by Dr Kiran Hassan
Associate Fellow, Institute of Commonwealth Studies

India goes to the polls in April and May 2019. Historically, the largely well informed Indian citizenry has been able to vote out incompetent or corrupt governments, on the basis of critical issues around governance and policy formation discussed by the media before the general elections. But things are looking different this time, mainly because of the muzzling of the press at all levels, at the behest of the current BJP government, under Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

Home to many religions, ethnicities and with an established democratic system, while traditionally the Indian media remained faithful to responsible and pluralistic ethics and objectivityof journalistic reportage, now the current Indian media scape is far more complicated.

The ruling BJP government is alleged to have mastered the art of managing the mainstream media and manipulating social media information/disinformation flows. Furthermore, growing public distrust towards a ‘staged media’ is based on the fact that most media platforms have colluded with the government because of commercially driven incentives. Others are bullied into toeing the government’s line and thus colluding with its agenda.

Many argue that unlike 2014, the mainstream or social media will not be key factors in tilting the outcome of the Indian election, to the advantage of one single party. One of the central arguments offered to back this observation is that the Indian print, electronic and social media, after enduring considerable editorial control and constant scrutiny by the ruling BJP government, faces the erosion of confidence of the Indian media consumer.

This was discussed at a recent event organized  by the
Institute of Commonwealth Studies, University of London. [A podcast of the event is available here]

The former Director of the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, Professor James Manor stressed the current Indian government’s antagonism towards and sustained attack on the media. He discussed the TV and print media’s commercial interests in convergence with the current government’s authoritarian tactics.

Manor’s point is persuasive as the Network 18 Group in India is the largest news conglomerate and is owned by Reliance Industries, whose business interests range from petroleum to telecom, many of which are dependent on government policy.

Zee News is owned by Subhash Chandra, whose candidacy for
election to the Rajya Sabha (the upper legislative house) was backed by the ruling party, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Similarly, Republic TV is part of a group in which one of the principal investors is a BJP parliamentarian. The coziness between Indian media moguls and the ruling government may well result in a highly partial election campaign coverage favouring the BJP. Manor also pointed out that advertising budgets are doubled for the proprietors who support the BJP government while those who criticise the government and extremist Hindu nationalism, are severely penalised. He maintained that as most media proprietors have commercial interests – and media is a ‘consumer product’ – many proprietors and editors do not want to provoke the authorities.

According to Manor, Prime Minster Narendra Modi also has a personal team of 250 people scrutinising the television channels and social media for criticism and adverse comment. The Ministry of Information also has an extensive surveillance team with the same remit. While threats against journalists, jamming television programmes, blocking television channels, or pulling advertisement budgets are established methods of the BJP government’s bullying or punishment of the electronic media.

Hindutva groups hound social media commentators and place vile and vicious attacks on anyone who criticises the government. The leading Indian journalist and documentary film maker, Nupur Basu underlined the challenges currently faced by journalists in India. Journalists who are likely to uncover anti-government stories or report critically and objectively, often face sedition and defamation cases.

In recent months, Anil Ambani-led Reliance Infrastructure has filed a clutch of defamation suits (to the tune of tens of thousands of crores, or billions of US dollars) against news media organisations for raising uncomfortable questions about the Rafale deal, a controversial defence project in which India acquired 36 fighter jets from France.

According to Basu, critical journalism is suffering greatly from
these pressures and manipulations of the legal system. Journalists are often the targets of death threats or trolling when their reporting or views annoy the followers of Hindutva.

This is especially true for women journalists, who are particularly targeted. Citing the example of the murder of Gauri Lankesh, the editor and publisher of the Kannada-language newspaper who was shot dead outside her home in Bengaluru in September 2017, Nupur condemned the assassination of a brave journalist but found the misogynist hate speech on social media which followed Gauri’s death very disturbing.

The veteran journalist and writer Salil Tripathi focused more on social media, underlining that WhatsApp is now the primary source of information in India. He argued the election campaign will be shaped according to the media’s means of communication and information flows.

While broadcast media in India will remain shrill, print media is more likely to be less aggressive, it is social media which will be the principal focus for the pre-election campaign. This is likely to be vicious social media, with unabashed manipulation of information by partisan groups and individuals; but there is a glimmer of hope is that there are now a limited number of fact checking websites which are doing an effective and efficient job in countering the spread of overt propaganda, disinformation
and ‘fake news’.

Tripathi concluded that it is not just the impartial implementation of laws that is likely to change the critical situation. Rather, as press liberty and freedom of expression remains a critical component of any democracy, it is this multitude of pressures resulting in the erosion of Indian democratic values which is a very real current concern.

Conclusively, the Indian election campaign seemed to shift its focus after the Pulwama militant attack in Kashmir. The unfortunate militant attack, claimed by the Pakistan-based Islamist extremist group Jaish-e-Mohamed, which killed 40 Indian Central Reserve Police Force members on 14 February has increased the Indian public’s anger towards Pakistan.

Subsequent rising tensions with neighbouring arch-rival Pakistan seem to have temporarily transformed the election narrative in India, in classic ‘Bonapartist’ style: a foreign threat or distraction to unite a country, through ‘negative integration’. While some parts of Indian social media are fanatically attacking Pakistan, most Indian television channels are carving out a new debate which is presenting the anti –Pakistan rhetoric merging with Hindutva nationalism, packaging Prime Minister Modi as being India’s sole saviour. The recent BJP’s tirelessly jingoistic nationalist election campaign seems to blur Indian national identity with staunch support of Prime Minister Modi.

Criticism of Prime Minister Modi is equated with being anti –Indian and a supporter of (Muslim) Pakistan. This continued war mongering towards Pakistan within the Indian media, controlled or colluded, may provide Prime Minister Modi with extra backing taking him ahead of his political competitors in the May 2019 election finish line. However, much may still change in the two remaining months of election campaigning.

Dr Kiran Hassan is an associate fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, part of the School of Advanced Study, University of London. She has published and spoken about Pakistan’s political, foreign policy and media issues on various academic and policy platforms.