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'Why can't the Modi government answer questions?'

Last updated on: February 23, 2024 00:59 IST

'Till today, we don't know how many people died of Covid in India.'
'How many migrated from cities to villages during the Covid pandemic?'
'How many corporates contributed to PM Cares?'

IMAGE: Trinamool Congress supremo and West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee (centre) with the TMC's newly-elected Rajya Sabha members (from left), Mohammed Nadimul Haque, Maya Thakur, Sagarika Ghose and Sushmita Dev. Photograph: Sagarika Ghose/X

The All India Trinamool Congress threw a surprise last week when it nominated journalist and author Sagarika Ghose to the Rajya Sabha from West Bengal.

She was elected unopposed this week with other TMC leaders Sushmita Dev, Mamata Thakur and Mohammed Nadimul Haque.

Sagarika was a well known television anchor before she moved on to author books like Why I am a Liberal: A Manifesto for Indians Who Believe in Individual Freedom; INDIRA: India's Most Powerful Minister; Atal Bihari Vajpayee, among others.

On X, criticism followed her nomination as Sagarika had earlier tweeted that she would never join politics.

After being trolled for that tweet, Sagarika tweeted in her defence: 'My tweet from 6 years ago (2018) is being widely circulated. At the time I was a working journalist and yes it would have been inappropriate for me a that that time to switch overnight to party politics. However in 2020 I ceased to be a full time journalist and for the last 3 years have been a freelance columnist for different newspapers.'

'I have therefore had a 3 year cooling off period from full time journalism before taking the plunge into public life.'
'Today when an increasingly authoritarian Modi government recognises no institutional restraints and has almost entire captured the media, my commitment to constitutional democracy has led me to join the courageous fight of @AITCofficial to keep alive democratic spaces and democratic contestation.'

"An atmosphere of celebratory triumphalism drummed up entirely by the media is very difficult to combat as the Opposition has been literally drowned out by the media... There is only praise, praise and praise of the Modi government. Almost no mainstream journalist dares question the Modi government on anything. How can a democracy function like this?" Sagarika Ghose asks Syed Firdaus Ashraf/ in the first of a multi-part interview.

I asked the celebrated editor Pritish Nandy once how he became a Rajya Sabha member to which he replied, Bal Thackeray called him on the phone and asked whether he would want to go to the Rajya Sabha on a Shiv Sena ticket. He said Yes, and that's it.

Was it the same for you? Did Mamata Banerjee call you to become a Rajya Sabha member?

Yes, Mamata Banerjee did offer me the Rajya Sabha berth. I was extremely honoured and delighted.

A similar offer had been made to me by the party a while ago, but I did not take it up then because I was still in full time journalism.

At this time when the offer was made, I thought that since I was out of full time journalism and not a part of the newsroom for the last three years, it was an honour that India's only woman chief minister was offering me a Rajya Sabha seat along with two other exceptional women.

As a woman and a proud Bengali I saw this as an honour and recognition from my home state and said yes almost immediately.

What appealed to you about the Trinamool Congress?

Mamata Banerjee's life story is truly remarkable. A woman leader from a humble background with virtually no support, she battled the Left Front government in Bengal for decades. The Left Front was a mighty force in West Bengal, they ruled the state for 34 years. The Left was a huge, well-organised machine. Mamata Banerjee fought this machine alone.

She is perhaps the only woman politician in India who has not had a male mentor. She's come up a very hard way.

Today we get upset about trolling and abuse on the Internet and Twitter, but Mamata Banerjee was literally beaten on the streets (by Left Front workers). Her head was split open. She was badly injured, abused, but she continued fighting.

She has raw courage and unflagging fearlessness, which I find inspiring.

When the Ram Mandir consecration was happening in Ayodhya on January 22, she took out a rally with leaders of all faiths in Kolkata.

Her commitment to secularism and undaunted courage are rare these days.

