From Modified America: visceral hate or fair criticism?

BY ANUP KUMAR| IN Media Practice | 01/10/2014
Some of the media coverage exposed the visceral hate Modi supporters attract in certain sections of the Indian and international media.
To demean his fans and Hindutva supporters is uncalled for, says ANUP KUMAR. Pix: Patrick Foulis

First let me state it unequivocally that uncritical or subservient news media is dangerous for any democracy.  There are two sides to media coverage of a major official trip taken by a head of a sovereign government. One is relatively objective reporting by the entourage of journalists that cover the spectacle and pageantry from sidelines. Second are critical analyses of the news event from the perspective of its policy implications and pure partisanship.  For adversarial discourse is healthy in a democracy. 

The critical voices in the media coverage of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s trip to the United States have been fair and have elevated the public discourse in India and in the United States on what this trip means for the relationship between the two democracies. For example, in a hard-hitting piece, an Indian journalist cautioned the U.S. for its quick embrace of the Indian prime minister.   

However, the disappointing part of the media coverage has been how it has exposed a sort of visceral hate Modi supporters attract in certain sections of the Indian and international media. One Indian journalist, Rajdeep Sardesai, said to a 'Modi' chanting crowd, on the streets in front of Madison Square Garden, that they had money but no class, he then called a supporter of Modi an ***hole, which led to a sort of hatha pai.  Although, this happened after the journalist was being heckled by an unruly crowd that clearly did not like his hard-hitting reporting on Modi over the years.

 But then a western journalist almost called the prime minister a "pain in the ***", quoting an anonymous cop, which was later edited and clarified; but before that the story was transmitted to many Indians via a tweet from a celebrated and much loved author gloating over the use of a colorful idiom. Perhaps realizing the offense caused, the tweet was quickly deleted.

Patrick Foulis, the business editor of The Economist in New York, who was earlier at the publication’s Mumbai bureau, described the use of the phrase in his  blog as an epithet to draw attention to the disruption/nuisance felt by New Yorkers.  The problem here is that none of the major news organizations in New York City felt the same way. And moreover, I suspect this journalist would have never used such an epithet for Prime Minister Cameron or President Obama when they bring traffic to a standstill in world capitals.

It is fair on the part of reporters to describe the crowd of NRIs and Indian Americans, who thronged in New York City-- virtually taking over the streets of Manhattan-- who were there to see and cheer their hero Modi, as fans or even right wing Hindutva supporters, but to demean them is uncalled for. We may disagree with their ultra-nationalism, nativist hailing of mother India, and hero worship of Modi; but to call the Indian American supporters of Modi “Indian mass scrum” in a tweet as Foulis did constructs an imagery which is unflattering.    

As someone who has been very critical of Modi’s track record on the treatment of secularism and as one who still continues to be uncomfortable with him as the prime minister, I still wonder what inspires a reaction that suggests a visceral feeling of hate for the man and his supporters. It is a fact that Modi failed to prevent killings of Muslims in a timely manner in 2002 Gujarat riot. And journalists must remind the people of this context.  But then he is not the only politician, in India or in other parts of the world, who had failed in their official capacity to stop killings of innocents. That said, the tragedy must not become a campaign, especially after in a constitutional democracy the courts have spoken on someone’s guilt or innocence. 

As someone who has witnessed communal riots, I know how a tragedy and the smell of blood lingers on for years, and rightly so, in the head of a conscientious reporter. But still I think it is problematic when journalists seemingly have almost a fundamentalist “certainty” of Modi’s personal guilt in the 2002 riots. And because of such fundamentalist beliefs they call him names. Not a leader of the largest democracy in the world, but a “demagogue” who came to power by manipulating the poor masses and the self-centered Indian middle class to vote for him and his party. 

In the light of the past and the still not so clean chit; journalists must be very watchful of Modi, his government and his supporters on the fringe, but they do not have to bring down the level of the discourse by calling names. 


Anup Kumar is associate professor in the School of Communication in Cleveland State University.

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