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How Modi got the media to acknowledge his hangout

September 04, 2012 22:09 IST

'Who can motivate and appeal to the young and idealistic who are willing to work hard to create an India that matches their ambitions? Who is their role model?'

'Someone like Modi who has worked his way up from the lower middle class, and has shown steely leadership and produced results? Or some child of privilege? You be the judge,' says Rajeev Srinivasan.

The New York Times has always claimed it prints 'all the news fit to print'. While one might quibble about this -- and Noam Chomsky did in his indictment of the US media, Manufacturing Consent -- it must be granted that the American paper does try to offer some variety in its points of view, although it is decidedly left-leaning and supports the Democratic Party.

No such luck with the Indian media, both the print and electronic variants (the Internet media does, in its defence, offer some variety). It does not offer up a menu of anything other than what might be considered lunatic-fringe left in any normal country. In fact, even a mild leftist will be considered far-right according to the skewed discourse in India, which has addled the brains of one or two entire generations.

There is considerable evidence that what Nomsky called the military-industrial complex in the US has morphed into the government-media complex in India (as the military has been decidedly apolitical, and has suffered for it, too, but I digress). In general, the media totally toes the line of the Congress party and its friends. One major newspaper has such a soft corner for Communists that people often wonder if it is funded entirely by the Chinese -- so faithful is it in reproducing Xinhua propaganda.

There is no need to break one's head over why this abomination of journalistic ethics has happened. The Congress party has simply bought the media's fealty. This has been the hallmark of the Congress, and especially the UPA-I and –II dispensations -- for instance, it has endeared itself to the bureaucracy by giving them huge raises.

The role of the media in a normal democracy is to be the standard-bearer of dissent. It also shares what American jurist Justice Stevens said about the true role of the judiciary -- that it is to represent 'unpopular causes'. Stevens, who served on the US supreme court for 35 years, while being interviewed about his book Five Chiefs: A Memoir of the Supreme Court, talked about this intriguing concept -- that popular causes will always get the electoral votes and therefore legislators' support; and it is the job of the judiciary to balance that with compassion towards the other side.

The Indian media utterly fails in this duty of representing the other side of the story, going to ridiculous extremes to manufacture quotes (the 'spit-and-scoot' strategy), quote out of context, and to sweep under the carpet anything that its -- well, employers -- don't like or that show them in a bad light.

Thus, the media, or in particular the English-Language Media (ELM) or Mainstream Media (MSM) in India, has soft-pedalled criticism of the Congress's malevolence and ineptness. For instance, there is embarrassed silence about the massive cash-for-votes scam that allowed UPA-1 to cling on to power, the possibility that Electronic Voting Machine hacking helped them steal the 2009 election, or the gigantic scandals that keep showing up with metronomic regularity.

In fact, it took the perseverance of one man, J Gopikrishnan, from the centrist newspaper The Pioneer to throw open the 2G scam, when his peers in left-wing papers kept mum.

Thus, there is a good question as to the value of the ELM/MSM in terms of the accuracy of its news, or the validity or independence of its points of view, which are increasingly seen to be biased. So much so that when the Niira Radia tapes were aired, very few were surprised about the fact that two high-and-mighty media mavens were clearly implicated in not just reporting the news, but influencing it by being intermediaries.

I wrote about this in January 2011, glad that the Twitteratti were making mincemeat of these erstwhile lions of media, by challenging them at every step and forcing them on the defensive. I thought a new era had dawned in Indian media. The copy editor thought so, too, and grandly titled my piece 'India is finally seeing the birth of alternative journalism', whereas my original title had been 'Can Twitter revolutions last?'

In fact, I soon realised that they may not last, or at least that vested interests would push back strongly. I wrote another piece titled 'Why social media revolutions cannot last'. Maybe I was a tad too pessimistic in that assessment. The evidence today points both ways: on the one hand, hostile governments' attempts to pull the plug on dissenters; on the other, the Narendra Modi hangout.

The ham-handed way in which the Indian government attempted to shut down political opponents such as @kanchangupta, @barbarindian, @dosabandit, @shivaroor et al, and some 309 entire domains, was in ironic counterpoint with the way the Pakistani government has -- presumably -- persuaded the brilliant satirist @majorlyprofound to shut his Twitter feed down. (I sincerely hope they haven't liquidated him.) Yet another reason why India and Pakistan are equal equal, I suppose. The new media is fragile, as the powers-that-be can always pull the plug (although virtual private networks or VPNs can help.) The irony of India's censors attempting a China-style 'Great Wall' was also not lost on many.

