Why The Hindu might be pushing civil services aspirants to the Left

India’s bureaucracy hinges on political neutrality, but the newspaper may be lacking in that.

ByAnand Vardhan
Why The Hindu might be pushing civil services aspirants to the Left
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On August 2, 1922, British Prime Minister David Lloyd George addressed the parliament about the administrative edifice in India. It was over 125 years since Charles Cornwallis had sown the seeds of the Indian Civil Service in 1793. Seventy years had passed since the Macaulay Committee institutionalised it as a modern merit-based system in 1854, and even allowed Indians to appear in competitive examinations for recruitment to the service. 

In Lloyd George’s speech, the metaphor of “steel frame” was first used to describe the pivotal role of the ICS in how the government and administration functioned in India. “ICS is the steel frame on which the whole structure of government and of administration in India rests,” he said.

After Independence, the essence of the ICS was retained and renamed as the Indian Administrative Service. For the purpose of recruitment, “civil services” was used as a generic term for more than 25 services, including the Indian Foreign Service, Indian Police Service, and Indian Revenue Service. 

In its functioning within the post-Independence democratic polity, the expectation of political neutrality has been key to the role of civil servants as the stable and permanent executive — irrespective of the change in political party or parties heading the government in a parliamentary democracy. 

Even in the early 1970s, when the Indira Gandhi regime floated the vague idea of committed bureaucracy, the government had to qualify it by saying that such an idea doesn’t imply sacrifice, or contradict the value of political neutrality of the civil services. Instead, the Indira Gandhi government clarified that what it meant was that the bureaucracy had to dedicate itself to attaining the objectives and implementing the policies of the incumbent government of the day. Similarly, it would serve successive governments headed by different political parties. 

Essentially, it meant that the idea of political neutrality in the civil services was tied to the professional role of civil servants in shaping and implementing programmes and policies of democratically elected governments of different political parties. It would not be dictated by the ideological directives of any political stream of thought or party.

In a way, the political neutrality of the civil services hinges on the idea of its intellectual integrity. In this context, it’s interesting to see to what extent The Hindu — which has a cult readership among civil services aspirants — might influence young aspirants and entrants with the newspaper’s ideological biases. 

Any publication is entitled to its editorial positions and ideological affinities, but is The Hindu’s frame equipped for a well-rounded understanding of issues, events and ideas?

One way to cultivate the value of a balanced worldview and political neutrality in aspiring civil servants is exposure to diverse perspectives and a wide range of information and opinions on various issues of national and international discourse. Confined to a mostly Left worldview, The Hindu is far from providing its readers a diverse information basket, various shades of opinions, and multiple perspectives.

To put it briefly, its obvious limitations as a register for news and views unfolding around the country and the world can be seen on three counts.

Editorials and opinion pieces

First, its editorial commentary and opinion pieces are unrepresentative of the various voices that constitute a diverse and balanced discourse. In a way, its edit and opinion pages act as echo chamber for the Left — only one of the various shades of opinion on any issue of contemporary discourse. With the preponderance of this usual commentary, any different view is published few and far between, a kind of detour from the regular journey.

As an exercise, look at how the newspaper sought to engage with the discourse around the Citizenship Amendment Act, the National Register of Citizens, and the National Population Register from December 23 to 31, 2019. 

In this period, the paper published more than 10 opinion pieces — including one each by Communist Party of India (Marxist) leader Prakash Karat and Congress spokesperson Jaiveer Shergill — either polemically critical of different aspects related to CAA, or expressing solidarity with protests against it and criticising the government’s response. In the same period, there was not a single opinion piece in its page that positively argued for the reasoning and history behind the legislation, or favourably articulating the other school of thought that attaches importance to the positive outcomes of the Act. 

Such a one-dimensional opinion page isn’t what public reasoning entails — for a curious section of readership in general, and for civil services aspirants in particular.

While half-a-dozen edits is a newspaper’s prerogative to articulate its view, it’s the presence of pieces emanating from only one ideological stream — to the exclusion, or sometimes token presence, of other ideological streams — that makes the paper a poor register for grasping various perspectives on an issue. Moreover, no substantive effort has been made on its opinion page to understand the political executive’s arguments. That’s clearly not the recipe for a balanced diet, considering The Hindu is staple food for lakhs of civil services aspirants.

