Times of moral certainty carry an inherent danger. When the opposing view is so clearly demarcated and our own cause seems just, it is easy to forget that our consensus hides contradictions that contributed to the situation in the first place.
What happened in Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) on 9 February 2016 and how those events have unfolded since, suggest that we are living in just such a time. It takes extreme stupidity to react to a bunch of students shouting any slogans within a university campus. Worse has been said before, without damage to the republic. But we now have a ruling party that, unable to deliver on poll promises, finds itself looking for symbolism to bail itself out from electoral disaster. In doing so, it is only serving the larger interests of its parent organisation, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). The RSS sees things not in terms of an election or two over a year, but in terms of how the country changes over decades. Its eventual aim is to subvert the very Constitutional arrangement that defines our republic.
Under these circumstances, not only is the choice to resist by speaking against what is taking place easily made, perhaps it is even forced. But it cannot lead us to conclusions that disregard what we have learnt in the recent past. Around me, I hear liberals voice the need to see the Congress strengthen itself to lead the resistance against this government. This is a party—still led by the inept Rahul Gandhi—which gives pride of place to people such as Kamal Nath, who are complicit in the mass murder of 1984. This is a party embroiled in corruption that hastened Modi’s ascent to power through its ineptitude in the first place. Principled protests today cannot regress into recreating the dangers we seem to have left behind.
Just as the country is cleaved by strong opinion, so is the media. A large part of the electronic media, ranging from ZEE TV to Times Now, have taken on the same garb of national interest that the Bharatiya Janata Party has donned. Others—from electronic, digital and print media—have opposed this by pointing out that this witch-hunt of a few students depends on meagre if not concocted evidence and only serves the politics of the ruling party. For my part I think the choice before us is simple, our job is to speak truth to power, not speak a concocted truth on behalf of power.
This internal debate is personified in the larger-than-life figure of Arnab Goswami, the editor-in-chief of Times Now and ET Now. I have appeared on Times Now for over five years as a panelist. My appearances stopped barely two months ago when I refused to moderate my views about Arun Jaitley—the finance and information and broadcasting minister of India—for the channel. Over these five years, my reaction to Times Now has ranged from admiration to disgust. Its exaggerated theatrics notwithstanding, the channel spoke truth to power when the United Progressive Alliance was at the centre. It took on the ruling alliance in ways that were new, given the cozy relationship between that dispensation and journalists such as Barkha Dutt—a consulting editor with NDTV—as exemplified by the Radia Tapes. In the run-up to the 2014 elections, I was disturbed by the apparent contradiction between Goswami’s aggressive and admirable interview of Rahul Gandhi and the soft touch that was apparent in his interview of Narendra Modi. But much of this apprehension was allayed when the channel took on Rajasthan Chief Minister Vasundhra Raje and External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj over Lalit Modi’s revelations in June 2015.
The problem started shortly after. The Lalit Modi story disappeared entirely in puzzling fashion since journalists don’t usually let go of a major story once they’ve sunk their teeth into it. It was the equivalent of letting go of the Commonwealth scam in the middle of its coverage. This was followed by Goswami taking a strong pro-government stand on the return of awards by several writers and artists. His stance was consistent with his views on such matters. For me, Goswami’s abandonment of the Lalit Modi stories and his decision to speak for the government became a much more serious matter when I was asked to tailor my views to the channel’s requirement. This seemed to indicate an anchor who, rather than speaking his mind was speaking at the behest of the ruling dispensation. This perception has been magnified to a great extent by the manner in which Goswami has conducted himself during the JNU affair.
Goswami’s most severe act of dereliction was on display during the channel’s show with BJP spokesperson Sambit Patra last week. During the course of this episode, Goswami allowed the airing of what now seems to be doctored footage of JNUSU President Kanhaiyya Kumar shouting “anti-national” slogans. While Goswami made a few comments, stating that the authenticity of the video was yet to be verified, this was act of ethical abdication that undermined our profession. When this was pointed out, Goswami first lied by denying the video was aired and then admitted to doing so. A young man was marked, damned and condemned before a vast audience with no opportunity to defend himself. It was on the basis of this video that the channel carried out a damaging campaign, only magnifying the government’s propaganda.
Today, Goswami no longer seems like a journalist charting out his path, speaking the truth as he sees it. Instead, he seems to be a spokesperson for this government, willing to not just forego facts but also to undermine the ethics of the profession in the process. Much like Modi, who came to power with the promise of changing the established order, and has become coopted by it, Goswami’s promise of providing an alternative to the kind of establishment journalism that anchors such as Barkha Dutt have practiced has remained illusory, he has been coopted.
This state of affairs brings me back to the liberal consensus I have spoken of at the beginning of this piece. Last week, I was aghast to hear that when journalists in Delhi marched to protest the assault on their colleagues at the Patiala House court complex, Dutt and Rajdeep Sardesai—a consulting editor with the India Today group—among others, presented a memorandum on their behalf to the chief justice of India. Did a spontaneous march of journalists have to endorse the choices made by compromised owners?
These are exemplars of the school of journalism that relies on the advantage of being insiders in Lutyens’ Delhi. These are anchors who, during a decade of the UPA’s rule, used their proximity to senior Congressman Nath to speak to him on and off the record on several occasions. They did not once find the need to ask him about the charge of being complicit in the massacre of Sikhs in 1984. These are anchors, who, like Goswami, have yet to find the courage to speak about Jaitley’s subversion of the media. These are anchors who are part of the problem with our media, not the solution.
The danger of the current liberal consensus is that it seeks to speak against a new establishment without looking within. The compromises and corruption that liberals participated in during the UPA’s rule are what led us to Modi in the first place. These failings have not been addressed even though the UPA has been out of power for the past two years. The path away from Modi cannot lead us back to the Congress, the path away from Arnab Goswami cannot lead us back to Barkha Dutt.
Hartosh Singh Bal is the political editor at The Caravan, and is the author of Waters Close Over Us: A Journey Along the Narmada. He was formerly the political editor at Open magazine.