But the August 31 event where Narendra Modi used technology to communicate with a large number of people, some 1.5 million strong, via a Google+ Hangout, was a ray of hope. Several things stood out about this event: first, Modi is making the MSM irrelevant; second, turning adversity into triumph is a true mark of leadership; third, the young will be the swing votes in 2014, and into the future.

Modi is doing a Reagan to the media. Ronald Reagan -- let me hasten to add that I was not a fan of his, and he was definitely more form than substance -- was able to neutralise America's hostile media by 'going over their heads directly to the people'. His easy self-assurance as an actor (not to mention a friendly teleprompter) enabled Reagan, with an avuncular nod here and a twinkle there, to charm the American public.

Modi is hardly form over substance; in fact, his substance overwhelms his form. And he's hardly avuncular and twinkling -- you get the feeling that he'd rather be reeling off statistics to satisfy his (and your) inner policy wonk, but he was at ease in handling the questions thrown at him. In general these fall into two categories -- development/policy vs the 2002 Gujarat riots.

Those who are serious about the nation's interests focus on the former. The Congress, and its paid media, focus on the latter and have just one question in mind: Can they crucify Modi over the 2002 riots? It is clear they have no evidence to finger him -- so much so that one of their darlings has been repeatedly accused of serial witness-tampering and manufacturing evidence. They are ghouls, using the 59 Hindus burned alive in Godhra and the 790 Muslims + 254 Hindus killed in the riots as their only currency.

Thus it was particularly ironic that the Hangout happened the very day the MSM were salivating over the fact that one of Modi's former colleagues, Maya Kodnani, was convicted of the 2002 Naroda Patiya massacre and sentenced to 28 years in prison. There was joy in the MSM, as they would have liked to hang Modi based on the fact that his colleague was convicted -- although the fact is that she had been a Modi opponent until around 2007.

The MSM also did not bother to ask why the same criteria didn't apply to Rajiv Gandhi and his parivar, as tainted associates of theirs accused in the 1984 Sikh massacre, such as Jagdish Tytler (Editor's note: Against who the CBI filed closure report citing lack of evidence), Sajjan Kumar et al, have escaped convictions for -- ironically -- 28 years. Did the judicial process go slow in the case of the Sikhs? What about the perpetrators of the Godhra Sabarmati train burning? They too have escaped punishment. Why? (Editor's note: 31 people were convicted by a special court in Gujarat in Februray 2012.

Anyway, Modi brilliantly neutralised the MSM's fire-breathing with the expedient of the hangout, which showed the media its place. As the poet Goldsmith said most appropriately in An Elegy on the Death of a Mad Dog:

But soon a wonder came to light,
That showed the rogues they lied:
The man recovered of the bite,
The dog it was that died.

Indeed, it is the dog that died -- the MSM was forced to acknowledge the massive pulling power of the Modi hangout and ended up showing excerpts from the Google+ and YouTube goings-on. Talk about turnabout being fairplay! I am reminded of that old racist Churchill: It was when disaster loomed that he was at his best; similarly Modi showed the guts and wits to turn a potential disaster into a triumph. This is true leadership.

The third point that makes the event interesting is that Modi is directly targeting the young. In this, he is taking a leaf out of Barack Obama's book. Obama did a Town Hall meeting on Twitter, a live video chat on Facebook, and coincidentally, a Reddit chat on the same day, which netted him 3.5 million viewers. Catch them young, as they say: and Obama did ride to victory in 2007 on the back of his enthusiastic young activists.

Some may cavil that the Internet audience consists of middle-class people, including the Diaspora, and that they cannot make a difference to the large numbers of dirt-poor and illiterate people who vote. I wouldn't be quite so sure. As Swami Vivekananda said, 'Give me a hundred energetic young men and I will transform India'.

Anyway, is there an alternative? Who else can motivate and appeal to the young and idealistic who are willing to work hard to create an India that matches their ambitions? Who is their role model? Someone like Modi who has worked his way up from the lower middle class, and has shown steely leadership and produced results? Or some child of privilege? You be the judge.

If you would like to read more columns by Rajeev Srinivasan, please click here.

Rajeev Srinivasan