jansatta, which has been critical of Modi throughout his electoral campaign, toned down  the critical pitch  and agreed with the general outcome of the ‘Tracking 100 days of  Prime Minister Narendra Modi’ series of assessment by its group’s flagship daily The  Indian Express.

Its edit  (‘Sau Din ka khaata’, Account of 100 days September 3) adopts a fence-sitting approach by praising the government for raising hopes of good governance and economic recovery while cautioning it against emerging questions and insidious controversies.

Similar observations were made in an editorial comment in Amar Ujala (‘Sau din sarkaar ke’, 100 days of government, September 3) which credited the government with initiating measures for good governance and a robust economy. However, it raised concerns about persistent inflation, weakening communal harmony in some parts of the country and the likelihood of some strains in the federal set up and judiciary-executive confrontations as some of the fault-lines which the government needs to address.

However, it was Pratap Bhanu Mehta’s article  in Dainik Jagran which sought to put the nature of the new regime in perspective. He welcomed it as a break from the past and also pointed to some of the emerging concerns. Incidentally, Mehta carried on his arguments from where he left off in his analysis of the PM’s Independence Day speech in The Indian Express, but chose the most-read Hindi daily for an assessment of the government’s first 100 days.

Mehta remarked: “The first 100 days of the Modi government have witnessed the rise of a different form of government. Modi’s democratic understanding is like Charles de Gaulle who was described by his biographer, Jonathan Fenby, as a republican monarch. This phrase was not meant to suggest any contradiction. It was meant to rather capture something: an ability to both wield authority and yet personify the people. Modi’s engagement has a similar quality. It is deeply democratic in the sense that it rested on the conviction that authority does not come from any source other than the people.”

While applauding Modi government’s initiatives for the economy and foreign policy, Mehta terms its performance on governance a ‘mixed bag’ and  asserts the need for a new direction for ensuring institutional and policy reforms and addressing ad-hocism in key areas like environment policy. He also cautions against the perils of over-centralisation of power.

One of the achievements of the 100 days of this government is that it has brought the assessment of its performance to a point where political analysts and edit writers are willing to analyse the government as an entity which has set itself some tasks to accomplish, a welcome departure from the governance-deficit associated with earlier regimes.

The editorial assessment of the 100 days in the Hindi press also echoed this general sentiment. This echo could be music to the ruling party’s ears if it eventually turns out to be something that millions of its voters in the Hindi heartland also think.

No surprises in budget editorials

The various analyses of the budget were a reminder that the terms of discourse, like the terms of trade, are favourable to some and unfavourable to others. This explains the inevitability with which post-budget editorial commentaries and opinion pieces offered arguments supporting their ‘verdict’ (as if that wasn’t known) on the budget along entrenched partisan lines.

 

The 'Dainik Jagran' edit
The ‘Dainik Jagran’ edit

To a large extent, the edit and opinion pages of the English dailies were guilty of offering diatribes based on pre-determined positions and masquerading as analysis but did the Hindi press also share this feature?

Dainik Jagran was forthcoming in its endorsement of the budget which it saw as reform-oriented, forward looking and a necessary precursor to a visionary policy framework. In its edit (Saarthak Sudharon Ki Ore, Towards Meaningful Reforms, July 11), the paper said (as translated from Hindi): ‘Despite adverse conditions, the Finance Minister has tried to give something to every section and has made all possible efforts to pave the way for economic reforms. What can’t be ignored is that the Modi government has laid the foundation of some basic reforms. It augurs well that the new government has the political will and has the strength to take necessary decisions as well as implement them”.

This assessment turned out to be the running thread in the other budget-related articles in the daily, including the Sunday piece by its editor Sanjay Gupta (Naye Nazariye ki Jhalak, Glimpse of New Viewpoint, July 13) and Manisha Priyam’s article(Nayee Aarthik Disha Mein Desh), Country in a New Economic Direction, July 11).

You might ask, would Dainik Jagran take it as a compliment or an indictment if it were to be called The Pioneer of the Hindi press?

Of late, Dainik Bhaskar has shrunk the space for edits and opinion pieces, and the op-ed page is extinct (the dubious inspiration for which is not hard to find in similar decisions by some English dailies). Dainik Bhaskar chose not to have an editorial comment on the budget and instead spoke editorially through its group editor Kalpesh Yagnik’s column against one specific budget proposal on setting up five new IITs and IIMs (IIT-IIM Shiksha ke Supreme Court Jaise Ho, Jan-Adaalton Jaise Nahi, IIT-IIM Should Be Like Education’s Supreme Court, Not Mass-Hearing Courts, July 12).

