In the absence of government files whose transfer to the archives after 30 or 50 years is based on flights of whimsy, scholars of contemporary India — shorthand for anything dealing with the post-Independence experience — are disproportionately dependant on the media as a primary source.
This unavoidable approach creates its own set of problems. While historians studying Western democratic societies have often relied on the media as a barometer of public opinion, particularly in the localities, they have been able to balance findings with other inputs such as official documents, court records and the private papers of some of the main actors. In India, most of these options are either a matter of chance or absent. The Nehru Memorial Museum & Library has taken a lead in gathering the private papers of individuals and non-official organisations that played a role in public life before and after Independence. In addition, there are oral reminiscences of individuals who played a role. However, the resources available to chroniclers of contemporary history remain woefully patchy. As a society, India has not yet imbibed the habit of preserving the past for the future.
This problem of inadequate documentation is compounded by two additional complications. First, India remains, by and large, an oral society. Public figures, particularly politicians, are loath to put their thoughts down on paper. Strategies, tactics and instructions stemming from unstructured meetings are rarely recorded and, more often than not, suffer from distortions in transmission. This isn’t a uniquely Indian problem but it is more acute in India than in societies where putting pen to paper was more of a habit. Secondly, with the growing popularity of digital communication, communications have actually become more perishable. Jawaharlal Nehru, for example, was in the habit of pouring his heart out in letters to his sister Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit and his colleague V.K. Krishna Menon. Most of these letters have survived and form a huge database for understanding both the first Prime Minister and his approach to government and politics. With emails (and, for that matter, telephone conversations) replacing the letter as an instrument of intellectual exchange, it is highly unlikely these will be preserved for posterity — unless they happen to be official correspondence.
The consequent media overweight in post-facto understanding of contemporary trends should naturally prompt a greater awareness of the nature of the beast. The media has an exalted self-image of playing a watchdog role and even being defined by its adversarial role with the government of the day. Unfortunately for it, this self-professed nobility of purpose is not universally shared. Right from the Nehruvian days when Krishna Menon was fond of declaiming against the so-called “jute press”, his shorthand for the media-big business nexus, to Indira Gandhi who had her own share of favourite journalists and media outcasts, politicians have protested against the political bias of the media. Delhi’s chief minister Arvind Kejriwal’s anger against a media that seeks to “destroy the Aam Aadmi Party” isn’t a new complaint; many others before him have complained of media-inspired political vendetta. In the late-1980s, just as the Bofors controversy was threatening to burn him politically, Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi introduced a draconian Defamation Bill and even got it passed in one House of Parliament before abandoning it following widespread protests.
To be fair, political partisanship has been a feature of the Indian media since the late-19th century. With the exception of the Times of India, Statesman and the Pioneer which reflected different shades of pro-British opinion, the other pedigreed Indian newspapers were established on the back of the nationalist movement. Nor was their commitment to Indian nationalism of a loose and nebulous kind. Many of the publications were essentially voices of a particular faction and linked to individuals. After Independence, factional alignments were replaced by commitments to political parties. Historians studying events from the Congress split of 1969 to Indira Gandhi’s election victory in 1971, will, for example, discover that the balance of forces in the media was firmly tilted against her. This may explain her subsequent antipathy to the Fourth Estate and her single-minded determination to reduce it to the status of a supplicant.
Revisiting the 1969-71 experience is instructive for a good reason: it shatters the belief that the media is broadly reflective of public opinion. That the opposition of media barons to her aggressive socialism may well be ideological, but specific corporate interests also governed some of the hostility. It was precisely to counter that impression that the Tatas, for example, divested their holding in the Statesman — one of the leading voices against the dynastic Congress.
In today’s India, corporate control over the media hasn’t shrunk but assumed a far larger dimension. Increasingly, particularly in the states, the media has become a vehicle to promote business interests in real estate, mining and sectors that are burdened with government regulations. The Saradha revelations in West Bengal suggested that chit-fund operators have systematically created media assets and courted journalists as a protective cover.
The element of distortion doesn’t merely extend to issues of ownership. Increasingly, over the past decade, the media is becoming more susceptible to “group think”. The left-liberal overweight, particularly in the Delhi media, was a major factor in the bulk of the print and electronic media failing to capture the popular mood in the 2014 general election. This political tilt is also a factor in the onrush of negativism that has greeted the economic initiatives of the Narendra Modi government.
Finally, there is a near-criminal dimension that future historians must factor in. In large parts of India, the media has become a byword for extortion with a price tag attached to the promotion or suppression of a story. Almost every politician has a horror story to narrate about media venality in the transfer-postings industry and during elections. So far the media has not acted to protect its professional integrity, preferring denial to corrective steps.
A historian studying contemporary trends in India has, therefore, a daunting challenge. He has to not only assess the information; he has to locate it within the media’s internal dynamics. A historian has the luxury of post-facto reflection. The consumer of media is simply left bewildered, confused and, often, angry. No wonder media preferences are often totally out of synch with people’s voting preferences. The media, it would seem, has its uses but reflecting public opinion is not one of them.
Asian Age, May 15, 2015