It’s been a momentous year for the Indian news media. Buffeted as it is by the winds of change – from the advent of the Modi sarkar, the remarkable growth of the social media, and the fierce competition for TRPs. And, the stresses and fractures are showing.
The harbinger of change
Prime Minister Narendra Modi has in a sense changed the rules of the game. Before the anointment of Modi in the capital’s durbar, the unwritten, and even unsaid, rules of engagement between the rulers and the ruled in Lutyen’s Delhi has been to put it politely, “incestuous” (as the Radia tapes so graphically and audibly revealed).
The “national” press has long been inured to think of themselves as the final arbiters of the national agenda, and even national destiny. A succession of weak governments, largely emasculated by the ‘compulsions’ of coalition politics, and the consequent erosion of political authority (with notable exceptions), has only steeled this ambition of the news media to set the template for national priorities, as they saw it.
This cosy partnership has been fractured from time. For instance, during the Emergency, or the anti-corruption movement of Anna, or even to a certain extent during the various scams that upended the UPA (United Progressive Alliance) government, especially in its second innings. But until, and between these events, the dalliance between the news media and the sarkar has been largely genteel, based on a system of patronages and give-and-take. Unless you transgressed these uncodified norms of reasonable sarkari behaviour, it was good to tango.
Then Modi happened. And, it has thrown the media into a tizzy. Why?
Two things immediately came with the Modi territory.
Modi rode into town as a strong Prime Minister on the back of one of the largest mandates in post-Independence history, bucking a thirty-year trend. Plus, he was a leader who did not owe his rise in the political firmament either to the media, the benediction of coalition partners, or regional satraps. He came on the strength of his claim – the blessings of the people of India expressed through the EVM machine – the most unadulterated form of claim to political authority that has yet been conceived by human imagination.
Modi, the man, who sections of the Delhi establishment and the Delhi media believed had been seemingly wrestled down to the boondocks of Gujarat, where his rustic and even “communal” idea of India seemingly belonged, was suddenly amongst them.
And, lo and behold, he even had his own agenda and ideas – ideas of India that were not exactly in sync with the prevailing, and the ‘chosen’, one.
Then the unthinkable happened. Modi compounded the “transgression” of his presence at Race Course Road with another unpardonable one. The resort to social media as the preferred choice for his government’s communication – messaging and appealing to the citizens vaulting over the editorial lenses, and indeed knives, of the mainstream media.
He also brought in his wake the turning-off of the tap of unfettered access to the corridors of power in New Delhi to the media, which hitherto had been given a free run. The Modi-idea being that the government would determine the terms of engagement with the media, and not the other way round. A novel, but cataclysmic, development for the Delhi press corps!
This came even as the traditional media was already beginning to be upended by the growing prowess of the social media, where ‘conversations’ about news-breaks begin even before the news outlets had even started to smell the tea, let alone read the tea leaves.
The media reacted to these twin aggressions in two distinct ways. While it seemingly welcomed the ascendency of social media as a fait accompli, with regard to Modi, it can be argued, that it reacted with petulance, and outrage.
It is up for debate whether the angst against the prime minister was due to the ‘man’ (media not having forgiven him for apparently emerging unscathed from Gujarat); or that he chose to prescribe a ‘Modi rekha’ on access to the Delhi scribes.
It is this writer’s case that while the former reason for the fall out between Modi and the media substantially stands, the disaffection with Modi has more to do with the latter. The apparent diatribe at Modi, by certain influential sections of the media, is to show the prime minister, and the powers that be, who’s boss.
The message being that any dispensation at New Delhi, however handsomely endowed with a mandate, cannot ‘do it’ in the capital without cohabiting, coopting the national/mainstream media. More so, if the incumbent has certain “ideas” and a certain ‘attitude’.
If you try that stuff, goes the wisdom, you will end up with the results of Delhi and Bihar! Will Modi play ball and reach out or will he go on with his merry ways is something that is up in the air and which only time, and the voters, will tell.
The medium is the message
Be that as it may, there is larger message for the media in the Modi episode. Increasingly, as the Internet penetration increases in India (we are set to become the second largest country of Internet users surpassing the US and next to China in a month from now), the propensity of the elected to increase the use of the social media to communicate with their constituencies is only set to increase.
Already, POTUS (President of the United States) has led the way. The State of the Union Address of the American President is usually the annual gold-standard event of a presidency. On New York Times reported on January 15, 2015 that just before his speech, President Barack Obama’s social media team “rather than jealously guard the policy proposals the president will announce in the speech — lest they leak — the White House has already rolled them out on social media. That strategy scooped the press and generated millions of retweets well before the newspaper articles and television reports were even produced.”
This is akin, in a sense, to the Indian Union budget being unveiled on Twitter and Facebook, before it is released to the Indian press. An event just about unthinkable now, but not an impossibility even in the near future.
So, the press has to go beyond what it considers the ‘attitude’ of Modi. For, his exertions on the social media, bypassing the traditional media, is a fact of life. Not something that can be wished away.
The press may believe it has won some battles against Modi and the news media (like Bihar!) but that victory is likley to be pyrrhic unless it gets its priorities right. As much as turning the searchlight on efforts to fracture social cohesion is important, the Fourth Estate has to set its sights on issues that matter as much if not more – namely, the efficacy of the proclaimed development agenda of the government. This is simply because these have far reaching consequnces for the destiny of India and its citizens, than mere coverage of hot heads on TV.
The Modi government is different from its predecessors in so far as it concentrates on projects rather than policy. In pursuance of this, it has announced a plethora of schemes – Make in India, Swachha Bharat, Digital India, Jan Dhan, to name a few, and even the just announced FDI policy – there haven’t been too many instances by the media of examining the efficacy of these efforts, nothing to cull out the truth from the hype.
In the face of the onlslaught from the social media and the emerging mutiplicity of news sources (incuding the readers!), the best way for the traditional media to hold its own is through burrowing deeper, and spreading the news net wider, and bringing fresh perspectives of the long-impact issues facing the nation.
The “nation does want to know”, but not necessarily only about the foibles of Sheena Bora, where a frenzied press not only tried to get ahead of the police, but also the facts. The traditional media has to dig deeper and wider! Covering rants and raves, talking heads, and shrill TV debates, can only go so far. There is a whole world out there to discover and report on. Time for muddy boots and raking cursors!