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Modi and the Indian Media

by Khaled Ahmed

The Indian prime minister’s ability to cut off advertising revenue for major outlets prevents them from resisting Delhi’s tilt toward majoritarianism

To understand the shift towards majoritarianism in the media in India, under Prime Minister Narendra Modi, one must take account of an ongoing process that has accelerated after 2014.

If there is such a thing as a national media in India, it is the country’s English newspapers and English news television channels ecosystem. The so-called regional language media, even if larger by readership, is restricted mostly to single states, such as the newspapers of Kerala, Gujarat, Tamil Nadu, Odisha, Bengal, Punjab, Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh. Hindi has a much bigger audience than English in terms of numbers, but it is geographically narrower. English alone can claim to reach all states, especially all the urban spaces.

English media and the regional emotion

The paradox is that English media is less expressive of its audience’s sentiments than the regional language media. Firstly, English newspapers address a more disparate audience than, say, a Gujarati or Tamil newspaper does. The geographical spread, the levels of exposure, the varieties of educational background and professions, the levels of cultural and political interests are much wider in the all-India readership of the English newspaper than any other medium. And, naturally, English communicates in a highly globalized vocabulary. This makes it difficult for the English newspaper to be as eloquent idiomatically as a regional language paper.

Secondly, English newspapers come from a longer tradition than most regional newspapers in India, with only very few exceptions like Bombay Samachar, a Gujarati newspaper which is 200 years old. English newspapers had a precedent in British-run media in India, and for decades after independence continued or tried to continue this tradition. This made the English newspapers less Indian in tone. Meaning they were more reserved and more formal.

Serving the Indian elite

Assistant editors, inexperienced individuals often from elite institutions and sometimes even from Oxbridge, were put in charge of or wrote on these organs’ opinion pages. Thirdly, because English newspapers attracted a disproportionately large part of advertising revenue, the content had to be such that it did not put off the elite and, in fact, catered to them. This elite had global exposure and did not see themselves as identifying purely with nativism.

For these reasons, English newspapers have always been edited socially to the left of the reader, meaning that on many issues the English newspaper editor in India was more liberal than their reader. Certainly, on social issues, this was the case. There were exceptions to this but they were so few that they could be singled out as being very different. Girilal Jain, editor of The Times of India, who supported the campaign against the Babri Masjid, was the most striking of these. Today, it is the columnist Swapan Dasgupta. These individuals ploughed lonely furrows in the English press till the arrival of incumbent Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The acceptability and legitimacy of Hindutva, meaning an explicitly anti-Muslim majoritarianism, is recent in English media.

‘Idiomatic’ connection without ethics

This is a different position from what has historically been the case in the regional media. The local language had idiomatic connect with the reader and was more expressive. These papers, and particularly ones in the north, were also edited closer to the reader, meaning they were less liberal and more aligned to the conservatism of the broad readership. A study done on the media in 2002 after the riots in Gujarat illustrates this. After the violence, the Editors Guild of India sent three of its members to do a fact-finding mission report on the role of the media in the violence.

They interviewed Modi, all the major owner-editors of newspapers, bureaucrats, Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) and RSS leaders, businessmen and members of civil society between March 31 and April 6. The report concluded that “the role of sections of the Gujarati media, especially the Gujarat Samachar and more notably, Sandesh (the state’s largest and second largest newspapers), was provocative, irresponsible and blatantly violative of all accepted norms of media ethics. This cannot be lightly passed over.”

English media seen as pro-Muslim

Here is some of what the fact-finding report found: Falgun Patel, owner-editor of Sandesh, said the English media had sided “out and out” with the Muslims, but the Gujarat papers were “pro-Hindu.” He said Hindus were not temperamentally prone to starting riots, but this time Hindu anger, irrespective of class, was inflamed by the incident at Godhra. Even Hindu women felt “Theek hai, salon ko maaro” (Good, kill the scoundrels). Patel asked of Muslims: “Can a 20 percent minority take the majority for a ride? There has to be a limit.” He said that Muslims had thought that they could get away with anything, but when Modi took office a clear message had gone out to them.

When the Inquiry Guild members asked Patel how collective punishment was justified, he said the idea was “to pressurize ordinary Muslims to put pressure on Muslim goons to behave.” After the way ‘these Muslims’ had behaved, ‘Hinduism ke naam per hum kuch bhi karenge’ (We can also do anything in the name of Hinduism).

Gujarat Samachar and the anti-Muslim press

The Guild report said: ‘An article in Gujarat Samachar had implied that former Congress M.P. Ehsan Jafri, who was brutally slain, ‘got what he deserved.’ Queried on this, the owner-editor Bahubali Shah said he stood by what the paper had written.’ Sandesh’s Patel dismissed Jafri’s murder saying that he had a “bad record.”

The Guild report said that the Gujarat government press notes reflected similar language: “The phraseology most often used for the Godhra incident was ‘inhuman genocide’, ‘inhuman carnage’ or ‘massacre’ while the subsequent riots were invariably described as ‘disturbances’, and occasionally as ‘violent disturbances/incidents’.”

One paper, Madhyantar, carried an eight-column commentary on its front page headlined: “Muslims will have to prove that they are full Indians!” This may appear shocking to the reader even today, but it is not recent or new. This was how large parts of the regional media had always operated. What Modi has done is to align almost all national media with the sentiment that the media in Gujarat had shown against Muslims. Modi has legitimized and given credibility to Hindutva, which expresses itself essentially in anti-minority terms. This has made it easier for the media to broadcast their material through its filter.

