Smriti Irani is an articulate woman with an appetite for the unexpected. She has never been far from the eye of the storm—sacking of vice-chancellors, the Rohith Vemula controversy, asking for Sanskrit in IITs, promoting the IIM Bill, her standoff with Prasar Bharati and most recently her diktat against fake news. Our enthusiastic I&B minister, perhaps, did not realise fake news is not a practice adopted by the mainstream media.
At a time when the press has not been uniformly kind to a government that goes to the polls a year on in an atmosphere vitiated by Dalit conflagration, escape of loan scamster billionaires, exam paper leaks, blackmailing allies and murderous obscurantists running amok in Rajasthan, offending hacks may not be such a good idea. It is understandable that Prime Minister Modi, who has been eviscerated by the liberal press for being a stern nationalist, does not have much love for journalists. It is also perhaps why the government operates on a need to know basis; it is the most unapproachable administration since Independence. Yet, in spite of the media perception of Modi as a martinet, he stepped in to blitz Irani’s fiat and reveal a hitherto unknown side as a defender of press freedom.
Modi’s bane is not the Opposition, which is riven with conflicting and opportunistic egos. It is his own party, MPs and ministers. It is well known that the prime minister’s reputation remains unassailable especially in rural India where the votes matter, while the BJP’s shine has been tarnished—the dismal showing in Gujarat and the recent bypoll losses are proof of the its declining cachet. Party chief Amit Shah faces an unwelcome expenditure of energy in re-engineering the organisation’s thought process and conduct. He also has to strike the right balance between ideological demands and inner-party discipline. Together, he and Modi are burdened with the lonely task of being respectively the mascot and general for the government and the party in 2019.
BJP MP Nepal Singh’s comment that soldiers dying is no big deal at a time when many of them are killed while defending the country in Kashmir was an embarrassment. Sidelining Taj Mahal, which is the favourite photo-op for visiting presidents and prime ministers when Modi has been building up his identity as a world leader, did not do the BJP any favours. Foot-in-the-mouth utterances by Giriraj Singh and Kiren Rijiju when the government is reforming some Islamic practices were unnecessary. Many mantris and BJP leaders alleged that the media gave ‘unfair’ coverage to issues such as wrapping the Tricolour on a riot-accused’s body, unrealistic cattle laws, failure to tackle farmers’ grouses in Maharashtra, the Padmavat imbroglio and so on.
There has always been partisan media in our news universe as anywhere else in the world while TV channels have little to do with reporting as they chase TRPs with raucous determination. In spite of all this, the Indian media has not lost its idealistically boisterous, profoundly opinionated, investigatively driven and intellectually intense conscience. Modi was right to repeal Irani’s command, and show that he may not be a friend of the media but does certainly respect the institution.Actions speak for themselves. It would be better for the party and ministers that Modi’s work speaks for itself than the graffiti his acolytes want to scribble on the walls of the history of conflicts.