Amid the deluge of death every day, this time the country's traditional media outlets couldn't gloss over the government's monumental failure in tackling the pandemic.
Over the last few days, India's mainstream media appears to have somewhat salvaged its reputation by doing what it is meant to do – calling out the federal government under Prime Minister Narendra Modi for its inability to anticipate and manage the second wave of the Covid-19 pandemic that has wreaked havoc across the country.
Mainstream magazines led by Outlook, followed by India Today and the staid Frontline have come out with hard-hitting covers. For the first time, each publication has directly blamed the Modi government in the context of the Covid crisis that has seen millions of Indians struggling in vain to get treated for the deadly disease.
What shocked the country was the utter chaos that the Indian capital New Delhi experienced in the wake of an exponential rise in Covid-19 cases leading to shortages of bed, oxygen and crucial life-saving treatment, which resulted in thousands of deaths. The crisis continued with no space in cemeteries and crematoriums resulting in long lines, traumatising bereaved families.
Until now, in both waves totalled, there have been 1.4 million Covid-19 cases in Delhi while across India including the major cities of Mumbai, Bengaluru and Chennai, at least 26 million cases were recorded – figures that indicate the enormity of the pandemic. At the height of the second wave on May 4, India registered 46 percent of the world’s coronavirus cases and at least a quarter of its deaths.
The pandemic has been unsparing of normally well-insulated middle-class families and the elite. The ensuing horror, anger, sadness and frustration particularly in Delhi led people to conclude that the chaos could have been prevented had the government anticipated the second wave. On the contrary, the Modi-led government a couple of months earlier had crowed over how successful it had been in thwarting the pandemic and that India was safe from the marauding virus.
The Outlook magazine in its May 24 issue had a single word “MISSING” emblazoned across the cover with three lines below linking it to the seven-year-old federal government. And, for people of India to inform, implying, if the government was found anywhere. A signed editorial by its Editor-in-Chief Ruben Banerjee pointed out that “The pandemic gave us a year to prepare, but a top leadership fixated on propaganda and good press wasted most part of it in promoting its image and brand.”
The Frontline magazine cover called it “Bungling Big Time”. It said the second wave of the Covid-19 pandemic not only exposed the weaknesses of the public health system but also the “hollowness of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s image as a strong and decisive leader”.
India Today had on its cover a queue of the Covid dead ready for cremation or burial, and called it “The Failed State”. Editor Aroon Purie, in his comment, said “the prime minister has yet to assure the nation how he intends to bring the situation under control”.
Missing in action
Describing Modi as one who was believed by people to be a man of action, the editorial said it was “cruelly ironic” that under his administration citizens were gasping for breath and dying like flies.
These covers and the editorial comments were significant as they bucked the perception that the mainstream Indian media had in the last seven years turned pusillanimous when it came to criticising the federal government ruled by the Hindu nationalist BJP and Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Some sneeringly refer to the media that vociferously defends the current Modi dispensation as “godi” media, figuratively meaning “media on the lap of the government”.
Since the coming to power of the Modi government in 2014 and especially since its second term in 2019, an increasingly prevalent view within a section of the media is one of existential discomfiture. In the midst of a restrictive conservative political ecosystem, state governments are targeting reporters in the course of their work.
From 133 out of 180 in the World Press Freedom index of 2016, India has slipped to 142 at present, according to the French NGO Reporters Without Borders.
In India, press freedom is incorporated in the right to free speech and expression guaranteed under Article 19 of the Constitution. The media, in the past, has brought down several governments for a variety of reasons linked to governance. For example, in the 2014 general elections, the then ruling Congress-led federal government lost out to the BJP-led alliance mainly on the grounds of inept corruption in the government ranks, with the media largely backing an alternative.
Try as it might, the Congress-led front was unable to combat the negative press it received due to a slew of corruption charges that the government faced at the time.
The same verve has been missing in media reportage under the Modi government. Fellow colleagues, off the record, refer to the innumerable instances of intimidation and threats of reprisals in the event of negative coverage.
Take the current Covid-19 pandemic. A reporter in the north-eastern Indian state of Manipur, Kishorechandra Wangkhem, was arrested earlier this week for posting on social media that “Covid cannot be cured by cow urine and cow dung” in the context of the death of a state BJP leader. The government promptly held the journalist under the dreaded National Security Act which potentially could mean lengthy incarceration.
Another journalist, Siddique Kappan, who was travelling to cover a rape case in Hathras earlier this year, in the BJP-ruled north Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, was arrested and is still in prison under the UAPA, normally meant for those accused in terror cases.
The federal government is also in the process of bringing in new legislation to rein in news websites (some of whom have been most vocal in criticising the Modi government) under the garb of regulating social media.
The net effect of the government’s moves against the media is the global downgrading of India’s democratic credentials. While the US-based NGO Freedom House brought down India from a free democracy to a “partially free democracy”, the Sweden-based V-Dem Institute said India had become an “electoral autocracy”.
The media which had criticised the government’s handling of the first wave that, among other things, led millions of migrant workers stranded on the streets of the country, fell silent when Covid cases slipped from a high of 90,000 in September to around 9000 in February this year.
Though there was some criticism for imposing a sudden and unplanned lockdown which left thousands of migrant workers stranded last year, the government was let off after a rap on the knuckles.
But this time around, despite an atmosphere of insecurity, the media has shaken off its kid-glove treatment of the government and decided to be blunt. Chances are the media will not easily let go given the intensity of the widespread suffering in the second wave.
The mood is summed up by Milan Vaishnav, director of the South Asia Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, D.C., in an NPR report. Vaishnav says he hasn't seen this level of outrage against Modi at any time since his election first in 2014.
"It's the ferocity of the virus, coupled with what people perceive as mismanagement, as a lack of empathy, as a prime minister who's usually leading from the front but seems to be receding into the background," Vaishnav is quoted as saying.
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