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Reinventing Journalism

It is not partisanship which has killed journalism but the internet

Writing on the nature of partisanship and journalism, Pratap Bhanu Mehta argues,

Such partisanship can, like political partisanship, be greatly motivating and productive. But it can also be corrosive. For one thing, it is coming in a context where the media as an institution has a serious credibility crisis. But more importantly, it tends to collapse the intellectual and the political. It is the essence of partisanship, particularly one centred on the conviction of virtue, to assume that virtue cannot be divided across parties. It has become anathema to suppose that even though we may be convinced about who is best for India, virtue and vice may not come in such neat packages.

The traditional idea of journalism rested on a great ‘lie’: It argued that journalists could be truly non-partisan arbiters of truth. The argument was not that journalists did not harbor political beliefs or had no preferable electoral outcomes. Rather, it argued that journalists—because of their training, temperament, and the editorial process—could arrive at the right conclusions even in instances where it clashed with their political beliefs. Their allegiance was to truth and truth alone and neutrality was the highest virtue.

The critics, who emerged mainly but not exclusively from the Right, disagreed violently with the traditional notions of journalism. They asked, persuasively in some instances, that how is it possible that despite these allegedly vigorous interrogations of facts, journalists almost inevitably reached conclusions which seem to advance their political beliefs? In their opinion, ‘neutrality’ was a trope invented by liberal journalists so they could arrive at their preferred conclusions without the charges of partisan-ship being hurled at them. It elevated them to a more advantageous station and it is hardly surprising that the strongest criticism in the Right is reserved for those who claim ‘neutrality.’ Everyone has biases, the argument goes, and you should reveal yours. And then it will be all fair and square. Now, one may dismiss these critics as conspiracy minded or argue that truth indeed has a liberal bias but the idea of biased journalism is simply an article of faith among the Right.

It is important to underline that this is not necessarily a new phenomenon which has only emerged in the last few years. Imagine the fate of a person who disagreed with an opinion column published in The Hindu twenty years back. First, he would have to grapple with the fact that perhaps he was the only one so offended. And even if he was agitated enough to ignore those moments of self-doubt, the most he could do was to pen a letter to the editor and march to the post-office. And then wait. The editor could simply ignore the communication or in a display of liberal piety, which would no doubt be noticed in a subsequent column, publish a truncated version. That’s it. The letter-writer would have no means of ascertaining whether his missive was even read by the general public. Or how many of them agreed with his criticism?

The internet has shattered these barriers. In the era of the blogs, the entry barriers were substantially lowered but not completely eliminated. It could take years to build an audience and it still required an ability to cogently argue your case in a somewhat persuasive manner. And if you were offended by a particular journalist, there was no guarantee that she would even read your criticism let alone react to it.

Twitter asks for even less. All that is required is a tweet in 140 characters and ensure that it is marked to the right people. Voila! Even if the only response is to be added to the ‘blocked’ list, you can at least be satisfied that your criticism was received. Perhaps, even more importantly, one no longer has to harbor the doubt that one’s opinion may be considered so extreme that self-censorship is a preferred option. Social media provides an almost seamless ability to connect with like-minded people—however outlandish your beliefs may be. Indeed, social media in that sense presents a paradox. The almost infinite ability to connect with virtually anyone in the world also means that your exposure to contrarian thoughts may be severely limited because you can always rely on an audience of the like-minded. Indeed, it takes extra effort and an ability to ignore often vicious criticism to engage with people who may not share your world view.

It is easy to think that the discourse itself has become more partisan in the last few years. However, here is an alternative hypothesis. The rise of the internet and the social media has not as much as polarized opinion but offered an arena for the display of sharp cleavages which have existed in the Indian society. Differences which were once papered over in the age of the monolithic media which curated opinion and expressed an approved version are now in full display. There are no appeals to authority in this arena; no pointing to privileged CVs. The social media is the grandest display of what Kurosawa has so brilliantly captured in Rashomon: That truth exists in multiple hues.

Of course, this is not a full explanation. The angularities have certainly increased in the last few years with the rise of Narendra Modi who is either viewed with absolute moral abhorrence or is an object of all-encompassing deference. The tendency of some journalists to behave as players and not just observers has also exacerbated the lack of trust. Nevertheless, this shift in how journalism is perceived was inevitable even without the rise of Modi or open display of political affectations.  It may have taken a few more years but the democratizing influence of internet would have inevitably revolted and ensured that the old model of journalism was no longer viable. In summary, it is not partisanship which is killing traditional journalism but the rise of the internet which has facilitated its free and fullest expression. We may not be more divided; it is just easier to tell how really divided we are.

