“The heroism of many journalists covering COVID-19 has put Modi on the backfoot”

Indian journalist Sanjaya Baru, former media advisor for PM Manmohan Singh, speaks about his new book on the rise of a new media elite
Sanjaya Baru.

Sanjaya Baru. 

Raksha Kumar

Sanjaya Baru served as Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's media advisor and chief spokesperson from 2004 to 2008. He has also served as associate editor at The Economic Times and the Times of India, and as chief editor at the Business Standard. Author of several books, Baru’s latest is titled India’s Power Elite: Class, Culture and a Cultural Revolution and maps out the Indian elite in different spheres of public life.

I spoke to Baru recently about the tenuous relationship between Narendra Modi and India's media elite, who were often a clique of upper caste, upper class, English-speaking men. Modi changed Indian media, says Baru. Here’s how.

Q. The premise of the book is that there are three indicators that put Indians into the bracket of “elite”: class, caste, English language. How do newsrooms fare in terms of caste diversity?

A. One must distinguish between national media, regional media and Indian language media. My focus in the book was largely on the English media. English is still the language of the elite and my own professional life has been with the English-language media.

If you look at English-language media, it is by and large upper-caste Hindu media. The representation of the minorities is marginal, though the Sikh and Christian communities have larger representation than the Muslim community. By and large English-language media is upper-caste, upper-class media. 

Q. Narendra Modi deliberately distanced himself from the ‘old elite’ in the media. Why do you think he did that? And did he create a ‘new elite’ in a parallel media ecosystem? 

A. There are two reasons that explain Modi’s approach. The first one is his personal prejudice. Media in Delhi, what is often called national media, was very critical of the way he handled [religious violence] in Gujarat in 2002.

At that time, the Prime Minister was Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leader Atal Bihari Vajpayee and the media in Delhi was not anti-BJP. It was very supportive of Vajpayee but equally critical of Gujarat’s Chief Minister Narendra Modi for the way he handled the situation. This made Modi strongly prejudicial against the Delhi media. When he finally came to Delhi and became Prime Minister, he wanted to put these chaps in their place and show them that they will no longer have the same power.

The second factor, and I think an even more important one, is that Modi saw his victory as an ideological victory, not just an electoral victory. That is the reason I talk about cultural revolution in my book. He saw the BJP coming to power with an absolute majority as the beginning of the ascendance of Hindutva [Hindu supremacist ideology] in India and the end of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty. Therefore, he saw this as a new phase in India’s democracy in which the majority community would now call the shots and Hindutva would be a national ideology. This was not palatable to media folks in urban, English news platforms, that were largely secular.

Q. I find it interesting that the regional elite – for example, Sandesh and Gujarat Samachar of Gujarat – were actually extremely supportive of Modi before and during the religious violence in 2002. Some even said that they were instigating the violence. They were completely at loggerheads with English media elite and they have more impact on public opinion than English media, which reaches not more than 10% of India’s population. How do you see the tussle between the regional elite and the national elite in Indian media?  

A. I do talk in my book about the regional power elite and the national power elite. One of the things that Modi’s victory has done is to bring this regional power elite to Delhi. The regional elite had acquired control of the media in the regions of their influence, but the English-language media in Delhi was still differently ‘managed’. Modi’s complaint was that they were beholden to the Nehru-Gandhi family and what has happened is that Modi has tried to bring elements from the regional media into the national media. 

Take the India Today group, for example. Its pro-Modi voices have all been promoted and anti-Modi elements have all been sidelined. 

Q. Modi bypassed mainstream media and used social media to directly reach out to his voters, many have observed. This must have shaken the media elite, which considers itself important. You have been an advisor to a previous Prime Minister. What do you make of this phenomenon? 

A. I always felt this observation was a huge exaggeration. Modi didn’t win the elections because of social media. What he did was to put the English media elite in its place, by saying I am reaching out to the rest of the country by ignoring you fellows. Twitter, at that point, was only in English. There was no Indian language Twitter at that time. So, he was reaching out to a very small population on twitter.

He was sending a message to the media elite. [He was saying to them] they didn’t matter. The Indian-language media, systematically and across the country, the BJP was manipulating them. In the entire Hindi-speaking belt, they all became pro-BJP during Vajpayee’s time and continued to support Modi. 

In large parts of the country, particularly in Hindi speaking regions, Indian language media was already pro-Modi. This business of ignoring mainstream media was only with respect to English media like the Times of India, Indian Express, Hindustan Times, India Today, Outlook, NDTV, etcetera. He was not ignoring the rest of Indian media. He was manipulating it. Upper-caste India in the rest of the country, which is invested in different language media, was always pro-BJP anyway.

