Ranjona Banerji: How the media stopped being Modi-managed and was kicked into thinking for itself

15 Dec,2015

By Ranjona Banerji


It’s that time of the year when the calendar takes over. And in the minds of us ever-chasing-the-obvious-cliche journalists, it’s countdown time! Why should I be any different? So how did we do this year, with sixteen calendar days left till we end with 2015 and start on 2016?


Politics and the central government continued to dominate the media, with Prime Minister Narendra Modi taking centre stage. But unlike 2014 where traditional media was in full cheer-leading stage, taking several cue from the BJP’s and Modi’s own massive social media army, in 2015 some journalists and media houses discovered some other clichés of their own. That there are two sides to every coin, every story and such self-evident truths.


By the first quarter of 2015, the honeymoon period for the Central government was over. The Delhi assembly results, where the Aam Aadmi Party won 67 seats, leaving just three for the BJP and allies and none for the Congress or anyone else, started the process. At the end of 2014, it had become clear that the promises of “good days” to come were a bit of an exaggeration.


In February 2015, BJP president Amit Shah told the media that the promise of black money coming back to India within three months of the BJP’s victory and the Rs 15 lakh to be delivered to every bank account was just an election “jumla”. This was a remarkable event not just for introducing the word “jumla” (sentence, claim, meaningless?) to our everyday lexicon but also for the honesty of admitting that all election promises are not meant to be fulfilled.


As public resentment against the Centre’s empty promises started rising slowly but surely – as is inevitable for any elected government – a series of events made even a benevolently disposed media sit up and take notice. There was the lacklustre budget, the constant foreign tours by the prime minister which seemed only to benefit Indians who chose not to live in India.


The protests by retired armed forces personnel for a better pension system were a massive wake-up call, especially for a media which saw the happy armed forces as singularly pro-BJP. However the anger against the government for half-baked promises and solutions was palpable and could not be ignored. The embarrassing spectacle of veterans sitting in public protests, the horror of watching them being beaten up by the police was a public relations disaster that no country, no society and no government wants.


The government was too slow to respond and the results were there for everyone to see. BJP spokespersons appeared on TV with the Manmohan Singh defence: the prime minister cannot comment on everything. But if that defence did not work for Singh, it could not be made to work for Modi either. The iron curtain of media love and protection was getting a tad rusty by now.


The monsoon failed, which brought its own miseries and once again, the Central government moved like molasses.


But it was the lynching of Mohammed Akhlaq in Dadri, a small town in Uttar Pradesh, on the rumour that he had eaten beef or had beef stored in his refrigerator that set off a course of unstoppable comments. Akhlak was Muslim, the mob was supposedly Hindu, several BJP politicians descended on Dadri to “protect” cows and Hindus, as many objectionable remarks on religious grounds that could be made were made.


Media frenzy started building. And then writers and intellectuals began returning old awards and protesting against an atmosphere of “intolerance” caused by proponents of Hindutva. This caused a massive problem for the pro-BJP section of the media. It could not ignore the protests completely, although many journalists had no qualms in admitting that they had never heard of many of the writers – to no one’s surprise. But then the film world also got into the act and all hell broke loose.


writers Or, perhaps I should not use my words so loosely. The Bihar state elections were pushed as a referendum for the Central government by the media and by some politicians. TV journalists gushed as they so often do every time the prime minister addressed a rally in Bihar. Other journalists concentrated on the divisive language used by the prime minister, the BJP president and other BJP politicians. But it was a five stage election and mid-way through, the air changed.


Yet, on the day the results were announced, our news channels could not believe what was about to happen. They tried to set the agenda by declaring a win for the BJP. Within two hours, the truth that emerged was something else altogether.


That loss for the BJP ended that honeymoon with the media effectively. You could see it in the coverage of Modi’s subsequent public interactions. Although people like actor Anupam Kher have tried very hard to blame the evil secular and liberal media for all kinds of crime, it is no longer possible for the media to pretend that cheer-leading for Modi is the only way to practise journalism.


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