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Asian Tribune is published by World Institute For Asian Studies|Powered by WIAS Vol. 12 No. 2552

Watchdog No More

By Tukoji R Pandit - Syndicate Features

Well before the debut by the openly partisan ‘Republic’ on our TV screens on May 6, Indian media had, with few exceptions, abdicated its role as the watchdog of the Democratic Republic of India and its 1.25 billion people.

The number of those who fear that the ‘watchdog’ is becoming ‘lapdog’ of the government is increasing, despite savage attacks on them—physically, verbally and via social media. Bringing to life a ‘scandal’ of nearly two years vintage and that too after at least four TV channels had reportedly found it unfit to air can be described as a ‘super’ effort only a self-praising media outlet started by those with close links to the ruling party.

The ‘Republic’ will surely expand on the current government’s ‘national’ and ‘anti-national’ binary to tell the ‘nation’ how the ‘anti-nationals’ are bent upon destroying the country. To ‘save’ the country it will be necessary to silence the ‘anti-national’ voices and extend unquestionable support to the ‘nation’ and its ‘nationalist’ causes.

Silencing the ‘anti-national’ voices will resemble the much cursed days of Emergency in mid-1970s. Is that an exaggerated fear? Haven’t we passed a law that makes it very difficult to impose Emergency at the whims of the ruling party? Yes, of course.

But consider this. Pakistan calls itself a ‘democracy’ which entails the supremacy of the civilian rulers over the military, religious and other elements. But can anyone deny that the real rulers in Pakistan are the men in Khaki and their Mullah partners? Likewise, it is not necessary to impose Emergency formally when the government can have its ways without formal recourse to that draconian law.

What is the mysterious reason why almost all sections of the media in India which had said a lot of unsavoury things about the present ruling party and particularly the prime minister, Narendra Modi, now compete with each other in applauding everything done and said by the ruling dispensation and Modi? There might be some interludes of criticism but in the end it is all about cheering. The economy is said to be doing wonderfully well but many reports from the ground, particularly in relation to jobs, do not corroborate the claim. The ‘fudging’ of official statistics is being taken lightly.

What is happening in the media world today takes you back to the days of ‘bad’ days of journalism in India when the media was overwhelmingly pro-government. There was little questioning of the government and the entire nation was in awe of the then prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru. The trend continued for nearly three decades, culminating with a memorable observation by L.K. Advani that the press crawled when asked to bend. He was speaking in the context of the Emergency when the larger section of the media had been discredited for its servility and easy buckling under pressure.

Let us say that the kind of pressure that the Indira Gandhi government brought upon the media back then could be stated as unbearable, in the form of incarceration and loss of revenue by withdrawing government advertisement. The prospects of losing all the power and privileges—that included ‘wheeling and dealing’—was frightening for those who identified themselves with the establishment.

The pressure today works in a more subtle manner. There may be no direct threat of jail sentence but slapping of treason and ‘anti-national’ charges can mean unending trouble. The threat of withdrawing advertisements will always work in the Indian media scene where the bulk of revenue comes from ads. But a new pressure point today is campaign to malign the critics and dissenters with the help of the social media warriors, ‘private armies’, vigilante groups and so on.

How the media avoids or side-tracks questioning the government can be illustrated with one example. The scrapping of Rs 500 and Rs 1000 notes last November had created an unprecedented chaos in the country, causing pain and suffering to millions of people. The media duly highlighted the pain of the people but all too soon it has all been forgotten. ‘Demonetisation’ has been declared a great ‘success’ by those very sections of the media which had given extensive coverage to the travails of the ordinary people.

The large friendly section of the media did not bother to question the government seriously if any of the three stated objectives of the note-scrapping move were achieved. First of all, the government was allowed to get away by going back on its own words of permitting the exchange of old notes with new ones till mid-March and then abruptly announcing that the facility ends weeks ahead.

The more serious questions that have not been asked are: Has ‘demonetisation’ ended black money, eradicated corruption and choked terror financing? The answer to these questions is an emphatic ‘No’. The Prime Minister was not even once reminded that while announcing ‘demonetisation’ he had said that if the discomfort and disruption that it will cause did not end in ‘fifty days’ he would be ready to suffer any punishment that the people decided.

Surely, the pain that the scrapping high denomination currency notes caused has not disappeared. There are still millions of people who are stuck with old currency notes. They have been condemned to see their hard earned money becoming pieces of scrap. Old currency notes are replaced by new ones in many countries but the old ones do not become illegal instruments overnight.

For the fawning admirers of the government this is a small issue. They tend to treat many matters that are associated with national security and integrity in the same manner. Anyone who keeps his or her ears and eyes open will agree that the government has to do something urgently to arrest the tension on the border with Pakistan and the situation in Kashmir.

The manner in which the government is handling these twin issues is shocking; more shocking is letting the government get away with ease. Increasing violations by Pakistan and the high casualties among Indian security personnel at the border are met with sickening rhetoric of ‘appropriate’ reply by the Indian security forces and teaching Pakistan a ‘lesson’. If questioned about specifics of the government strategy to teach the ‘lesson’, the ruling party members digress and talk of the ‘mess’ left by the Congress government.

The disingenuous nature of such stock replies has to be deplored but the media refuses to do so. The ruling party is not shamed by recalling how it used to boast about its prowess to firmly deal with Pakistan and how it has since totally failed to prove that it has the muscles to deal with Pakistan.

The alibi of blaming everything on the Opposition or the previous government will not work if the situation on the border and Kashmir worsens, as it well might.

- Asian Tribune -

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