Interestingly, it’s the column by Ved Pratap Vaidik (who is in the headlines for a different reason) which somehow refutes as well as vindicates the current debate around his meeting with Hafeez Saeed. In coming down heavily on what he calls a UPA-replica budget, Vaidik belies the charge of his proximity to the Modi regime. However, by lambasting the government for its silence on how to recover black money, he seems to be advocating a pet theme of yoga guru Baba Ramdev to whom he is believed to be quite close.

The budget commentaries in the Hindi dailies point to a serious gap in the in-house economic expertise available to them, a symptom of a larger malaise which this column has briefly addressed in an earlier piece.

Though the opinion pages are sometimes enriched by the contribution of analysts whose natural habitat is the English media, the preponderance of such columnists reflecting on economic affairs in the Hindi dailies might be  a good way of filling translators’ pockets but exposes the outsourcing syndrome in Hindi discourse. From Professor Y K Alagh to Gurcharan Das, the budget analysis in the Hindi papers is banking on translators’ sweat.

The clichéd narrative and partisan lens are inevitable when one has chosen to pre-judge the budget. Amar Ujala, Paranjoy Guha Thakurta‘s piece, which is rhetoricallyheadlined Karwi Dawa Kahan Hai? (Where is the Bitter Medicine?, July 11) reads like a pre-determined conclusion of a reductionist argument – that the economic agenda of the BJP and the Congress have nothing different to offer.

Given his criticism of the policy framework of the Modi regime in general, you wonder what Thakurta would have said if the bitter medicine had indeed been in the budget. Perhaps Why This Bitter Dose? Who Stands to Gain from the Jaitley Medication?

For that matter, given Jansatta’s vehement anti-Modi tirade throughout the general election campaign, it wasn’t surprising that the paper, in its editorial comment,dismissed the budget as Niraasha Ka Vitt (Finance of Despair, July 11).

And yet, there were some surprises. In a marked departure from its pro-Congress editorial leanings, Hindustan (as well as its flagship English daily The Hindustan Times) expressed appreciation of what it thought was the key message of the budget. In its edit (Budget ka Sandesh, Budget’s message, July 11) , the paper remarked: “The budget is short on big ticket announcements but there is an assurance that whatever has been proposed would be adhered to and implemented. The implicit message is that the bitter medicine for the economy, which the Prime Minister and the Finance Minister have been talking about, would also come but people need not be scared of that’.

What was missing in the Hindi  press discourse on the budget was some insightful reflections of the kind that appeared in the English press from two analysts who ideologically are poles apart and took different perspectives. Remarkably – and refreshingly – neither are economists by academic training nor business/finance columnists.

Political scientist Pratap Bhanu Mehta’s incisive critical take on the deeper issues plaguing the budget (Building Half Bridges, The Indian Express July11) and right wing political commentator Swapan Dasgupta’s perceptive diagnosis of some of the governance challenges emanating from the budget (Why the FM Chose to be Reconciled to a Flawed Inheritance? Sunday Times of India, July 13) offered fresh insights.

The only response possible when going through the predictable certainties of our analysts and commentators (who are proliferating in all sorts of media) is ennui. In this regard, the Hindi press offered no break with this frozen continuity; the numbers were crunched and the views articulated to suit the pre-set boxes of the pro/anti binary.

PM Modi in the Hindi press

The centrality of the Hindi heartland to the national elections has long been seen as one of the axioms of electoral politics in India. As the Narendra Modi-led Bharatiya Janta Party (BJP) made deep inroads into the Hindi speaking states, the Hindi press eloquently heralded  the Modi wave on the national stage. Catering to a region which has the largest number of newspaper readers in the country, the coverage and editorial commentary in it had the task of offering a corrective to the gross underestimation by the liberal intelligentsia (and a large section of English media) of the appeal of a muscular and decisive leadership.Which was packaged with a fresh whiff of assertive identity politics (as incisively analysed by Shiv Visvanathan in his piece  ‘How Modi defeated liberals like me’, The Hindu, May 22).

