2018, Column, State of Play, Telegraph Calcutta

A Scorpion Curled

The threat to a free media in India is never far away

 

One of the appointed margdarshaks of the Narendra Modi dispensation, L.K. Advani, was, at one time, minister for information and broadcasting. He ascended the job writing copiously on the derangements of the Indira-Sanjay Emergency regime (1975-1977) and issuing a rap on the media that still resounds as reminder of what must not be repeated: “When the Press was asked to bend, it crawled.”

A lead act of the same dispensation, the finance minister, Arun Jaitley, himself a victim of Emergency-era excesses, seldom misses an opportunity to recall the menace and darkness of those 19 months, or to champion enshrined constitutional freedoms. In his Foreword to The Emergency, an essential memoir of the era by the journalist, Coomi Kapoor, Jaitley wrote: “Political developments during this period were all aimed in the direction of suppressing democracy and turning India into a totalitarian state. Fundamental rights under Articles 14, 19, 21 and 22 were suspended… The newspapers quickly began to toe the government line… The most alarming aspect of the Emergency, as this book so vividly narrates, was that Indira Gandhi managed to demonstrate how easy it was to misuse the Constitution and convert democracy into a constitutional dictatorship. In this journey, she seemed to have picked up some clues from Adolf Hitler…”

Continue reading “A Scorpion Curled”

2018, Essay, Telegraph Calcutta

Narendra Modi and Our Derelictions as Media

The Press seems happy to be co-opted by the government

Just a thought, if only as hors d’oeuvre: Sanjaya was arguably the first television reporter known to us, relaying the great battle live from a far distance. Imagine the consequences of Sanjaya telling Dhritarashtra what would please his ears rather than what transpired as the Kauravas and Pandavas had it off. All it would have taken for an epic subversion of the truth was one obsequious reporter willing to compromise with his craft to curry favour with his master.

After a prime minister lavishly lambasted for never speaking – “Maun Mohan Singh” – we elected a prime minister who never seems to tire of speaking. Some of that, we have been told by his own, amounts to no more than jumlas. But there is a more disturbing aspect to Narendra Modi’s mode of speaking. It’s one-sided.

Modi is into the final lap of his term and he is yet to open himself to questioning in a way that has been the assumed norm for all his predecessors. Our prime minister has his say and he would have no more. On Twitter. On diverse social-media platforms and dedicated web portals. On Mann ki Baat. To commissioned cameras from government-aided or government-allied operations that can be trusted to obey command, pack off and promote the puff. He does not grant interviews, not in the way we should understand them. The complicit silence over how interviews with the prime minister are conducted must be broken. Because people need to know. Here is how it’s done – you may mail a set of questions to one of the prime minister’s aides; they, or the prime minister himself, will examine them and pick which ones are convenient. Of those that the Prime Minister’s Office rejects or refuses to answer, there shall be no mention, or even a record. Subsequently, answers will be formulated and mailed back.

Continue reading “Narendra Modi and Our Derelictions as Media”

2013, New Delhi, News, Telegraph Calcutta

Now, An Opinion War Over Opinion Polls

New Delhi, Nov 4: Pre-election opinion polls have opened a flaming opinion war among political parties. It is no more an academic argument over the merits or precision of psephology; it has become a full-blown debate over freedom of speech and media rights.

The BJP’s prime ministerial aspirant, Narendra Modi, assumed pole position on the issue today, slamming the Congress’ advocacy of banning opinion polls and holding the party up as traditionally opposed to institutions of freedom. “The biggest casualty of the Congress Party’s arrogance while in power and its tendency to trample over institutions has been our fundamental right to free speech,” Modi wrote on his blog. He had no particular “affinity” to opinion polls, he said, and was aware of their chequered history and limitations, but that could not be grounds to proscribe them. “There is an important principle and ethic here that holds true for every party and government. From Bhishma in the Mahabharata to Kautilya in the Arthashastra we have been taught how important it is for those in government to be attuned to public opinion. A government that is in denial over where the public opinion really stands is doomed to be thrown out of power,” Modi wrote.

The BJP leads and the Congress lags across all opinion polls broadcast in recent weeks.

Continue reading “Now, An Opinion War Over Opinion Polls”

2013, New Delhi, News, Telegraph Calcutta

New Delhi’s Jurassic Egg, For Your Information Only

New Delhi, Aug 24: The attendance was A-list, the atmospherics protocol-perfect, the adjectives superlative, the applause generous and obliging.

It was an occasion deserving of nothing less. The government had just hatched a glittering Jurassic egg Rs 60 crore worth on prime acreage in the capital. It would have to count as a rare moment in this age to watch six tiers of mortar, grit, granite and glass pressed into the service of information when all of it can be devised, disseminated and received on baubles that fit the crook of a palm.

Information Inflation
Information Inflation: Delhi’s New National Media Centre

As Prime Minister Manmohan Singh paced the motions of opening and commending the marvel called National Media Centre (NMC) this morning, his communications adviser unwittingly laid bare the irony mocking the enterprise — Pankaj Pachauri broadcast his boss’ speech live to the world pushing Twitter tabs on his hand held from the front rows of the inaugural hall. Continue reading “New Delhi’s Jurassic Egg, For Your Information Only”

2000, Essay, Guns and Yellow Roses, Kargil

Kargil: One Side of a Bleeding Fence

A fragment from a long essay on the Kargil War: Part 3. The essay, Guns and Yellow Roses, was published in an eponymous collection on the Kargil War by HarperCollins India in 1999

Among some of the friendliest creatures on the Kargil frontier
Among some of the friendliest creatures on the Kargil frontier

Kargil: For most of us, Kargil was the biggest story we had been on. It didn’t take the daily whoops of the youthful Gaurav Sawant of The Indian Express — “Guys, guys I’m so thrilled it’s my thirty-third front page byline in a row, I have never had it so good” — to make us realise this. War hadn’t ever happened between two nuclear powers. And this war had happened to everybody — the army and the media — quite suddenly, without chance for preparation. Initially, and fortuitously for some of us, the army was too busy getting its act together to bother about the media. They tried to impose restrictions for a while but realised they would be better served by organized media exposure. Kargil became the most freely reported war — and the first televised — on the subcontinent. Continue reading “Kargil: One Side of a Bleeding Fence”