Hope and promise of change is not change. Speak to us, don't speak down to us.

The Narendra Modi government must hit the restart button nowImage: Narendra Modi FB page
Voices Opinion Monday, November 23, 2015 - 15:06

Us as in all Indians who gave the Narendra Modi government a majority to lead the country for five years in May 2014.  Eighteen months into that mandate, something has come unstuck. That ‘something’ is the quasi-total absence of a credible government voice on issues that concern us. Among them are trade, human rights, job creation, foreign policy, less bureaucracy, price of commodities, arms-control, and public health – regular stuff that make for regular reporting, the backbone of news organisations. The government has too many spokespeople and over a hundred different twitter handles in addition to a slew of public relations companies speaking on behalf of our lawmakers. Marketing India to Indians is preaching to the converted.

It is okay to have best friends in the media. It is okay to privilege some media organisations over others. It is not okay to have no system in place for routine cross checking of information. Twitter cannot be the shorthand for a full briefing in a polarised setting where advice is seen as a diktat and standard questions are viewed as vindictiveness. Today’s twitter spat between Anubhuti Vishnoi, reporter at The Economic Times and Human Resources Development (HRD) Minister Smriti Irani is a case in point. At issue is the allocation of 5000 seats by the ministry in central government-run schools. The journalist says she waited for a response from the ministry before printing the story.  The minister says the story is agenda-driven and is a source-based lie. What is a reader to glean? Wouldn’t it have been easier for all if the HRD ministry had shared a briefing note instead of taking to twitter? My question on a WTO-related query remains unanswered five months after it was sent through appropriate channels. Am I to then write a one-sided story involving New Delhi and Washington and be told that I did not check my facts? These are real issues that must be addressed in a systematic and time-bound manner. This inter-action can only thrive in an atmosphere of trust and it is the government’s responsibility to build that trust.

Failure to address this lacuna is what leads to fear – real or imagined – about the government’s intentions, sometimes seen as targeting civil society and sometimes journalists, academics, scientists and artists. It was no different when the Congress government was in power, but this government was expected to bring in root and branch changes including transparency and robust access to ministers and their work. Telling a comprehensive and credible story is part of that promised tectonic change.

A sound narrative cannot be built on leaks much like an institution that cannot be built by one person or a handful of people. We now live with a chronic noise glut including ad hominem and non sequitur. This must stop immediately. We want a responsible conversation. We, as in people working in the media and whose job it is to explain, debate and challenge various policy and political objectives. This nonsense about ‘I am speaking in my individual capacity’ or ‘I am speaking for the government, not the party’ or the disingenuous ‘I have been misquoted’ must stop as well. Don’t tell us ‘our economic fundamentals are solid’ or that ‘India has not been affected by turbulence in global stock markets’. We can think for ourselves. Indians have elected political parties, not mouthpieces and public relations companies.

Addressing the Indian diaspora at the Wembley stadium in London last week, Modi said people should not believe what they see on television and read in newspapers. Either this was an indirect message to his advisors and others to stop fawning or it was a direct message to all that they should separate chalk from cheese and draw their own conclusions. Why has Modi, the master communicator not succeeded in connecting with his electorate at home? I want to know what was discussed at the Asean summit? Was the fast tracking of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) raised? Press releases and statements from Asean and Asean plus meetings are meagre on the subject. India signed a cultural pact with Malaysia? Xinhua news agency is reporting this morning that Beijing has granted 50 billion RMB quota of investment to Malaysia. Was China’s unilateralism in the region discussed?

One of the Modi government’s biggest successes has been its capacity to blast open debates including raucous ones. Religion, caste, poverty, power, corruption, stupidity, individual struggle and political success, everything is out there to be kicked around. Whether this was desired or inadvertent is unknown. What we know is that India did not bargain only for 2002 versus 1984 or cow versus cow. Election rhetoric is attractive because holds ‘promise’ of change and not change itself. Over the past few months I have interacted with businesspeople, academics, civil society, journalists and commentators in India and abroad. Well-wishers across the spectrum say lack of domain knowledge accompanied by superciliousness and a dismissive attitude is alienating people.

India’s young have gone past the Sonia Gandhi-Rahul Gandhi education/passport/black-money/company status talk. Have conclusive evidence? Act on it and punish the guilty. If not then people will call it out as a trade-off seeking support for the GST bill. The electorate has moved on from 2014. The assembly elections in Delhi and more significantly in Bihar last month cannot be dismissed as poor electoral math. If the line up of leaders at the swearing-in ceremony of Chief Minister of Bihar Nitish Kumar is an indicator, the race for 2019 is on. The corrupt, the communal, the sexist, rapists, misogynists, thieves, murderers, looters, felons were represented in Bihar’s winning team. Many will make a bid for the Prime Minister’s chair.

Narendra Modi’s personal journey is an exceptional one, envied even by his worst detractors. The average Indian however, is now forced to deal with a reality closer home – that of a felon Lalu Prasad Yadav controlling six ministries in Bihar through his sons. The least common denominator has a way of becoming the norm if not stoutly challenged. It is still not late for the government to delete all and hit the restart button. This requires humility. The media can a determinant of positive social, economic and political change. It can also go the other way. 

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