Picuture: The 'Hindustan' edit
Picuture: The ‘Hindustan’ edit

After gracefully or grudgingly eating their words in the face of electoral refutation of their flawed assumptions about such mobilisation as something unnatural to ‘Indian mosaic’ (whatever that textbook cliché means), the first task that the national press had to address was to analyse the new power equations at the centre and the new faces for delivering the much promised governance – Narendra Modi’s council of ministers. So how did the Hindi press respond to the cabinet formation exercise and what does it think about Team Modi which was sworn in with eager anticipation on a sweltering Monday evening?

Given the daily’s consistent editorial endorsement of Narendra Modi’s candidature as Prime Minister, it’s not surprising that country’s most read newspaper Dainik Jagransounded very optimistic about the new PM’s ministerial team. In its editorial commentSakaratmak Shuruaat (Positive Start, May 27), the paper says (as translated from Hindi): “Narendra Modi, along with his 45 colleagues, has taken the responsibility of running the government at a juncture when the country is facing many challenges but people have high hopes from this government. The way Modi has opted for a relatively small and young team is welcome and should be viewed as the right move to begin with.”

Praising Modi’s credentials for governance and co-ordination, the same edit remarks: “For any Prime Minister, the primary basis for success is to make the ministers work as one team. The way Modi is known to function, it’s reassuring that he is capable of sorting out the problems of his council of ministers and convert them into an able and performing group.”  

The upbeat sentiment is something that echoed in Dainik Bhaskar’s edit too, though it also adds a note of caution for the government to gear up for strict public scrutiny. In its take Jan aashaon ki mantraparishad (A council of ministers of people’s hopes, May 27), the paper observes: “If through his style of functioning and his decisions Modi realises the kind of confidence he has inspired for good governance, he would be able to create a long term political capital for himself. From today the steps he takes for fulfilling public expectations would be put to rigorous public scrutiny.”

Both the dailies published opinion pieces to reflect on the new government and its immediate as well as seminal repercussions. While Dainik Jagran’s  associate editor Rajeev Sachan reiterated the thrust of paper’s edit on the contours of new political landscape (Acche dino ki ibarat, Writing Style of Good Days, May 27), it was political analyst Arvind Mohan’s piece in Dainik Bhaskar (Poori tarah Modi ki sarkaar, Modi’s government all the way, May 27) which sought to identify challenges Modi would face in course of implementing his agenda for governance and stamping his authority over the party. Taking along sulking party elders and ignored cabinet aspirants, the need to guard against the likelihood of RSS interference and managing other forms of intra-party issues are some of the challenges that Mohan clearly identifies for Modi to address, apart from delivering on the promises which he made and huge expectations which he raised during his energetic poll campaign.

However, the piece also takes into account a paradigm shift which Modi’s massive electoral triumph has brought about which, if handled wisely, could help Modi’s style of governance and his efforts to address challenges. As Mohan opines, “Modi has put an end to the decades’ long phase of coalition politics and started a new phase of an individual-centred politics and single power centre. Now Modi is party, government and leader- all rolled in one…Modi’s track record suggests that he has been successful in such a role till now. But can he repeat the success of state experiment at the centre? This remains to be seen.”

With an editorial judgement which has placed high value on administrative efficiency,Hindustan has appreciated Modi’s decision of having a lean team and apparent focus on curbing the cumbersome red-tapism. Its editorial take Kam mantri,jyada prashasan (Less ministers, more administration; Hindustan, May 27). In drawing parallels with efficient small models of governments across the world and identifying Modi’s clear imprint on council of ministers, the daily is in sync with its English flagship daily’s editorial view (Modi must hit the ground running, Hindustan Times, May 27). Given their known Congress inclinations, both dailies defied such opinion-typecasting to extend a warm welcome to what they thought were the correct moves of the new government. It’s an evaluation which resonated in the editorial views of the most read English daily The Times of India (A Lean Ministry, May 27) as well as The Indian Express (The Modi Era, May 27).

Despite catering to a largely state-specific readership, Rajasthan Patrika chose to brush aside the immediate grievances of state BJP leaders for being overlooked for ministerial berths and instead reminded the Modi government that its performance-appraisal period has begun now. In a tersely worded edit Aaklan Suru (Assessment starts, May 27), the paper said: “Who Modi included or excluded is a matter of political debate but what’s clear is that the new government’s assessment has begun. The coming days will only tell whether good days come or not or if they actually come, how many of them come, for how long?”

Galvanised public opinion is seeking space and thoughtful articulation in Hindi press. The coming days will ask the Hindi press to address a sentiment which has become strange for political discourse in this country: a sentiment called political hope.