The constitutional and political discourse, for instance, on the citizenship law protests in the paper’s opinion page has witnessed very partial interpretations of terms like “constitutional test” or  “constitutional morality”, or even what is called “popular mobilisation” or “conversation”. While English historian George Grote’s use of the phrase “constitutional morality” can’t be held hostage, in the absence of other perspectives or to only one school of thought’s invocation of it, the results of a “constitutional test” can’t be declared with any degree of certitude without taking into account the views of different examiners of constitutional validity. The Hindu didn’t accommodate the latter’s voices with any degree of fair representation.

Similarly, it should also inform and analyse, for its readers, that large sections of the same “people” support the legislation. A budding civil servant would benefit from knowing the different, and sometimes very contrary, perspectives coming from an entity that’s vaguely — and mostly arbitrarily — defined as “people”. The one-dimensional assumptions about who constitute “people”, as legal luminary Sir Ivor Jennings rightly observed, leads to the question: who decides who “people” are? For the opinion page of The Hindu, only one set of people constitute it, as voices from other sections weren’t seen in its commentary. 

One can say the same for what economist and Marxist ideologue, Prabhat Patnaik, assumed as the “socially sensitive students” and “campuses” without taking into account the voices of students in the same campuses, as well as in hundreds of other campuses, who have very different views on the issue and surely can’t be dubbed as less “socially sensitive”. The Hindu has no space for the latter.

The partisan view can’t be masked with semantic subversion of words like “conversation”. Contrary to what an opinion piece in the paper and similar arguments made on other media platforms have suggested, what we are witnessing isn’t a conversation but two separate sets of monologues about the Constitution and the idea of citizenship in the modern nation state. They are just monologues with accompanying cheerleaders. Such monologues don’t go beyond polemics to be of much use for the constitutional understanding of readers, far less that of civil services aspirants who are expected to have a grasp of the constitutional aspects of Indian polity.

News reports

Even in news reporting, The Hindu is plagued by something that, in a rare confessional moment occasioned by need to divest then editor Siddharth Varadarajan of his editorial role, was described by N Ram as “editorialising in the guise of news coverage”.

Media critic Sevanti Ninan had remarked on the episode in October, 2013:

This was later spelt out as ‘editorialising in the guise of news coverage’, ‘unfair and exaggerated reporting’ and ‘banning or downplaying the coverage of certain personalities with personal preference and prejudice’. (All quotes are from N Ram ’s reply to dissenting board  of directors of the company.)

“The charges against Varadarajan were that he was influencing the news to reflect his own preferences and prejudices, particularly with reference to the way the paper has covered the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi.”

Later Varadarajan cited journalistic reasons for his decisions but the slant in the paper’s reporting on Narendra Modi’s prime ministerial candidacy was evident for those from the Right. This was reinforced when, two years later, Varadarajan founded The Wire, a Left-wing news portal known for its focus on anti-Modi narratives.

What’s important is that long before Varadarajan and even after his departure, “editorialising in the guise of news coverage” has been an integral feature of The Hindu’s news gathering and presentation. Varadarajan’s removal on that pretext was merely a way to settle the non-family editor issue within the family that owns The Hindu Group. 

In fact, in the same piece, Ninan points out two aspects to show how The Hindu, under the editorship of N Ram, was even more unrepresentative of various views in its edit page and did even less investigative reporting. More significantly, Ninan cites examples of how under N Ram’s editorial leadership, The Hindu was doing the same thing that the former editor accused Vardarajan of: editorialising in the guise of news coverage.

When Ram was chief editor, The Hindu did its share of shutting out of some kinds of news. In its coverage of events in Tibet in February and March 2009, for example. And again in the case of the violence in Nandigram in West Bengal in 2007.” Ninan wrote.

The Hindu continues to have glimpses of editorial slants in its reports as well as where they are placed.

Recently, for instance, The Hindu’s coverage of the citizenship law protests gave little space to the alleged violence perpetrated by the protesters. Instead, it focused on covering the downside of the alleged high-handed police crackdown and victims of police action. A fair evaluation of the situation requires addressing both the nature of the purported violent provocation and the police response to it. In absence of that, what we have is an information deficit that the newspaper was either not providing or providing with its own biases in having a hierarchy of information. 

On December 23, the front page of The Hindu’s print edition carried the allegation made by Samajwadi Party chief Akhilesh Yadav that the UP police turned arsonists. However, the statement by Uttar Pradesh director general of police OP Singh was carried on Page 11. His explanations merited front-page coverage for what the head of law enforcement in the state had to say.

The Hindu’s focus on voices opposing the citizenship law led, perhaps, to something quite revealing. On its website, it used an image of anti-CAA protesters while carrying a PTI report on 1,000 academicians releasing a statement in support of the Act.

