Government Controls And Crony Capitalism Are Curbing Media Freedoms In India

Government Controls And Crony Capitalism Are Curbing Media Freedoms In India

Press freedoms have been rapidly declining across the world, with news organizations struggling to present unbiased information in the age of social media propaganda, the need for viral content, and the rise of authoritarian populists. India’s traditions of a free, independent and vibrant news media environment have been stifled by the ruling BJP, with the latest incident being last week’s raids by Delhi Police on editors of The Wire.

To contextualize the conditions faced by the free media in South Asia, Dr. Ayesha Siddiqa spoke to Professor of Indian Politics and Sociology at the King's India Institute, Dr. Christophe Jaffrelot, in the latest episode of “Neighbours Talking”. Jaffrelot’s latest book, published by Princeton University Press in 2021, is ‘Modi’s India: Hindu Nationalism and the Rise of Ethnic Democracy’.

Jaffrelot said that media clampdowns in India are not a new phenomenon; they had been apparent since 2014 and their underpinnings are largely defined by Narendra Modi’s “complex relationship” with the media. “One of the symptoms of this relationship is how Modi has never given a single press conference,” he said.

India’s experiences of media controls and intimidating journalists have only gotten worse with time. Jaffrelot pointed out that the 2017 murder of Gauri Lankesh was the “culminating point of this trend of targeting individual journalists” as BJP stalwarts celebrated the incident instead of condemning it.

While India remained an exception to the authoritarian trends in South Asia, all that has changed under Modi. In addition to using government-sponsored advertising as a financial tool to influence news organizations’ reporting, India’s government has also started using police raids to target whatever independent media and free press remains. Jaffrelot reminisced over how Dr. Manmohan Singh, Modi’s predecessor, was lambasted by the media during Anna Hazare’s anti-corruption movement in 2012-13. At that time, India’s media could “continue to publish whatever they wanted”, he said, adding “that was only ten years ago!”

The role of capitalist forces in India’s media ecosystem was also not a healthy or productive intervention, according to Jaffrelot. The acquisition of media houses by business conglomerates, and the creation of sycophantic news channels “dedicated to the promotion of the governing dispensation”, have complicated the role of the news media in India, making it difficult to uphold the standards of journalistic integrity and professionalism in the country. Jaffrelot highlighted that “Republic TV is a case in point... so we have to factor in the dimension of the rise or the entry of crony capitalism” in India’s media landscape.

The Modi government’s attitude towards criticism, and crony capitalism taking over Indian media, are two factors that also explain why the political opposition and voices of dissent are unable to make a difference. “The coverage of the opposition is very limited these days,” as per Jaffrelot, adding that “none of the mainstream media or channels will show anything” that presents Modi’s opponents in a favourable light. While the Indian political opposition may not be able to utilize traditional channels and news platforms effectively, Jaffrelot argued that “there is still some resistance... articulating dissenting voices”.

Jaffrelot recounted the three sequential stages: first, promoting national populism to build Modi’s image as ‘a man of the people’, then the solidification of an ethnic democracy or a majoritarian Hindu electorate once Modi became prime minister, and finally, electoral authoritarianism that functions only to deliver a mandate to the strongman. “Elections are not a level playing field anymore, because of the media, but because of money as well”, Jaffrelot said. He added that institutions such as the Central Bureau of Investigation, Election Commission and even the Supreme Court of India had been subjected to elite capture; “some of these institutions have given up and fallen in line, because of fear or intimidation, but also sometimes because they adhere to the ideology” propagated in favour of Modi by BJP and various pro-Hindutva organizations.

Even though conditions for press freedom in India have continued to deteriorate, Jaffrelot postulates that India has still not reached the point of no return. “It is still possible to regain the kind of freedom of expression, the kind of democracy, that India enjoyed ten or fifteen years ago,” he said. However, Jaffrelot conceded that “every year that passes, makes this return to status quo ante more complicated” because not only have institutions been infiltrated by pro-Modi elements, but the mindset of the general public continues being polluted by propaganda through mass media as well as the education system. This pro-Modi propaganda has inculcated a ‘Hindutva hegemony’ mindset among India’s masses, which according to Jaffrelot is very similar to the ‘red lines’ mindset currently prevailing in Pakistan. “That is why you see a kind of mindset, an ideology, that becomes all-pervasive, so there is no alternative thinking,” he added. This has a detrimental impact on pluralism, which becomes repackaged as “pluralism within limits” imposed by the authoritarian government.

While the opposition and civil society still exists in India, the existing scenario makes it difficult to return to the situation that existed before Modi came to power. “The opposition will have to get united first for making a difference,” Dr. Jaffrelot said, “and even if they are united, to win against BJP will probably be very difficult”.

Using alternate media and communication platforms to push back against Modi’s authoritarianism is also challenging. Social media could have galvanized public opinion, but Modi’s government has successfully brought Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp and other popular apps under its control. Jaffrelot states that “there is a kind of complicity between these platforms and the government on many grounds”. Moreover, there are frequent internet shutdowns across India, which also prevent the public from accessing information that the government deems harmful to Modi’s image or BJP’s electoral clout. These controls over the internet obviously feed into the Modi government’s surveillance machinery which keeps dissenting voices in check.

Dr. Siddiqa referenced the ongoing protests in Iran, and questioned if resistance was to imposed values in India. The latest protests in Iran, and the eventual outcomes of the Arab Spring, show “how difficult it is for civil societies to take over power”, Jaffrelot answered, and added that overcoming state-sponsored repression is easier said than done. “It is difficult to be optimistic when the kind of grasp on a society has reached that level”, he concluded.