It’s rightists vs left-liberals in media slugfest (Column: Political Circus)
A major reason the media is being targeted by right-wing establishments in both India and the US is the belief among the “official” ideologues that large sections of the newspapers, magazines and TV channels are dominated by left-liberals, a legacy of Nehruvian times.
Hence, the derogatory terms of “presstitudes” and media workers (apropos of sex workers) coined by the saffron brotherhood to describe journalists and the charges of dishonesty and fake news levelled by US President Donald Trump against the scribes in America.
The media is certainly not blameless, depending as it often does on sensationalism to outdo rivals while the TV “debates” are marked more by rancour than reason. But since it has rarely been under such sustained attacks as now, it must have touched a raw nerve among present-day politicians.
It is no secret that a long-standing grouse of the Hindutva Parivar in India has been that the years of dominance by the secular, left-of-centre Congress led to the projection of these ideologies as the only legitimate objectives for the country. The political slant represented by the ruling party at the Centre from 1947 to the 1980s influenced both the academia and the press.
In contrast, the right remained on the sidelines for decades, its marginalisation being reinforced by its association with Gandhi’s assassination. As a result, being a right-wing politician was not quite respectable.
But the times have changed. The ascendancy of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), based on what Vice President Hamid Ansari has called “religious majoritarianism”, from the 1990s, has disassociated right-wing politics from the unwashed masses and made it acceptable on the cocktail circuit, especially in the Lutyens power zone in Delhi.
The BJP has also taken advantage of its position in the corridors of power to plant saffron ideologues in the groves of academe even if they are regarded as unworthy of the posts by the leftist intelligentsia.
However, even as the right has now captured the high ground of politics and the academia, the media has evaded its grasp. Not only that, rightist political views — the economy is another matter — are still not accorded the respect which is given to more holistic presentations in line with the “idea of India” representing inclusive pluralism.
The right has had to depend, therefore, on the trolls in the social media even if their abuses point to a sense of inferiority complex.
The BJP must have been disconcerted, however, by the fact that for all the shrill support which it receives from the saffron netizens, the party’s electoral performance has been quite dismal in the last two years when it lost in Delhi, Bihar, West Bengal, Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Puduchery. The BJP’s only success was in distant Assam.
Since the mainstream media remains one of the last bastions of the left-liberals, it is not surprising that the saffron lobby in India and the Trump acolytes in the US lose no opportunity to lambast the “presstitudes” and purveyors of “fake” news.
But, for them, there is one more hurdle. It is the judiciary. As the outlawing of Trump’s travel bans on immigrants from seven Muslim-majority countries by the judges in the US has shown, the right is not having all in its own way.
In India, too, judges have set up roadblocks to stop the government from acting arbitrarily. For instance, in the case of a Greenpeace activist who was taken off a London-bound plane by the police, the Delhi High Court said that “criticism by an individual may not be palatable; even so, it cannot be muzzled”.
In a case concerning human rights activist Teesta Setalvad, who is known for her humanitarian role during the 2002 Gujarat riots, the Supreme Court, rejecting a plea by the government counsel for her arrest, asked: “Can the liberty of a person be put on a ventilator?”
Little wonder that Prime Minister Narendra Modi once advised the judges to be wary of “five-star activists”.
However, the right in India is a great deal more moderate than Trump, not to mention the alt-right in Europe such as Marine Le Pen’s National Party in France or Geert Wilders’ Party for Freedom in the Netherlands or Norbert Hofer’s Austrian Freedom Party.
Besides, Modi has made a conscious attempt to rein in some of the BJP hardliners. As a result, there are no more reports of campaigns like ghar wapsi, which “persuaded” Muslims to reconvert to Hinduism, or about the vigilantism of gau rakshaks, the self-appointed protectors of cows.
Evidently, the “idea of India” has influenced its purported critics as well because of their realisation that stable governance is only possible if the rulers adhere to what former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee called “raj dharma” — the religion or the work ethic of governments which did not distinguish between citizens on the basis of caste, creed or community.
It is not impossible that the European far right and the pro-Trump Republicans will realise sooner or later the value of accommodation and compassion.
(Amulya Ganguli is a political analyst. The views expressed are personal. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)