In a live streamed interaction on Thursday night, the Indian Express squeezed in a few questions to Uttar Pradesh chief minister Adityanath about his government’s wanton use of the National Security Act, sedition and “love jihad” laws, and Covid deaths. But by choosing not to ask pointed follow-up questions and challenging the BJP leader's claims that weren't factual, the interviewers let him off lightly.
The session, called ‘e-Adda’ and described by the paper’s executive director Anant Goenka as “a space for patient, nuanced conversations”, saw Adityanath answer, and deflect without challenge, questions about Covid and how UP was turning into a police state.
The session, which the newspaper had been promoting for nearly a week, was hosted by Goenka and the paper’s political editor Ravish Tiwari, and sponsored by the Hawelia Group and UP State Industrial Development Authority, among other advertisers.
Adityanath justified his government's wide use of the NSA, including against journalists, by claiming that it was being done to prevent situations of conflict and communal riots. To a question about Uttar Pradesh slapping sedition cases on journalists rather than simply sending rejoinders if they report what the state claims is incorrect information, he said as it was the government’s job to “deescalate issues and bring the reality forward".
And because of such "timely action" by the state, he added, Uttar Pradesh was one of the safest states in the country.
In response to another question about how UP was turning into a police state, Adityanath jumped to call the Express about 30 of the UP government's NSA cases being quashed by the Allahabad High Court as a fake report. In fact, he told the paper's editor that he would provide his team "correct data" so they could redo the piece.
These are all important questions, no doubt, that the Express team did well to ask. What they didn't do was to not let the chief minister get away with deflections. They asked a significant counterquestion just once, when Adityanath dismissed the paper's report.
Adityanath answered a question about his fixation with "love jihad", the Hindutva conspiracy theory that Muslim men systematically seduce Hindu women with the express aim of converting them to Islam, by cherrypicking isolated example from Kerala and Karnataka High Court judgements from 2009 to show how "bad" the situation was. Instead of countering him with facts, the Express team moved on to audience questions.
The chief minister was also spared questions about specific cases of repression, such as the jailing of journalist Siddique Kappan under UAPA and sedition cases and the filing of an FIR recently against three Muslim journalists and the Wire.
Asked about the undercounting of Covid deaths by his government, Adityanath claimed that after the media reported about dead bodies floating in the Ganga, people living in those areas said burying corpses or floating them down the river was a tradition. Yet, people were unwilling to have a discussion about it.
He went on to accuse “some people” of spreading negativity and trying to create a situation of panic, presumably referring to the international media coverage of India's Covid crisis and the Narendra Modi government’s handling of the pandemic.
Instead of public awareness, people were spreading rumours, fear and panic, he said. He alleged that people lined up to buy medicines and book beds in hospitals, even when they didn’t need to. There were troubles during the second wave, he admitted, but claimed that they were handled by the government.
He was full of praise for his own government's handling of the Covid crisis, saying that they managed to save lives and livelihoods.
Again, the Express didn't counter him with facts about his .
They also didn't ask any questions about the shady land deals of the Ram temple trust in Ayodhya that have made major headlines. You can read on this here.
In sum, the session was a missed opportunity for a leading newspaper, whose motto is "journalism of courage", to hold one of the country's most powerful political leaders accountable.