As I slumped down on my chair on Friday, waiting to finish work and dive into the weekend, Rahul Pandita’s piece in OPEN Magazine, titled “Inside the Hate-Modi Industry” caught my eye.
The blurb to his piece reads, “The visceral hatred for Modi is making many observers of politics lose their objectivity. In their desperation to see him on his knees, they find meanings where none exists.”
The idea of a blurb is to draw readers’ attention, and this one did its job superbly. I was full of questions - who has a ‘visceral hatred’ for Modi? Why do they hate him? How do they show their hatred? Why do they want to see him on his knees? Why are they so desperate? And what will they gain out of this hatred?
The piece, alas, was rather disappointing, mainly because it plays right into the with-us-or-against-us ideology it aims to diss. The author seems to be saying if you are criticising Modi, it must be because of your visceral hatred towards him. The piece conflates criticism with hatred. And that is extremely dangerous territory.
Since the essay has many strands, I shall attempt to articulate my disappointment with each of those separately, lest I am accused of misinterpreting.
Pandita begins the essay by asking why seasoned journalists did not see BJP’s win in the UP elections. Unless you are the Old-Monk sipping, name-dropping, Press Club veteran, you would not accord yourself the false self-importance and attempt to predict election results, especially from a state that is as complex as Uttar Pradesh.
Why is a journalist expected to predict election results anyway? Like Supriya Sharma says in her last ground report from Jaunpur, “making a prediction is a sign of conceit – it involves two assumptions. One, that voters are uncomplicated subjects who reveal their minds to journalists, and two, that a few voters can accurately speak for the rest. While voting decisions continue to be shaped by identity-based communities, the class differences within these communities are no longer insignificant, and local specificities cannot be ignored.”
Having said that, why did journalists not see the scale of BJP’s win in UP? Simply because reporting from the ground has taken a backseat as armchair journalism thrives. An individual journalist’s political beliefs are immaterial.
Those that were on the ground in Uttar Pradesh, like Hindustan Times’ Prashant Jha, did predict BJP’s win.
Secondly, Pandita takes offence to the fact that his friend pompously said, “Modi dhul jaayega (Modi will be washed out.)”
Well, while the pompousness is something I would also be put off by, I don't blame the friend for equating Modi with BJP’s election results in UP. No one knew who the BJP’s Chief Ministerial candidate would be. The optics were such that the election was fought between Yadav-Gandhi combine and the Modi-Shah combine. Even Congress and BJP were blurred in comparison. The battle was between personalities. And BJP’s hero was Modi and no one else.
Let alone a state Assembly election, Modi was the face of Municipal Council elections in Delhi this year. “Milke chalenge, khil’ke rehange Modi kamal ka rang” went the campaign song.
“Meri sarkaar ghareebon ko samarpit hai,” Modi announces in the middle of the campaign video implying that it would be his government in Delhi. The BJP’s candidate, Manoj Tiwari features in the last few seconds of the ad when he says, “Kamal ka button dabayiye, Narendra Modi ji ke sapnon ki dilli banayiye”
So Pandita should not be surprised if journalists had said Modi will win the MCD elections.
Two days ago, while reporting from Sangli, in heartland Maharashtra, I was speaking to a fruit seller. “Ab to Modi Maharashtra me bhi aa gaya,” she said. Unsure of what to make of it, I prompted, “Fadnavis ji ki baat kar rahin hain?” With a blank look she asked “kaun Fadnavis?”
Since 2013, when the campaign for the previous general elections gained steam, Narendra Modi has been touted as not only the face of the party and subsequently the government, but also the soul of the government.
For instance, if a journalist has to criticise the foreign policy of the present government, should she approach the MEA? Perhaps not. The External Affairs Minister is relegated to handling visa issues on Twitter, while the Prime Minister negotiates everything from H1B visas to Rohingya refugees. When Jawaharlal Nehru was similarly handling foreign affairs more than relevant cabinet ministers, he was rightly blamed for India’s defeat in 1962. Scholars and observers can go into details and criticise V K Krishna Menon or read Australian journalist Neville Maxwell’s accounts of 1962, the common man will hold Nehru responsible for it.
In such cases where the individual leader is omnipresent in government functioning and looms over its functioning, the human being becomes the government. India was Indira at one point, and New India is NaMo these days. In terms of equating a human being to a public office, the two are disturbingly similar.