Now, where does mainstream journalism go from here. Three possible paths. First, it retains substantial advantages when it comes to news-reporting which does require resources as some degree of training and expertise. However, even in this area, journalism is being challenged by the internet. For instance, the expansively named Syrian Observatory for Human Rights which is basically a one man operation has emerged as the most credible source on the ongoing conflict in Syria. Second, some media houses may invest in more niche journalism with long-form stories—The Caravan magazine is a good example. However, their audiences are likely to be limited and their influence on the political or social debate may be restricted to a certain elite. Third, and this is the most likely in the case of TV media, it may simply become a replica of twitter with opinion and vapid talk-shows replacing hard news. The rise of Arnab Goswami who has successfully maneuvered to establish himself as the voice of the angry India starkly illustrates this trend. This is all too common in US where a traditional channels like CNN have been left far behind by the partisan warriors of the MSNBC and Fox news.

In any case, the old idea of journalism as the interpreter of facts has ended for all practical purposes. Even columnists who wear their political beliefs on their sleeves and are therefore immune from the charges of ‘neutrality’ are read not for their ability to distill complex arguments into something more easily understandable but simply because they buttress pre-existing beliefs in a more eloquent manner.

Indubitably, this sharp shift may offend traditional public intellectuals like Dr. Mehta who are clearly wary of being boxed into neat ideological cleavages. However, in this age of partisan non-partisanship, they are clearly an endangered species. One can only hope that they don’t entirely disappear because the loss of a sagacious voice like Dr. Mehta would be a substantial loss indeed.

Is Indian Politics Populist

Populism in the Indian context

Writing in the Indian Express, Tariq Thachil argues,

In the writings of corporate analysts, populism is most often defined in terms of a preference for redistribution over growth (setting aside the contentious claim that there is a necessary trade-off between these objectives). It is in this spirit that the UPA has been accused of being “more populist than [the late Venezuelan president] Hugo Chavez”. For other observers, populism is used to indicate any policy driven by narrow political calculations rather than the broader wellbeing of the nation. Here it is the timing of the food security bill, during an election year, that makes it a “populist” move by the UPA government. For some analyses written from this perspective, even non-economic election-year agendas, such as the BJP’s revival of Ayodhya, qualify as populist.

Professor Thachil further points out that properly understood, populism is marked by three characteristics: mobilization by a political outsider, attacking the existing establishment for ignoring the ordinary citizens, and development of a personality cult privileging a direct connection to voters. By these standards, Indian politics is hardly populist. In fact it is highly elitist in nature where family connections are the predominant currency of political advancement and where few leaders have managed to independently craft a strong political appeal. Indeed, besides Mayawati, Arvind Kejriwal is perhaps the only significant populist leader. However, their appeal remains limited to certain geographical areas and they are in no position yet to challenge the so-called national parties.

That leaves an interesting question: Why hasn’t Indian politics seen a Hugo Chavez? A genuinely populist bomb thrower who threatens to upend the political system and replace it with a personality-driven polity of the dispossessed?

There can be multiple reasons for it. India is a vast and a highly diverse country which is divided on multiple lines besides class. It is virtually impossible to craft a new political coalition which can bridge these multiple divides and appeal to the voter in both UP and Tamil Nadu. The failure of the Communist movement with its obsession with class divisions is perhaps reflective of the same. Or perhaps the Indian people are naturally suspicious of sudden change; the likes of Arvind Kejriwal may appeal to them momentarily but ultimately the natural equilibrium is restored. Or perhaps the advantages enjoyed by the traditional parties–particularly the Congress—are so vast that it is virtually impossible to supplant them. Or perhaps the majority of Indian voters are deeply feudal in nature and the privileges of dynastic connections which may offend citizens elsewhere have a high degree of acceptability in a still largely fatalistic society.

Or consider this: Despite all the charges leveled against the indian political system—cronyism, corruption, and utter dysfunction–it is remarkably adept at self-preservation. Unlike the plutocratic regimes in Latin America,  at some level it is responsive to the larger demands of the Indian people. Take the fight over land acquisition for instance. Sparked off by the battle in Singur, it had become a highly contested and charged argument with genuine fears among the poor that the government was usurping their land for the privileged corporates. The Land Acquisition Bill is certainly a deeply flawed response to that popular sentiment–but it is a response nevertheless. By assuring the poor they the political system had heard their voice, it may help assuage popular sentiments though its effect on India’s growth is likely to be highly negative.

In that sense, the Indian version of populism is a cushion to protect the entrenched political power. It functions like a safety valve allowing some anger to dissipate while cleverly preserving the larger political system and the interests it protects. Obviously, it is disappointing to those who argue in favor of a more open and competitive Indian polity and not the same endless churning of Gandhis, Badals, and Karunanidhis. (Is it why political dynasties are so successful in India?) Nevertheless, its utility in ensuring the continued salience of Indian democracy should not be underestimated. 

