Fahad Ali describes Modi’s belligerence towards foreign media
In his ninth year in office Narendra Modi’s belligerence towards foreign media is increasingly showing signs of growing narcissism that now borders on paranoia. He was always known to be self-centred and was temperamentally aloof and it was widely believed that his open public demeanour was a huge put-on. Otherwise he is considered to be a cold, calculating person having loyalty only to his self-interest.
He is obsessed with power and is strongly intent to show himself as the strong man dedicated to the development of his country and in the process smashing all opposition that comes in his way. In this context he has a history of antagonistically viewing media and is known for distancing from it. He also is extremely sensitive about his media portrayal and strongly reacts when something negative appears about him.
His strong reaction to the recent issue of BBC commentary is a case in point in which he stretched the governmental authority to limits by attempting to browbeat the internationally recognised media institution that is widely recognised to portray matters with adequate objectivity.
It was conspicuously noted that BJP government’s belligerent attitude towards foreign news media and journalists had made many international newsrooms get into a huddle. The main worry is that the foreign media personnel are afraid that the Indian government will come after them and that their own governments will not back them. They are now looking for ways to cover India so that their objectivity is ensured giving no pretext to the government to object.
The BJP government’s reaction to BBC’s documentary came to fore through a WhatsApp message that caused panic in the media circles. It was regarding an income tax raid at the BBC’s offices in India, long known as a favourite persecution ploy used by successive Indian governments.
Modi’s belligerence Towards Foreign Media Surveys
Many media personnel stationed in India did not evince any surprise, however, as they are well aware of BJP tendencies particularly of Modi. They said that in some ways their jaded jokes were coming true and after they were sure that there will be repercussions.
It became evident that income tax surveys on the BBC represented an unprecedented escalation as foreign correspondents mention that hostility is the Indian authorities’ default mode of engagement with them. Interestingly, the raid was just the beginning as after the raid a full-throttle public attack on the BBC by the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party unfolded but what the foreign correspondents feared did happen as there was no word of condemnation from back home that left them stunned.
A lot of governments go after the media, they pinch and poke, but in a way that there’s deniability but in case of this instance there was not even a pretense. The long-held apprehensions of foreign media in India turned into reality when Income Tax department officials landed at the offices of the BBC in New Delhi and Mumbai and temporarily seized all the employees’ phones, social media was astir with speculation.
While officials put out the word to reporters that what was underway was a survey as part of a tax evasion investigation, not many bought it. Less than a month earlier, in January, the BBC had released a two-part documentary that probed the role of Prime Minister Narendra Modi in the communal violence that convulsed Gujarat in 2002. Modi, at the time, was the state’s chief minister. While the documentary was not officially released in India, parts of it made their way to YouTube and other video streaming platforms.
BJP Government Attentions And Affirmations
An official of Indian external affairs ministry insisted it was a propaganda piece designed to push a particular discredited narrative. Days later, however, the Indian government swiftly invoked special emergency powers to ask social media platforms to block it completely.
Many journalists working for the BBC said that this action had a chilling effect on their newsrooms adding that one always thought that with the BBC, they had one extra layer of safety net but this assumption proved wrong.
Removing whatever doubts foreign media had about BJP government actual intentions was the affirmation of the development given by the party’s spokesman who was the first to officially confirm the income tax department’s action though he assured BBC that it had nothing to worry about if there were no irregularities on its part.
Intriguingly, the party position altered almost immediately when the same spokesman changed tack launching into a scathing attack on the news organisation’s alleged hidden agenda. He declared that the BBC was corrupt and rubbish citing allegedly slanted news stories it had done in the past.
Many foreign journalists consequently expressed fears that these events could pave the way for more brazen action against them by the Modi government, after many episodes of what they termed as “micro-aggressions” in the last couple of years.
Though the Indian government apparently fell short of directly taking any action yet it resorted to a punishing visa process to make things as difficult as possible. In this context it was pointed out the BBC episode will be a test case for the rules of engagement for the foreign press in India.
United States Repeated Objections
Western governments have been silent on the Income Tax surveys at BBC offices in India with the result that reporters feel abandoned. The lack of pushback by western countries to India’s crackdown on the BBC showed that their home countries would do little to protect their journalistic freedom.
In this respect they mention that the British government has said absolutely nothing on record, let alone a condemnation with the American government offering little more, other than a generic comment on the importance of a free press around the world. Many foreign correspondents said it was increasingly becoming clear to them that they had little backing from their governments back home.
Unlike in the past, foreign correspondents point out that diplomats from their home countries are rarely willing to stick their necks out in support as they do not want to do anything that can jeopardise relationships with India. India’s antagonism to foreign journalists critical of the BJP-run government, particularly in visa-related matters, is of a pattern.
India’s size and rising economic position ensure that the West cannot quite dictate terms to it as it would to other allies. In this context it is mentioned that despite the United States’ repeated objections, India continued to import oil from Russia maintaining that it had to place its own interests first. The western powers’ long-running quest to keep undemocratic and authoritarian China in check had always held India in good stead.
The Ukraine crisis has now made India’s friendship even more valuable to the bloc as it views India as the counterbalance to war-mongering Russia and its ally, China. The Modi government right now has a perfect cloak of impunity knowing that western governments will overlook almost all transgressions when it comes to the rule of law or freedom of speech. The Weekender