Speaking truth to power. These words have been so overused they now sound banal. But, they actually define the fundamental duty of the Fourth Estate, except in the eyes of those who abuse the mainstream media incessantly these days on social media. The words used to censure people like me who work in mainstream media are too pejorative to find place in a respectable newspaper. The least abusive epithet used for me is that I am a ‘Lootyens’ journalist. Again, I apologise for having invented the usage of Lutyens to describe Delhi’s cocoon of power. But, it is now part of India’s political vocabulary and is used even in Hindi newspapers. When I first used it in this column it was to describe political power, but it now means many things.
Since Narendra Modi became Prime Minister, his vast army of supporters on social media use it to describe journalists who they believe are loyal servants of the Dynasty. Despite being considered a ‘Sonia-baiter’ during the ancient regime, I am today abused as a ‘Lootyens’ journalist. In the eyes of the Dynasty’s equally large army on social media, I am abused for being a ‘Modi bhakt’. This charge was flung in my face by a former Congress minister recently in an NDTV debate. I suppose I should take this confusion over my political loyalties as a compliment. It shows that I have actually been speaking truth to power.
After that little plug let me come to the point I want to make this week. There has been building up since Modi became the Prime Minister a narrative in media circles that he brooks no criticism at all. Last week the Editors Guild of India publicly declared that there was something ‘Orwellian’ in the manner in which ‘signals of television programmes critical of the government have seemingly been blocked or disrupted’. Senior TV journalists who lost their jobs recently have gone public with their fears that it was because they were not singing the Prime Minister’s praises. In conversations with print journalists I hear similar things. They speak of routine menacing calls from the Prime Minister’s men when a story is published that they dislike.
When I ask if this is different to times of yore the answer is that the only real difference is that ‘this lot are pettier’. We saw that in Smriti Irani’s foolish attempt to threaten to cancel the accreditation of journalists who spread ‘fake news’. Who decides what is fake news? Nobody knows to this day.
Luckily the Prime Minister intervened before Ms Irani went ahead with her plan, but she ended up confirming that the Modi government has a very thin skin.
Or does it? Modi has been under attack openly almost from day one. To the point that an attack on a Muslim student in Pune, days after he took office, was blamed on him personally. After every lynching of a Muslim or Dalit, and there have been too many, everyone including your columnist has demanded that he speak. As he should. I also believe that it is against the rules of democracy for him not to have held a single press conference. Donald Trump who hates the media more than he does has held more in the past two years than Modi has in four. It has worked against him.
Somehow, though, it never worked against Sonia Gandhi, who has given hardly a single interview and never held a press conference. Everyone in ‘Lootyens’ knew that she was India’s real prime minister and that 10 Janpath was the ultimate centre of power right from the time she appointed P V Narasimha Rao as her first proxy. It is to his credit that he refused to behave like a proxy or kowtow to her publicly, but the good Dr Manmohan Singh had no compunctions. His ministers and officials have admitted that government files went to Sonia for approval. And, Madame’s approval was needed for selection of anyone above peon rank.
We in the mainstream media knew this. We also knew that it was to protect her that in the last moments of his first tenure Dr Manmohan Singh unfroze the London bank accounts of her ex-best friend Ottavio Quattrocchi. This fertiliser salesman was allowed to flee India in the dead of night when Bofors bribe money was traced to Swiss bank accounts in the names of his wife and him.
We of the Fourth Estate knew these things. We knew many more things about the Dynasty and the times in which it remained in power. It remained in power a long, long time. Did we speak ‘truth to power’ when Rajiv Gandhi justified the massacre of the Sikhs? Did we speak truth to power when inquiry commissions whitewashed and erased the Congress role? No we did not. So why is it suddenly so reprehensible?