One may juxtapose this with opinion pieces published over the last few weeks in the pages of The Hindu’s market rivals, like The Times of India or The Indian Express. Despite being editorially critical of the Act and giving dominant space to opinion pieces opposing the legislation, they have at least accommodated a few voices favouring the Act and reflecting on its merits and context.

Amidst the general critical tone on its opinion page, The Indian Express had an article that argued for an open-minded consideration of the merits of the Act, a piece arguing on how it would help persecuted Christians in Pakistan and Afghanistan, and one by a former IPS officer on how objections to the Act are flawed and why the guerrilla tactics used in violent protests against it should be taken with grave concern. 

The BJP’s perspective was articulated by the party’s general secretary, Ram Madhav, while the government’s side was expressed by HRD Minister Ramesh Pokhriyal Nishank.  

Similarly, The Times of India had space for columnist and Rajya Sabha MP Swapan Dasgupta’s argument about how the Act is a necessary corrective to historical blunders. It also carried a piece by a union minister on how the Act passes the morality test, and an article calling for a more open-minded discourse on the legislation.

This juxtaposition would be more pronounced in the sphere of how The Hindu’s edits and opinion pages approach issues concerning the economy and commentary on government’s economic policies, ranging from FDI to disinvestment, the union budget to subsidies. While The Hindu’s opinion page has ample space for Left-leaning economists like Prabhat Patnaik, Jayati Ghosh and CP  Chandrasekhar, the newspaper hasn’t been proportionate in giving counter perspectives from economists advocating liberal economic policies and market reforms like Arvind Panagariya and Surjit Bhalla. The paper’s market rivals like The Indian Express and The Times of India have regularly accommodated the latter voices.

Frontline, and foreign coverage

The Hindu’s sister publication, Frontline, is a fortnightly magazine that outdoes the paper in showing its Left worldview. The doctrinaire perch from which Frontline addresses its readers would make reference material like A Dictionary of Marxist Thought, compiled by TB Bottomore et al, quite useful in understanding its content. 

The space, for instance, occupied by the Left in its editorial outlook can be gauged from the cover story of its issue dated August 2, 2019. The story was a conversation with Marxist thinker, Aijaz Ahmad. In sync with its flagship publication, the “editorialising in news coverage” is obvious in Frontline

Case in point is the headline for its first cover story on the 2019 Lok Sabha election 2019 (serialised in the magazine as an election special) in its issue dated April 12, 2019. Though elections constitute a news event, the fortnightly did not restrain the alarmist hyperbole of its editorial position, and the headline accompanying Prime Minister Modi’s photograph said “Shadow of Fascism”. 

Such a biased and agenda-driven direction of news narratives doesn’t serve the purpose of civil services aspirants who need to have a well-rounded and comprehensive understanding of national and international affairs.

As a cumulative effect of the above factors, The Hindu’s and Frontline’s coverage of international affairs, and issues and events concerning foreign policy, show the imprint of the newspaper’s ideological leanings. If Nehruvian, neo-liberal, realist and even Marxist schools could be broadly identified as analytical frameworks for approaching international affairs and foreign policy in India, The Hindu’s opinion page has been quite unrepresentative of the realist as well as neo-liberal voices in global affairs commentary.

At the same time, it has been largely occupied by Nehruvian and Marxist perspectives on international politics with themes of neo-colonialism, imperialism and even the ideological vocabulary of the non-aligned movement still constituting its analytical tools. The paper’s discourse, for instance, on issues concerning Latin America and the US has largely been through the prism of its regular contributor and Marxist commentator Vijay Prashad. His Left-oriented commentary has been a regular feature in Frontline too, along with John Cherian, whose analytical tools aren’t different from what the magazine’s ideological tilt entails.

The repercussions of the paper’s ideological positions on domestic issues are reinforced on its assessment of issues concerning India’s foreign policy. This hasn’t left its reporting on foreign affairs untouched either. 

The most obvious case in point is what Sevanti Ninan had also recalled as the nature of the paper’s coverage of “events in Tibet in February and March 2009”. The coverage was slammed by Tibetan interest groups in India too for its pro-China tilt.

Such a partial view of the world shouldn’t be limiting an aspiring administrator’s pursuit of a holistic and balanced understanding of events, issues and ideas. The Hindu’s cult readership among civil services aspirants has made it the preferred window to the country and the world outside the study desk of the aspirants. The problem is that its Mount Road window gives a view that is partial, limited and ideology-confined.

This is the second part of a two-part series. Read the first part.

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