What is interesting is the churn of conscience and soul-searching Pakistani newspaper Dawn has triggered in India.

Indo-Pak tensions and Indian media Why its futile to look to a new Dawn across the border
Voices Opinion Sunday, October 16, 2016 - 17:18

There is considerable excitement among certain sections of the Indian media at the stand taken by a reputed newspaper in Pakistan – The Dawn - at the alleged action against one of its writers (he was reportedly put on the ‘Exit Control’ list by the government). A large national daily - published from Eastern India – carried The Dawn editorial on its front-page alongside a comment piece citing it as an example of extra-ordinary editorial courage.

First, credit must be given to the journalists and the newspaper – which undoubtedly has a long history of ethical and independent journalism that has justly earned it respect internally and internationally. Second, it has always been acknowledged that in an otherwise deeply flawed political system – media stands out as one redeeming democratic institution in Pakistan. Therefore, this particular instance of principled stance should not have come as a major surprise to those who have been following Pakistani media over the years.

What is interesting, however, is the churn of conscience and soul-searching it has triggered in India. It would seem the so-called “surgical strikes” have inadvertently caused a deep incision in the chests of guardians of the fourth-estate at home. A senior politician accused the media of “capitulating” and “falling like ninepins” – whereas a celebrated editor chided his own ilk of “crawling backward” – though they were not even asked to bend. Irony took a hard knock – when a US national of Indian origin having a media practice in Delhi wrote about journalism on “our” side of the border being left grievously injured.

Let us not get sucked into the ugly exchange on how those who have made their mark on “source based stories” (read calculated plants) or “trading” with corporate lobbyists can now hold forth against “PR hand-out” based journalism. Much before Radia shot to fame there was St Kitts, people living outside the country may not recall. We shall also not comment on the kind of fact checks that were exercised before reporting, “church attacks” or atrocities against Christians.

Similarly, it might be difficult to apply standards of ‘objectivity’ to both “uber nationalism” and left-lib afflictions. Equally whether adulation and sycophancy are worse than visceral hatred for a man who has become the Prime Minister by a legitimate electoral mandate. The more pertinent question, therefore, is what has caused this inflexion point? Are the Almeida episode and the Dawn editorial triggers of realization or pegs to hang collective frustration?

If anything, the present government has been accused of inept media management from its inception. While a few changes of incumbent editors in print and digital media were attributed to the owners seeking to realign with the new dispensation, the vast majority that were left unaffected would tend to contradict such insinuations. In hindsight the developments appear more like either a function of ownership change or fall-out of squabbles among family members. We are advisedly leaving competence out of the equation here. In any case, there have been no known cases of curtailment of personal freedom of media persons (whether owners or editors) or legal hounding. So, why are the stalwarts feeling so insecure and vulnerable? Here are some hypotheses.

It would have been naïve for anyone who has tracked Narendra Modi for twelve years in Gujarat’s Gandhinagar to expect that he would adapt to the old Congress way of doing business in Lutyens’ Delhi. The business community and sections of the bureaucracy had read the signals of his victory much ahead of time – which the mainstream media continued to ignore – perhaps, overestimating their own influence. So, one could hardly fault Narendra Modi if he felt that he won the election despite the media. Thus, while others got around to adjusting their style as per the expectations of the new regime – the media stayed put on their privileged perch.  

Having gotten used to the culture of entitlement and lazy journalism – they cribbed about drying up of “sources”. Although most put up an appearance of nonchalance at the withdrawal of perks such as travelling with the Prime Minister on AI-One on his foreign trips and “sarkari” hospitality abroad – there was much heart-burn about denied “access” and even senior editors left to briefings by the MEA spokespersons.

In all this, there was an underlying assumption that it would not last for long and the good times will return sooner than expected. Based on this premise – the onslaught continued unabated. Occasional surges like the Bihar elections acted as confidence boosters. There were moments of celebrations as well – like Ghar Wapasi. The fledgling government had its own share of growing up pangs – with motor mouth Yogis and Sadhvis or belligerent ministers. As it got its act together by silencing the ‘sants’ or moving outspoken and combative ministers from the line of fire – came Dadri and Cow Vigilantes. 

There was a good deal of scoffing at what appeared to be Narendra Modi’s strategy to go over the MSM by innovations like ‘Mann-ki-Baat’ and direct Social Media outreach. But, all this while the traditional media did not notice the ground was slowly shifting although there were clear signs of it in Narendra Modi’s rising stock in Opinion Polls and the growing warmth of the international community towards him.

The “surgical strike” came as a bolt from the blue as it were. Before that – the media thought it had succeeded in putting the government on the back-foot over Kashmir. Despite counter-firing used pellet shots with vengeance – much to their chagrin not only did Delhi stick to course but also managed to carry Mehbooba Mufti along with them.

At first the Uri Attacks drew a lot of jibes and Modi baiting – by citing his pre-election speeches. Theoreticians assumed India had little option but to turn and offer the other cheek as it could not risk escalating tensions with nuclear neighbour. While the army action took everyone by surprise (no early leaks or para-trooping favoured reporters to the line of action for “exclusives” as the strikes happened) – the real coup was how Modi government managed to rally not just the nation but international opinion in support of its action. Even the opposition was stunned and left with no option but to come out in support. Subsequent – quibble over details and strained scepticism  - were more like spilled milk over the Indus.

The writing on the wall became all too clear that not only has the country moved on but so have the global powers. Therefore, the anger against a contemporary news-anchor for “Trumpification” of Television is as much about falling TRP as it about other former stars losing relevance or rapidly approaching their “sell by” dates.

Similarly, it must be disturbing to realise that famous by-lines in newspapers or glamorous TV persona no longer inspire awe in the public. On Twitter where communication is a two-way channel - millions of followers mean very little and “blocking” a few trolls cannot snuff out a groundswell of opinion, when the mood of the nation changes.  

Finally, the most frightening realisation of all must be – the dwindling clout of the original patrons. Every time Rahul Gandhi opens his mouth more than Congress supporters – one suspects the erstwhile Congress nurtured media get the jitters fearing an early demise of the party. Therefore, the channel that chose not to play Rahul Gandhi’s “Khoon Ki Dalali” remark may have actually tried to do him a favour.

No matter how much one wishes for the law of the nature to change – the Sun will not rise in West and, therefore, it would be futile to look for a new Dawn across the border.

 Sandip Ghose is a writer and popular blogger on current-affairs. Opinions expressed are his own. 


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