Q. How do we understand India’s press freedom index within the context of the emerging ‘new elite’ in the media? 

A. The link between both is Narendra Modi and his BJP. Today’s BJP is not the same as Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s BJP. The current BJP saw its victories in 2014 and 2019 not just in electoral but in ideological terms. Their whole point is that if you are against us, then you are anti-national. And, therefore, they are quite happy dubbing journalists who are anti-government as anti-national. The number of journalists who have been arrested under sedition charges is very high.

Of course, many state chief ministers are guilty of this as well. Jagan Mohan Reddy in Andhra Pradesh, Mamta Banerjee in Bengal, Adityanath in Uttar Pradesh are also using sedition law against the media. But to interpret whatever is anti-government as anti-national is a new phenomenon and that is where media freedoms have been badly hit. The number of journalists who have been killed has gone up in the last few years. The number of journalists in jail has gone up too. 

I lived through the [internal] emergency [imposed by Indira Gandhi in 1975] and even then you didn’t have such a widespread attack on media freedoms. It was very focused. The emergency targeted certain groups, it was not across the board. What we now find is a much wider terrorisation of the media.

Q. You say in your book that editors of the past were not necessarily wealthy but were very powerful and also that today’s editors or editor-proprietors are wealthy but not necessarily powerful.

A. For a long time, and certainly till the turn of the century, journalism in India was not a high-paying profession and all the editors one can think of had no link with the publishers. They were not involved in any way with the management of the publication they were editing. This lent them credibility. What they said was taken seriously in power circles.

Two things changed with the turn of the century. One is that journalism became a financially rewarding profession. The second is that a lot of editors started becoming owners or shareholders. So people like Shekhar Gupta and TN Ninan started their  life as journalists and ended up becoming publishers. A lot of publishers became editors too. You have Arun Purie, who is a publisher and also an editor. So that distinction began to disappear.  

All these people started life as journalists, but at the end of their professional lives they became wealthy people. Some have to bend rules to ensure their publications stay afloat. Some have stakes in other industries. As a result, their say in policy circles is less respected.

Q. Industrialist Dhirubhai Ambani launched the newspaper Business and Political Observer in 1990. He had to shut it down eventually because people didn’t think it was a credible publication as it was being funded by a businessman. In the past, journalistic credibility ensured the success or failure of a publication. When did this change? 

A. Two factors contributed to this. One was the fact that the news media became increasingly dependent on advertising rather than subscriptions. When that happens, readers matter less than advertisers. So everybody gets a Times of India at dirt cheap price but Times of India makes millions of rupees by selling space to advertisers. The damage to trust in news is linked to the increasing commercialisation of the news media.

The second factor is the weakening editorial control. Just look at the number of publications or TV channels which have independent editors, by which I mean editors who are not also owners. Either you get owners who are editors (The Week, Malyalaya Manorama group, The Hindu) or you have editors who actually become shareholders. TN Ninan is a shareholder of Business Standard, Shekhar Gupta owns theprint.in and so on and so forth. 

Those changes have weakened the credibility of the media.  

Q. How problematic is cross-ownership in the news media? Is that a factor in news outlets being more elitist and elite-friendly because their owners have stakes in other industries as well?

A. Certainly cross-ownership contributes to the fact that the publishers/owners are very wealthy. Ramoji Rao [with a net worth of $1.5 billion] is a good example. Also the fact that businessmen patronise media organisations in league with the ruling political party. You look at a chap like Arnab Goswami, who started as a reporter and then launched this channel and has a networth of around 1,300 billion rupees [approximately $19 million]... 

How can he make that kind of money by running a TV channel which is hardly three years old? Because he is close to the BJP and advertisers will advertise in channels which are seen as close to the BJP. This mix of political power, business power and media power comes together to make those in the media very wealthy and powerful.

Q. Given its difficult financial situation, how do we expect the news media to stand up to the current government? How can journalism fight back? 

A. We are now at an interesting moment. The media is far more assertive than it was even six months ago. The judiciary and the political opposition are far more assertive too. Modi’s popularity ratings have sharply fallen in the last six months. So we are at a very interesting moment where the executive and political leadership are on the backfoot. Whether this will continue or not going forward, it will depend a lot on how all of us handle the situation.

For the first time in 20 years, Modi is on the defensive. The heroism of lots of journalists who have exposed all the downsides of the pandemic has put him on the defensive. We are now at a moment where there is hope in the air.

Raksha Kumar is a freelance journalist, with a specific focus on human rights. Since 2011, she has reported from 12 countries across the world for outlets such as 'The New York Times', BBC, the 'Guardian', 'TIME', 'South China Morning Post' and 'The Hindu'. Samples of her work can be found here.

Read the India country page of the DNR 2021 in this link