And if it prevents the rise of a rabble-rouser like Hugo Chavez–always a possibility in a country as poor as India–’populism’ is perhaps a necessary trade-off.

 

On The Wharton Saga

Debating Free Speech

In their op-ed in Business Standard, Vivek Deheija and Karuna Nundy argue,

So the Wharton affair isn’t at all comparable to, say, the cancellation of Salman Rushdie’s appearance at last year’s Jaipur Literature Festival due to the presumed threat of violence from mobs gathering outside the venue. There is a world of difference between boycotts and peaceful protest on the one hand and thuggery and the threat of violence on the other. When mobs intimidate those with unpopular views and governments fail to guarantee individual freedom, it is threats of violence they are failing to address. No such threat was present or implied in this case.

Deheija and Nundy are broadly right. The University of Pennsylvania professors were well within their rights in protesting against the invitation to Mr. Modi; it was indeed an expression of free speech.

However, Deheija and Nundy may be guilty of being overtly influenced by how speech is impeded in India: Threats of violence followed by ‘spontaneous’ outrage. But among mature democracies, that is an exception rather than the rule. There are other less obvious ways in which expression can be curtailed.

Take for instance a Kashmiri separatist leader who may be unpopular because of his views and is invited to an Indian university. Leave aside the violence argument for a moment. The university may be forced to rescind its invitation due to popular opinion or because it is concerned that association with a controversial figure may delegitimize it in popular opinion. And there may be more insidious factors at work. For instance, the faculty may fear losing research grants and other support from the state especially if the government is opposed to that particular individual. So even without any threat of violence, speech can be chilled in many different ways. Legitimacy ultimately is a contested opinion. And we should be wary of those who claim to be arbiters of acceptable opinion.

That is why universities should always err on the side of more speech—and not less. Universities are a forum for learning and open discussion—they benefit from hearing diverse opinions some of whom may be disagreeable to large segments of the population. It is disconcerting and arguably harmful when universities fail to appreciate their important role in the larger social discourse.

Now, it is certainly true that University of Pennsylvania administration may deserve a larger share of the blame than the professors who, after all, were only exercising their right to protest. Nevertheless, as scholar Ashutosh Varshney correctly points out, even the professors failed to understand and appreciate the liberal milieu they inhabit and should further nurture.

More substantively, it would be difficult to sustain the view that there is only one correct way to respond to such a situation. Universities must weigh the benefits to the campus community of engaging with an interlocutor, perhaps one that is disliked by many, against the costs of so doing. In this case, allowing a keynote address on economic development by Mr Modi would involve legitimising, with honour and endorsement, a controversial and polarising figure.

Again, that is broadly correct. Nevertheless, let’s go back and think about Salman Rushdie. Indubitably, Mr. Rushdie is a highly controversial figure and is disliked by large segments of the Muslim population—and not just in India. In that case, couldn’t it be argued that by inviting Mr. Rushdie the Jaipur Literature Festival is ‘ legitimising, with honour and endorsement, a controversial and polarising figure?’  Taken to its logical conclusion, it suggests that only non-controversial figure should be hosted otherwise there is a risk of legitimizing them by mere association. It is a dangerous argument with the potential to adversely affect free expression.  Surely, it can’t be Deheija and Nundy’s argument that literature festival and universities are merely an excuse for backslapping bonhomie—and not a platform for serious discussion and strong disagreements.

Or as Ashok Malik argues in The Hindu,

 It presumes that an American campus — likely one based on the East Coast or in Berkeley — is the international arbiter of decency, values and good taste and can, with the magisterial flick of a switch, turn off the intellectual oxygen for a disagreeable individual and render him a non-person. [link]

Further, Deheija and Nundy’s argument about the treatment meted out to President  Ahmadinejad by the Columbia University is a red herring. Why should any speech by Mr. Modi be immediately countered by his opponents and that too on the same platform? Indian and foreign newspapers frequently feature op-eds against Mr. Modi. They are under no obligation to give Mr. Modi’s supporters an equal opportunity  to critique the critics—and mostly they don’t. Or should each appearance by Salman Rushdie be balanced by a Muslim leader explaining why he finds his views so odious? This isn’t an exercise in free speech; it is political correctness masquerading as one! If anything, the farcical treatment of President  Ahmadinejad (a most disagreeable man!) by the Columbia University itself illustrated how speech can be inhibited by factors others than violence.

