Ranjona Banerji: When the minister took to the edit page of The Times of India… and how!

09 Apr,2019

By Ranjona Banerji

What a most intriguing edit page opinion piece it was in The Times of India on Monday, April 9, 2019. A current Cabinet minister informing the newspaper’s readers “How the Congress hurts freedom”.

A number of questions emerge as you read on from that headline. Does an article like this by Arun Jaitley count as an infringement of the model code of conduct? This is not an interview after all. This is a serving minister writing a long diatribe about an Opposition party, just a few days away from the first day of polling. This is not an election speech. This is party propaganda masquerading as informed comment.

Still, never mind. It is not as if the Election Commission is going to do anything about it.

It gets curiouser. The piece starts with a paean to Ramnath Goenka, the founder of The Indian Express. In some small way, small because the Express could never really challenge The Times of India size-wise, Goenka was a competitor. To praise him so fulsomely in a rival publication leads one to speculate that a) no one in the TOI edit page team was allowed to edit and b) this is was a “must carry” sent from the top, which leads one to c) there was pressure on the top to carry Jaitley’s anti-Congress rant, thus taking one to d) which is nothing but a+b+c.

I could add ‘i’ for irony, since Jaitley’s main contention is that Indira Gandhi and the Congress Party were implacably opposed to freedom of speech and the freedom of the press. The honourable minister does not exactly say that his party, the Bharatiya Janata Party, is all for the freedom of the press but the implication is there.

Perhaps Jaitley knows there is no point lingering on the issue of the BJP and freedom of the press. So he sidesteps into aspects of the Congress manifesto which are not exactly about the freedom of the press. And, well, ironically, underline the BJP’s own problems with, um, freedom. He writes, “The manifesto is liberal towards terrorists, criminals and insurgents.” Interesting, when you read between the lines. Presumably, this statement is based on the Congress promise to end the colonial era sedition law? It also emphasises the BJP’s problem with dissent and difference of opinion.

Jaitley tries to mumble-jumble the point, “As a political activist, I hold the view that if some media organisations are opposed to my party’s viewpoint, they may constitute a minuscule share in the ocean of media news available.”

What does that mean? That only a small section of the media is allowed to criticise the BJP? In this Jaitley is undoubtedly correct. Regardless of whether “Indiraji” loved the press or not, she is not in power now and is unlikely to be voted to power again in the future. It is too bad that Jaitley’s great moment as a “political activist” was during the Emergency. That ended in 1977. This is 2019.

The BJP government led by Narendra Modi has been one of the worst for the freedom of the press since then. Jaitley is in fact correct that in the great “ocean of media news available”, those allowed to criticise his government are a tiny number. And those who do most vociferously, find themselves threatened with defamation cases, with long court proceedings and in the case of journalists like Gauri Lankesh, death by “patriots” belonging to Hindutva organisations. I would rather quote Jaitley ji and call them “terrorists, criminals and insurgents” however.

There is more waffling on cross-media holdings, which is something that newspaper owners and various governments have been crossing swords over. And there is a mention of NDTV which is indeed interesting since it is the one news channel which sort of does not take a completely pro-BJP line all the time. Hmm.

To step back into the past, during the Gujarat riots of 2002, who was the Union minister in Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s candidate who is known to have threatened the owner of the same newspaper (where I then worked) that he now writes in, to instruct the Ahmedabad edition to stop covering the riots and criticising the Narendra Modi state government? Indira Gandhi was long dead by then. The Congress party’s current manifesto had not been written. But “terrorists, criminals and insurgents” were given freedom to terrorise, kill, maim, destroy in Gujarat and there was tremendous pressure on the press to step back.

And then there’s the reason why I know that this “opinion piece” was not read by anyone on the TOI desk. Within the copy and the blurb, “minuscule” is spelt as “miniscule”. No sub worth their reputation would make that mistake.

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

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