In June 2016, during an interview on the news channel Times Now, the journalist Arnab Goswami asked the prime minister Narendra Modi: “How are you keeping your schedule nowadays? I mean, you keep a terrifying pace. The number of meetings you hold ... people say your officers find it hard to keep up.” The tone of Goswami’s enquiry was emulated in almost every subsequent interview Modi gave; very few journalists chose to ask Modi tough questions on his government’s policies and governance. Even during the 2019 Lok Sabha election season, the journalists who interviewed Modi—from the news organisations Zee News, Times Now, ABP News, News 18, News Nation and The Indian Express, among others—barely cross-questioned him. Many of them did not probe him on national controversies surrounding the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, such as corruption allegations related to the government’s deal with the French company Dassault Aviation to purchase 36 Rafale aircraft.
Historically, the Indian media has often adopted a lenient approach to those in power. This approach contradicts the journalistic values that the architect of the Indian constitution BR Ambedkar espoused and promoted. Even before independence, Ambedkar, who launched publications such as the Mooknayak, Bahishkrit Bharat and Janata, had condemned the media’s bhakti—devotion—towards political leaders. In 1943, he said that Indian journalism “is written by drum-boys to glorify their heroes.” In his last speech to the constituent assembly in November 1949, Ambedkar said, “Bhakti or hero-worship is a sure road to degradation and to eventual dictatorship.”
But over the next decades, it seems that the Indian media failed to pay heed to his words and often exalted those in power. During the Emergency, between the June 1975 and March 1977, all publications that did not toe the Indira Gandhi-led government’s line were forced to shut down. While publications such as The Indian Express and The Statesman, tried to fight the crackdown, the newspapers Hindustan Times, Times of India and Ananda Bazar Patrika reportedly fell in line and published stories that seemed to portray Gandhi’s son, Sanjay Gandhi, as a strong leader.
Even years after the Emergency was lifted, the press chose to lionise influential figures. Many publications often touted the late Atal Bihari Vajpayee, who served as the prime minister from 1999 till 2004 from the BJP, as a great “statesman.” In comparison to the praise he received, he was seldom called out for making communal statements. Similarly, the press often described the former prime minister Manmohan Singh, from the Congress, as one of the only clean and honest politicians in the country, though his government was charged with multiple allegations of corruption.
The media has also ensured that some political leaders always occupy centre stage. The Congress president Rahul Gandhi has been under the spotlight since his foray into politics in 2004 with minimal experience in the field. In the run-up to the 2014 general elections, Goswami interrogated Gandhi in an interview on Times Now. The conversation showed Gandhi as a weak prime ministerial candidate. But the subsequent barrage of press criticism against him, and of the interview, ensured that he remained in the limelight. In this year’s Lok Sabha elections, many journalists lauded Gandhi for merely giving live and unscripted interviews.