You raised many interesting questions in your article in The Print on the Modi government not giving a true picture of India by hiding data like that on PM Cares.

Why has the Opposition not highlighted these issues and built a narrative among the public?

The Opposition parties are trying, but there are many constraints. The Opposition is crowded out of the media.

There are ED, CBI and income tax investigations against Opposition parties. They are suspended in bulk from Parliament when Parliament is supposed to be the home of the Opposition (to raise their voice against the government).

The Opposition is being hounded from all sides. They are under relentless pressure. Opposition members of Parliament are getting disqualified. Opposition leaders are being arrested and jailed. Or Opposition governments are being destabilised by 'Operation Lotus'.

Look at the manner in which the BJP tried to steal the vote in the Chandigarh mayoral poll. The BJP is trying hard to annihilate the Opposition.

Why can't the Modi government answer questions?

Till today, we don't know how many people died of Covid in India.

How many migrated from cities to villages during the Covid pandemic?

We don't know the answer.

How many corporates contributed to PM Cares? We don't know the answer.

Who is going to ask these questions? Almost all of the media is captured by the Modi regime.

The media apparatus is entirely at the disposal of the Modi regime. The media is completely complicit.

As Albert Einstein said, 'The world is in greater peril from those who tolerate and encourage evil than from those who actually commit it.'

An Opposition-mukt Bharat spells doom for Indian democracy.

Is the Indian media, or rather godi media as they say, in play to create this bubble of manufactured achche din?

One flyover is made and the media will go on and on (praising Modi). For example, the Atal Setu in Mumbai or for that matter look at the way the Ram Mandir consecration event was covered.

There was no questioning, no element of scepticism.

The demolition of the Babri Masjid was called an illegal act and a violation of the law by the Supreme Court of India and there was no attempt to bring that out (by the media).

An atmosphere of celebratory triumphalism is drummed up by the media 24x7. It is very difficult for the Opposition to combat all this.

The Opposition is viciously attacked by the media and there is only praise, praise and praise of the Modi government.

Almost no mainstream journalist dares question the Modi government on anything.

The free press in India is facing a deep crisis, it is a calamity actually.

How can a democracy function like this?

You come with a TV background too. Is it true that a certain PMO official calls television channels and media-persons daily on what to cover and what not to cover as news -- an allegation which AAP chief Arvind Kejriwal made in 2022?

Yes, they do, but I don't have first-hand information on this because I left television journalism eight years ago.

I left the newsroom of The Times of India three years ago.

I have heard that there are functionaries from the prime minister's office, I believe, who call up anchors and media houses to tell them what to cover and what not to cover. What to emphasise and what not to emphasise, and they control access.

If you don't cover this, we won't give you interviews.

If you don't cover that, we won't come for your conclave.

A parasitic relationship has developed between the media and ruling party politicians.

There is a complete stranglehold. It was never like this even during the previous BJP government of A B Vajpayee.

I was a journalist with the Indian Express then and we used to constantly raise questions against the Vajpayee government. There was no atmosphere of fear and threat as there is today.

But when Vajpayee was prime minister his government did try to scuttle media outlets like Outlook magazine about which Vinod Mehta wrote in his book Lucknow Boy. His government also raided the offices of Outlook's owner.

Yes, raids did happen in Vajpayee's time on the Rahejas. It is not that past governments were all very tolerant. Tehelka magazine was shut down. But it's nothing like what is happening today.

One of the leading Hindi newspapers reported dead bodies being burnt near the banks of the Ganga which led to raids on its offices across India.

A BBC documentary was not allowed. Journalists have been sacked, journalists funding has been cut off. Journalists have been jailed under terrorism laws.

The Web site Newsclick was harassed and the editor is in jail.

Indian media is facing a catastrophe under the Modi regime.

Imagine, the PM has not taken an open press conference in 10 years. This is unheard of in a democracy.

But nobody in the press seems to mind. They are busy chanting Modi Modi.