Ownership, money, Modi 3.0 uncertainty: A sobering reality check for election cheer

It’s uncertain whether the independent media will continue to produce the same kind of reportage.

WrittenBy:Kalpana Sharma
TV news anchors and Frontline cover image.

The Lok Sabha elections will continue to be analysed threadbare for some time to come. They were unexpected, revelatory about the Indian electorate and uplifting, even if momentarily, because they suggested that democracy is still alive in India.

The celebrations, however, by those who believe that the election results, and a governing party with a diminished mandate, will lead to substantial change need to be tempered with a reality check.

Let’s just look at the media, especially television news – call it “mainstream”, “Big Media” or “godi media”. There is little to debate now that in the last decade under Narendra Modi’s government, it has been a supplicant, rather than acting as the Fourth Estate in a democracy.

The clips of the dozens of interviews Modi gave to these friendly channels during the elections are proof enough, if that was needed. News anchors, who on any given day, are in scream mode, were listening and smiling attentively even as Modi proceeded to lecture and even insult the media.

After a decade of bending over backwards to please the ruling party, to amplify its poisonous and hate-filled narrative, especially against Muslims, and to save its aggression for the opposition, can one really expect a change just because the governing party’s numbers in this Lok Sabha are fewer than the last time?

I think not, and this is why.

First, even if the BJP is now more dependent on its coalition partners in the NDA today than it was yesterday, is there any proof that these partners are committed to freedom of expression and freedom of the press? Would they really object if this government – which the media has rightly called “Modi 3.0” rather than the “NDA government” because Modi will continue to dominate – continues to find ways to curb dissent and critical voices in the media? 

As a former chair of Prasar Bharati, Jawhar Sircar points out in this article in The Wire, “The godi media is likely to be a little less virulent against the opposition, as one never knows who may come in next. But the screaming television prosecutors, including a few rotund well-dressed creatures who revel in tormenting anyone who dares to question Modi, would hardly change — as they earn unimaginable amounts of crores.”

Which brings us to the second point, that the owners of these television channels dictate the line they take. And that ownership pattern is not changing.  As long as it is evident that Modi and the BJP are in full control of the government even if technically, they are part of a coalition, the topics discussed might change a little, but the approach will remain the same. There is no cost attached to attacking the opposition, but criticism of this government will still have repercussions.

Media analyst Vanita Kohli-Khandekar, who writes a column in Business Standard, makes some additional and interesting observations about Big Media. She points out that while the Election Commission figures reveal that 642 million people voted in these elections, and of these, roughly 235 million or 36.6 percent voted for the BJP, if you watch any of the roughly 400 news channels, you will think that the news on it is directed only at these 235 million who support the BJP. What about the remaining 407 million news consumers, she asks. 

This gap has been filled to some extent by independent news channels on YouTube and for those who read news, the digital news platforms that are not dependent on big business. Their numbers might not exceed those who watch or read news provided by these mainstream channels and newspapers, but there is little doubt that they have played an important role in the last five years, in filling the void left by mainstream media. They have been the source of nuanced and in-depth reporting, of critical comment, of interviews that inform and educate. 

Their ability to continue and remain independent in the future, however, is uncertain. This Modi 3.0 government might wait a while before it proceeds with the agenda it outlined in its previous avatar but there is little doubt that at some stage it will find ways to curb independent media. 

For instance, even before the first sitting of the new Lok Sabha, Mohammed Zubair of AltNews has been informed that the Delhi Police has asked that his account on X be taken down because it violates the Information Technology Act.  The social media platform has not complied with the request but the very fact this has happened within days of the formation of the new government provides a necessary reality check on its approach towards a free and independent media.  

We must remember that there are two interventions that will adversely impact independent media that are still on the anvil. One is the setting up of a “fact-checking unit” that will determine what is false or misleading and insist it be taken down by social media platforms. And the other is to bring all news-related YouTube channels under the Broadcasting Services Act which will give the government the power to curtail their content.

Journalist Charmy Harikrishnan sums up the last decade under Modi well when she writes:

“This was a lost decade of journalism. A generation of journalists has come of age with the bitter knowledge that the only news that is fit to print is positive news or spin. It is time we looked at ourselves in the mirror and flinched. It is time we wrote an editorial to ourselves. It is time we rediscovered the 5 Ws and put them to every announcement the government makes instead of responding with 1 Yes. It is time we redeemed ourselves.”  

Until this Modi 3.0 government settles back into its bad old ways with respect to independent media, there has been a welcome breathing space. This has permitted some interesting comment and analysis as well as much-needed humour and parody of India’s most powerful man.

The best is the cover of the latest issue of Frontline magazine, with a cartoon by Satish Acharya. It says all that needs to be said.

Also, much of the debate on TV, especially after the exit polls of June 1 that were way off the mark, took away from a more nuanced understanding of what had happened on the ground in these elections.

For those who wanted to know, The Hindu ran the post-poll survey by the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS) over several days. Equally useful and interesting is the interview by Manisha Pande of Newslaundry with Sanjay Kumar, the director of CSDS. The interview is worth watching because it answers so many questions that people must have to understand what has changed in India to throw up these results.

And finally, let me end by mentioning what I consider one of the most heart-warming articles to appear post-results even though I am not as optimistic about the future. Written by well-known cultural activist and literary critic G N Devy in The Telegraph, it is addressed to the Indian voter:

“Political analysts may lose sight of the fact that Indians are heaving sighs of relief not because their respective parties have won or lost but because they know that democracy has recovered from a spell of authoritarianism and the cult of personality… Leaders drunk on power, reeking of arrogance, need to know that as they were giving their lectures, thumping their chests, abusing their adversaries, pandering lies and posturing as superhuman, Indians were watching them without giving even the slightest clue as to which way their thoughts were going.”

The clues were there, given by independent media, but these leaders were not watching.

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Also see
article imageBattle of media tactics: Modi’s media blitzkrieg vs Congress’s snub
article imageModi’s ‘Hindu-Muslim’ assertion amplified unchecked. Thanks to a media in coma
article imageManipur, misinformation, Revanna: Three issues ignored by Big Media this election season


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