English media too succumbs to bias

Even the English media that was structurally not prone to being extreme, succumbed. The decline of print and the dominance of television news made this easier: it is easier to communicate emotion and anger through visuals and sound rather than through the written word. The regional media has shifted farther away from inclusion and is comfortable with its coverage of a Hindutva-minded Union and what it is doing to Indian society. The interesting thing is to examine the ease with which this has happened.

One reason is economic. The media space in India is funded primarily by advertising. The reader or viewer pays very little by way of subscription and newspapers in India are the cheapest in the world. The New York Times and the Guardian cost the equivalent of Rs. 100 or more per copy for about the same amount of newsprint material that goes into a copy of The Times of India or Hindustan Times, which charge their readers only Rs. 5 or less (of which one third goes to the distributor and vendor). Even in Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh, newspapers cost three or four times more than papers in India. How is it then possible for Indian newspapers to exist and be profitable? Advertising, of course, which is by far the largest source of revenue for media companies. And the largest advertiser in India is the Union government through its Directorate of Audio Visual Publicity (DAVP). In the year ending March 2017, the Modi government spent nearly Rs. 1,300 crore on advertising and publicity, of which Rs. 468 crore went to newspapers. This was down from Rs. 508 crore the year before, though DAVP’s budget went up by 8 percent.

Television delivers the final blow

Indian government ads on TV and in newspapers are paid for by taxpayer money, and give the government extraordinary leverage and control over the media. When the COVID crisis broke and it was apparent that government revenues would be squeezed, Sonia Gandhi wrote to Modi suggesting that government advertising be put on hold. She was saying this both for economic and political reasons. She knows a lot about what that spending on media means to Modi. She pointed out that the government currently spends an average of Rs. 1,250 crore per year (not including an equal or greater amount spent by PSUs and government companies), and that this amount could instead be used to alleviate the social and economic impact of COVID-19.

There is, therefore, a total of Rs. 2,500 crore a year that Modi can give at his discretion to the media. It should not surprise anyone, therefore, that India’s media has been unable to perform its essential function in the Modi years. Severely hit by demonetization and the national lockdown, the media not only stopped short of criticizing Modi, it was in fact obliged to turn to him to save it. The share of print (newspapers and magazines) in the overall advertising pie across sectors is shrinking. In 2019, for the first time in history, digital advertising overtook print in India, and by a lot. Digital got 27 percent of advertising money spent in India, while print got 22 percent. Television remained number one at 43 percent, but both TV and print shrank further in 2020 and conceded share to digital. The COVID crisis accelerated this process and newspapers are now going bust. They cannot afford, therefore, to antagonize their largest advertiser—Modi. This is why Indian readers may have noticed that many newspapers have attempted to bring in ‘balance’ on their opinion pages by adding writers who promote the government or the Hindutva perspective.

Stimulus package

After the lockdown had cut circulation and advertising numbers in half, the Indian Newspaper Society wrote to Modi asking for a “stimulus package” to save India’s print media. The proprietors wanted the government to: increase the spend on newspapers by 200 percent, pay its old dues, increase the rate DAVP paid them by 50 percent, remove the customs duty on newsprint and give them a two-year tax holiday. The industry had lost around Rs. 12,500 crore in the eight months after the lockdown. The same newspapers which had to report on the Modi government and were expected to be critical of it were going to Modi, cap in hand, asking to be saved. It should not surprise us that the media is called “godi” (a word meaning to be in the lap of, and of course, rhyming with Modi), because he is their patron and can do them damage.

It is true that this power has been in the hands of all governments of the recent past as Union advertising spends have gone up. But under Modi, the Union has used the advertising carrot also as a stick. Advertising money was denied to those publications which fell foul of the government for a variety of reasons including being “disrespectful” and for reasons of “inaccurate news reports.” Modi actually brought the newspapers to heel.

Cable does more harm than channels

India has more cable news channels than any other nation. In 2021, India had 178 functioning news channels. Tata Sky lists 143 of them (51 Hindi, 12 English, 8 Kannada, 7 Bengali, 8 Marathi, 15 Telugu, 14 Tamil, 9 Gujarati, 6 Odiya, 8 Malayalam, 5 Punjabi). All of these must kowtow or face punishment because Modi is eager and willing to inflict it. Even the granting of a license to broadcast depends on the approval of the government. It is withheld for those who are seen as not being pliant. Raghav Bahl, who set up Network 18 and is one of the most respected names in television news globally, for years did not receive a license to set up a TV channel. It was kept pending by the Modi government till Bahl folded up his TV operation in April 2020. This may help explain why media has shifted so effortlessly to television to become overtly majoritarian with no internal resistance.

Finally, there is another reason why media has become more majoritarian. This has resulted from technology and the understanding of what the consumer wants and is comfortable with. The newspaper is a product created afresh every day, but its feedback loop is quite slow, meaning that it is not easy for the editor to tell what the sentiment or mood of the reader is. One objective way is through the sale of copies. Say, a particular banner headline on Tuesday results in an increase over the number of copies sold on Monday. That would indicate that the reader is more interested in the content of that Tuesday story. However, the majority of newspaper sales is through subscription (home delivery) while the retail sales through stands or vendors, where the headline actually matters, are low.

This report examines the rise of majoritarianism in Indian media through Aakar Patel’s Price of the Modi Years

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