BBC row shows Indian politics has come a full circle - Hindustan Times
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BBC row shows Indian politics has come a full circle

Feb 17, 2023 07:00 PM IST

Indira Gandhi banned BBC twice, claiming that vested foreign interests were trying to diminish the nation. Today, this theory is a weapon in the BJP’s political arsenal

An intriguingly contradictory set of global headlines has captured the India story this fortnight. United States (US) President Joe Biden and French President Emmanuel Macron joined Prime Minister Narendra Modi in fronting the announcement of a historic Air India aircraft order by the Tatas. The Indian Army made us proud, like always, with its boots on the ground for humanitarian intervention in Turkey. The Adani-Hindenburg saga, allegations of market manipulation and murky politics led The New York Times to write a headline: Gautam Adani’s rise was intertwined with India’s. Now it’s unraveling. And finally, the tax survey on the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) opened the floodgates for a cascade of headlines on media freedom. The broadcaster has been muted in its public statements, only promising cooperation and a vow to report without fear or favour.

The tax action against BBC and the BJP’s response may seem to some journalists like a sledgehammer response; but to those taking decisions in the party, it may well be consciously calculated politics (Shutterstock)
The tax action against BBC and the BJP’s response may seem to some journalists like a sledgehammer response; but to those taking decisions in the party, it may well be consciously calculated politics (Shutterstock)

In a week when arguably the world’s most powerful man announced that an Indian company will create a million jobs in the US, you have to wonder why the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) would want any media attention on the BBC story. The government and the ruling party have said that agencies are independent and proceed as per the law, underlining that no one was above the law. But the aggressive response of the BJP raises questions. Wouldn’t it have wanted to savour this moment that upended the long-standing asymmetry of power with the West? Aren’t the images out of Turkey — children in an Indian field hospital embracing our soldiers — exactly what a compassionate global leader looks like? Why would you want to overshadow any of that with a party spokesperson calling BBC a Bhrasht Bakwas Corporation (corrupt, nonsense corporation)? Isn’t this a pointless self-goal in a year when India is chairing the G20? Why would you want to open yourself to allegations of vendetta, with the tax action coming weeks after the organisation’s contentious documentary on the 2002 Gujarat riots?

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I had several of these questions too.

But on deeper thought, I would wager that the BJP believes this approach will not hurt it globally and will most likely benefit it domestically.

It is no coincidence that the BJP has reminded us of Indira Gandhi’s ban on BBC. Gandhi banned the British public broadcaster not once but twice. In 1970, two documentaries by Louis Malle, one of them on Calcutta, were seen to be slanted against and disparaging of India. During the Emergency, Mark Tully, the BBC correspondent who has since made India his home, was expelled. Congress parliamentarians petitioned Gandhi to take action against BBC.

The BJP is not indifferent to the views of the foreign media; in fact, it is often rankled and irritated by it. But the party’s hardline base has long been invigorated by the othering of the press, especially the liberal media. This political narrative is even more effective when it comes to the foreign media. WhatsApp groups are replete with conspiracy theories about vested interests outside India that are converging to try and diminish the nation. Drawing room conversations and even mainstream media debates wonder aloud about a Chinese hand. Some say it would not be beyond American lobbies to play saboteur.

That India has stood up to the world on the issue of purchasing Russian oil has added to this narrative. It’s the same reason why the foreign minister S Jaishankar is widely applauded — often across the political spectrum — every time he calls out western hypocrisy.

Of course, this moment is ironic for the BJP, so many of whose members went to jail against Gandhi’s Emergency. But the party appears to be counting on a short public memory. In any case, current generations scarcely recall the Emergency and the paradoxes of the BJP’s position today could pass without much comment.

It’s uncanny to revisit some of the speeches from that time. In 1976 at a public rally, Gandhi spoke about foreign powers that wanted to “always run down India, belittle its achievements, whether the launch of Aryabhata or the Pokhran nuclear test”. “As prime minister I can say, the more they try to suppress us or oppose us, the more strong and united we will be,” she added. The headline on the front page of the Indian Express newspaper from March 3 that year read, “Foreign critics told to stop interference”. The headlines in February 2023 noted India’s law minister Kiren Rijiju criticising those who “trust foreign news agencies, but not trust Indian agencies.” “They swear by the BBC but they won’t believe Indian courts,” the minister said.

Politics has turned full circle. And the foreign hand theory, popularised by Gandhi, is today a weapon in the BJP’s armament.

The tax action against BBC and the BJP’s response may seem to some journalists like a sledgehammer response; but to those taking decisions in the party, it may well be consciously calculated politics.

Barkha Dutt is a award-winning journalist and authorThe views expressed are personal

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  • ABOUT THE AUTHOR
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    Barkha Dutt is consulting editor, NDTV, and founding member, Ideas Collective. She tweets as @BDUTT.

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