For instance, while the PM’s personal app has about 185,456 downloads, the PMO app has 2331 downloads. Most people do not see the PMO as a powerful body, but the man as a power centre.
Pandita then goes on to talk about the “left-leaning professional colleague” who predicted Modi’s routing in UP, and recalls a young journalist saying he “will die the day he stops believing in revolution.” While that sounds like a reasonably accurate guess, what it goes to show is that the country has concrete ideological groups of journalists. Those on the left have let themselves be defined by revolution, while those on the right will die the day they start believing in egalitarianism.
Both are to be criticised. Journalists are meant to be the voice of the underdog, irrespective of ideology. Neither those that sided with the Nazis in the 1930s nor those that sided with the Stalinist regime in the 1940s, were doing journalism a favour.
The next point Pandita makes gives Modi a sense of extreme importance that the leader himself would perhaps be surprised by. He says, “In their desperation to see Modi on his knees, they find meanings where none exists.”
This makes Modi look like a lone warrior who is defeating a mammoth enemy single handedly. An Abhimanyu in the Chakravyuha, if Hindu mythological references are your choice, while the reality of power is far from what the author makes it out to be. It is tough to believe that Modi is less powerful than his detractors. If that were the case, many journalists would not self censor.
The next paragraph in Pandita’s essay is the most interesting. He asks journalists to recognise that India was not a ‘sone ki chidiya’ earlier and neither has it been since 2014. This is, in effect, a complete collapse of BJP’s electoral message. PM Modi came to power by promising this country something that it has not seen in the past 70 years of its existence.
In speech after speech, the Prime Minister spoke about ‘the future’ and ‘New India’ to differentiate it from the Congress ruled country of the past decades.
Give me five years, Modi asked the voters in 2014. And the voters gave him that time to change the country.
Referring to himself in the third person, the Prime Minister gave passionate speeches from small towns and big cities talking about how this was the first time in centuries that Hindu rulers have taken over. And that the glorious age of Bharat was here. The hashtag NewIndia is not a creation of Modi’s detractors.
Pandita goes on to say, journalists should not criticise demonetisation as an economic policy because it worked politically in Uttar Pradesh. The success of a policy politically is no justification for its utter failure on the economic front.
And why would we not equate Narendra Modi with Demonetisation’s failure? After all, it was Modi who went on air on the 8th of November and sought 30 days from the people. It was he who made promises that looked like he possessed a secret magic wand that would sparkle and the menace of a parallel economy would vanish.
The Finance Minister didn't ask for 30 days time, the Governor of Reserve Bank of India did not say he could be punished by the people if black money was not rooted out in 30 days. The Prime Minister of the country did.
For a journalist, this government has been most uncommunicative. The idea that one could develop sources in the South Block and North Block is passe. There are no press conferences held any more. There is only one-way communication (Mann Ki Baat) and that too by the Prime Minister himself.
“The protest hate industry against Modi can be divided into two categories,” says Pandita. While one group is opposed to the RSS ideology, he says, the other just criticises to be ‘modern and rebellious’.
One wonders who wants to criticise someone for the heck of it and receive death threats on social media? Who wants to criticise someone for the heck of it and be shot at in their own home? Who wants to criticise someone for the heck of it and live in constant fear? Who feels the need to put themselves at risk in order to stay relevant?
Those criticising the government (and specifically Modi) are doing it despite grave threats. And here, one should differentiate themselves from people like Sanjiv Bhatt, who Pandita rightfully criticises in this essay.
I understand Pandita’s essay is about people he terms “Modi bashers”, therefore I do not want to question him about those that are bashed for even remotely criticising Modi. Whataboutery is not merely a lazy counter but an irritating defence. However, as a former editor of respected publications, Pandita surely understands the importance of balance.
While acknowledging the hate mongers on social media, how did he manage to overlook those who issue death threats as if they were propaganda pamphlets being distributed at street corners? If one read the essay without any context, one could not be blamed for assuming that those who question the government have a personal axe to grind with the Prime Minister.
Also, the Prime Minister himself follows such trolls on Twitter. And has refused to unfollow despite showing examples of their violent behaviour. Again, the leader himself giving them tacit support.
“The country’s common people are sick of media,” says Pandita. I agree. I am sick of them too.
The media is woefully inefficient. Irrespective of a journalist’s personal ideology, if she is not the voice of the underdog, she falls short of fulling her professional commitments.
In this story, the Prime Minster of India is certainly not the underdog.
Views expressed are the author's own.