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Seeing is believing

Modi’s attack on the media is a propaganda weapon designed to tap into a sense of wounded Gujarati asmita, writes Sagarika Ghose.

india Updated: Dec 21, 2007 05:02 IST

In the next 48 hours, we will know if the ‘chhappan ki chhaati’ (56-inch-chest), as Narendra Modi describes himself, has continued to be popular in Vibrant Gujarat. Apart from the rhetoric on Sohrabuddin and Afzal Guru, there was another constant in Modi’s campaign speeches: the evils of the English-speaking, Delhi-based national media. Although there are many sections of the national press that are now approving of Modi, Gujarat’s self-styled alpha male has deliberately targeted the media. In the ideology of Moditva, the English-language media are Gujarat’s Enemy Number One.

The English-language media exemplify everything that the Gujarati must be programmed to resist. The press are the English-speaking, Left-inclined, upper-class, Nehru-style firangis who, ever since the neglect of Sardar Patel by the congress, have failed to give Gujarat its due. Modi’s attack on the media is a propaganda weapon designed to tap into a sense of wounded Gujarati asmita, aimed at setting up a Delhi versus Gandhinagar battle.

On the other hand, for the national media, a continued focus on the 2002 riots is seen as evidence of a commitment to the rule of law and to secularism; for Modi, that focus is nothing but a persistent attempt to malign Gujarati society. Why do the media only report on Gujarat through the prism of a genocide; why don’t they report on the state’s economic success, ask the chief minister’s supporters?

Indeed, it seems that in the ‘Opposition-free environment’ of Gujarat, the media are the only opposition to Modi. After all, a loud headline or a recurring TV image is almost a match for a fiery speech or a massive crowd. Yet, the relationship between Modi and the media is curiously symbiotic, both breathing new life into each other, yet both insisting that the other has no right to free speech.

The media have called Modi egoistic, arrogant, Hitler, fascist, abettor of pogroms, abuser of human rights, “chief monster”, abrasive and dictator. Modi has called the media rootless, publicity-hungry, elitist, driven by TRPs and personal careerism. Abuse Modi and get an international award, the Gujarat CM shouted recently. Yet Modi himself is an adept user and abuser of the media. His website is assiduously updated. His favourite reporters are given the first pickings of his interviews. He bans TV channels; his supporters ban films like Fanaa and Parzania and routinely attack journalists. The Modi camp is fierce about the journalists it likes and dislikes. Anyone who criticises Modi is the enemy of bharat; ‘with us’ or ‘against us’ is the only slogan that his supporters understand.

The media are thus crucial to the Gujarat story. Gujarat 2002 was India’s first televised riot, where TV images branded themselves so powerfully on the national consciousness that normally apolitical people were galvanised into outrage, commissions and courts gasped in horror and took proactive steps, conscientious folk found themselves becoming activists and secular society at large got the demon that it collectively and subconsciously yearned for.

There was no TV screen to show us the ‘necklacing’ of the victims of the 1984 anti-Sikh riots. We did not see how young Sikh men had their hair untied, how tyres were placed around their necks and how those tyres were then set on fire. We did not see how the ‘subliminal moment’ was reached in 1984, as we saw in 2002. Or how it may have been reached in Meerut, Maliana and Hashimpura in 1987, Bhagalpur in 1989, or even Mumbai in 1993. There was no 24-hour TV then and so India did not ‘see’. But India did ‘see’ Gujarat, and Gujarat is, therefore, sui generis. ‘Seeing’ has meant doing. Media images of the riots have spurred a courageous activist movement, which has systematically followed cases and provided legal aid.

A prosecution and investigation that was simply not neutral was challenged. Witnesses who were being paid off or threatened were provided protection. Perhaps because of this media-inspired activist movement, many of the injustices of 2002 have been realised and fought. The Supreme Court has ordered the reopening of 2,000 cases. Nine people were given the life sentence in the Best Bakery case; 11 were convicted in the Eral case. More rioters have already been convicted for Gujarat 2002 than for Delhi 1984. A still greater campaign is perhaps needed to press for justice for the over 100 young men languishing under Pota, accused of burning the train at Godhra station.

Yet, the danger is that in Gujarat, media activism is becoming political activism. A political battle against the personality of Modi cannot be fought through the media. Politicians must take on Modi and the BJP through processes of politics, through the public, through competitive public manifestoes, through campaigns and rallies. A sting operation or a planted story or ‘guided’ media coverage of a certain type cannot take the place of political activity and mass-contact initiatives on the part of politicians.

The politician, or even the well-meaning NGOs, should not expect journalists to play the role of footsoldiers in an ideological war in which there is no space to analyse the shades of grey that exist in Modi’s Gujarat. Unfortunately, Gujarat has become symbolic of a sharp polarisation within the media. Any semblance of a nuanced position on Modi is almost an impossibility.

Without constant obeisance to the altar of ‘anti-Modi-ism’, there is a constant danger of being denounced as a ‘fascist sympathiser’ or ‘sold out to hindutva’ or ‘PR agency for Modi’ or ‘closet saffron’ by activists and politicians. Congress politicians will sit in their drawing rooms in Ahmedabad and Rajkot and expect the media to do their work for them. Those who cannot muster crowds for election speeches expect the media to whip up a virtual crowd by television coverage. Activists will fulminate at any divergence from the party line. So dictatorial is the party line, on both sides of the ideological divide, that it goes against the very grain of the free press.

John Tusa, former Director-General of the BBC, once wrote: “It is the duty of responsible journalists to be instruments whereby ideas are transmitted. The freedom journalists exercise is the freedom to be responsible, to make the world better, not worse, by freedom. Beyond that, calls for more responsibility are just code words for self-censorship. Journalists must not be outriders of authority.” When activists and politicians of all hues, whether by the ‘authority’ of Modi or the ‘authority of the Congress’ or the ‘moral authority’ of secular activists call for a ‘responsible’ media, they simply mean a media that does their bidding, a lap-dog media that wags its tail when neta X or activist Y makes a speech. No political formation wants a media that freely transmits all ideas, although it is precisely such a media that is a guarantor of democracy.

When the media take a collective position, for example, for or against the Iraq war, it is a stand based on beliefs on just war or just peace, pacifism or aggression. But for the Indian media to judge themselves constantly on the benchmark of whether they are ‘pro-Modi’ or ‘anti-Modi’ would place so much emphasis on a single personality that all objective reportage would simply become a personalised reflex action. Then there would be no journalists, only ‘Modi fans’ or ‘Modi enemies’.

Sagarika Ghose is Senior Editor, CNN-IBN