Test for Narendra Modi, Test for the Media

12 Dec,2018


By Ranjona Banerji

Through Tuesday December 11, as election trends trickled through for assembly elections in Chhatisgarh, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Telangana and Mizoram, how did our friends in television fare?

From all reports, former colleagues and now rivals in the same boat, Arnab Goswami and Navika Kumar looked sombre and a bit shell-shocked. Both of these star “news” anchors with Republic TV (part-owner in the case of Goswami) and Times Now have consistently batted for the BJP over the last five-odd years and attacked the Congress and the rest of the Opposition to cover up for every mistake the BJP has made. But suddenly, there they were, listening as the Opposition spoke. Listening! That in itself is a miracle of sorts.

On India Today TV, star “news” anchor Rahul Kanwal was attempting to be “fair”. That is me giving him the benefit of the doubt. Many viewers on social media saw in his demeanour and language that he was preparing to jump from one boat to the next. NewsX was in copycat mode as usual.

News18 got less flak. NDTV and Mirror Now were as ever, professional. Wion is an amazing product from the Zee stable, where sobriety has given it its own unique niche. Quite the opposite of Zee News.

By the evening, when the trends were clearer, and the Election Commission website was better behaved, NDTV was a joy to watch because Dr Prannoy Roy was on form. He has been a bit lacklustre at times in the recent past. Faye D’Souza of Mirror Now was also taking no prisoners.

But the problem runs deeper than media rats scurrying to kowtow to the newest winner. In fact, that very behaviour exposes exactly what is wrong today and never more evident than on TV. Our first jobs as journalists is to question those in power. That’s it. But several of our colleagues, especially in television “news”, have spent the last five years questioning the Opposition and covering up for the BJP or behaving like paid PR people. Now, as they sense the electorate is changing its mind, they are eager to make the switch. And curry favour with the new Durbar.

Even worse are the “news” channels and their “editors” who have pushed the RSS’s Hindutva agenda, like Anand Narasimhan who has switched from Times Now to News18, undermining some of the better work done by his colleagues. Back at Times Now, Rahul Shivshankar remains obsessed with the “Hindu” angle to everything. This makes them complicit in their attempts to increase divisions in the fabric of the nation and take us towards a violent, sectarian future. Will they stick to their divisive guns now or will they pull pack, now that Rajasthan, MP and Chhatisgarh appear to have rejected incumbency, divisiveness and demonetisation?

Why did all that “temple-mosque” politics not resonate with voters in three Hindi heartland states? One of the biggest campaign disasters for BJP appears to have been UP chief minister who raked up issues of the temple everywhere and even threatened to change Hyderabad’s name to Bhagyanagar. The BJP as a result won one seat in Telangana. How about anchors like Kanwal and Gaurav Sawant who waxed eloquent on Ajay Singh Bisht’s pet calves and temple politics?

The Dainik Bhaskar came up with this headline: “Modi ki notebandhi ke baad, Janata ki Votebandhi”. It is a clear indictment of Narendra Modi’s disastrous economic move as well as a signal that the wind has shifted direction.

Most newspapers and news sites have followed the tenets of journalism more closely than television. This was visible on December 11 and 12 as well. Today’s papers have told it like it is. Kudos to Mirror Now for its “Talk to the Hand” headline, which is both fresh and pertinent. As the Election Commission website was slow with the counting, and TV channels had random figures, websites did better. A shoutout is a must for India Spend who analysed election data through the day, providing an in-depth look into voters’ minds.

But it is the run up to the general elections next year which will be a further test for the Indian media. Apart from these results, we still have ongoing crises to deal with. Nothing has been done to help India’s farmers, in spite of their epic march to Delhi. Some within the BJP are now complaining to the RSS that Modi’s policies have broken agriculture. The Rafale deal remains a problem. The Reserve Bank and CBI are in a mess. The resignation of RBI governor Urjit Patel, before his term was up and the appointment of Shaktikanta Das, the retired bureaucrat who oversaw demonetisation and who is not an economist, in his place has already rung several alarm bells.
May you live in interesting times, as the Chinese saying goes, and indeed we do.

In the end, a word for exit polls. One feels for these pollsters, but really, what is the point. They just exist to instigate hysterical TV debates.

Ranjona Banerji is a senior journalist and commentator. She is also Consulting Editor, MxMIndia. The views here are personal.

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