Finally, this isn’t really about Mr. Modi. As a powerful chief minister and a prospective prime ministerial candidate, Mr. Modi has ample opportunities to exercise his right to free speech. But some other equally controversial figures may not enjoy the bully pulpit which is Mr. Modi’s privilege. And that should worry those who uphold free speech not only as a right but as an ennobling feature of democratic discourse.

The Idea of India

Debating markets and identities 

Apropos this interesting debate in the Indian Express between messrs Rajeev Mantri and Harsh Gupta and well-known political scientist Professor Ashutosh Varshney. First things first: Both parties are to be congratulated on an engrossing debate—an unfortunate rarity in Indian opinion pages.

Let me offer some thoughts on Professor Varshney’s arguments—not because I necessarily agree entirely with Mantri & Gupta but simply in the interest of space. I also refrain from commenting on Narendra Modi because my views on the Gujarat chief minister are well known to the readers of this blog.

Mantri & Gupta lend the term “left-liberal” considerable imprecision. They see many more economic adversaries than there actually are. Very few oppose markets today. The bone of contention is whether markets alone would lead to mass welfare, or state intervention is also required. Liberals like me find markets necessary, but not sufficient. India needs greater play of market forces, but the government’s welfare, regulatory and public-goods functions remain.

With due respect, Professor Varshney is overstating the agreement here.  As Sushant Singh has argued in Pragati, the Indian republic has lurched further to the left in the last ten years. Ever since the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) won the 2004 general elections demolishing BJP’s ‘India shining’ argument, the prevailing political wisdom is that massive entitlement schemes and not market reforms win elections. Even BJP which had haltingly embraced markets under Atal Bihari Vajpayee is now largely a left-of-center formation economically having endorsed the atavistic policies of RSS and its various off shoots. The recent reforms pushed by the UPA government—FDI in retail for instance—are motivated simply by the slowdown of the Indian economy. Or just witness the rhetoric here: These reforms are necessary to generate sufficient resources for the government to enact newer entitlement reforms. Hardly a ringing endorsement of the markets! To some extent, Narendra Modi is certainly an exception here but he is an exception who proves the rule.

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No Balls, No Freedom?

Or Why Hartosh Singh Bal is both right and wrong 

Writes Hartosh Singh Bal in the Open magazine,

There will be the usual litany from JLF camp followers, part of the large industry around books that feeds off JLF (‘our’ corruption is indeed more sophisticated) who will write in to protest, but this really is not about JLF, it is about the intellectual life of this country. Last year Samanth Subramanian objected to my accusing the JLF organisers of cowardice and instead suggested I should have focused on the police or the government. Obviously he had not even bothered to read the article in question, but surely it must now be apparent that the defence of liberal values does not lie with the police or the government in this country. The fear that made the St Stephen’s students flee the college festival is the same fear that afflicts those who pretend to speak for liberal values today. [Link]

Bal is both right and wrong. He is right because Indian liberals—and we will not engage in dogmatic fights over how to define one—are often too accommodating towards the state. They worry too much about the effects of free speech on the Indian society and worry too less about the principle itself. They treat the Indian people with a certain degree of infantilism—-’communal comment’s will automatically and immediately result in massive riots and therefore the state is correct in quelling speech in the name of social harmony. The deference in the case of free speech is particularly striking as liberals view the state with a certain degree of healthy skepticism in most other matters. And then they act entirely surprised  when the more rabid elements take advantage of their own principle—-that the state should be able to restrict speech in the name of peace—to shut down art exhibitions and vandalize cinema halls. As Bal correctly points out, the issue at stake here was not Professor Nandy’s status as the eminence grise of Indian intellectualism or the purport of his comments but the idea of speech itself. But it is doubtful that many liberals would have protested the arrest of an anonymous blogger over similar comments. Their defense of professor Nandy was not couched in the terms of liberty but was reduced to issuing character certificates for the man himself.

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Confessions of an Indian ‘Hawk’-Part 1

Or what is wrong with Pakistan? 

At the outset, let me confess that I am not a strategic analyst. I leave that rather arduous task to better trained colleagues within the Indian National Interest platform as well as the hordes of analysts available on more mainstream publications. I write this post more as an aam aadmi—even though I dislike how this term has been appropriated by certain political formations. So now we are done with this mea culpa, let’s move on to more important things.

***

An idea which dominates the recent peacenik/liberal conversations is that Pakistan is much more interested in peace than India is. The Outlook magazine perfectly captured this sentiment through a recent cover while across the border, strategic analyst Ezaj Haider argues thusly,

Firstly, unlike Pakistan, there is no real political consensus in India on normalising with Pakistan. Regardless of Pakistan’s concessions, and Pakistan has conceded almost everything India has demanded over the years — trade, investment, MFN without reference to disputes — India demands, though it won’t say so for obvious reasons, unconditional capitulation from Pakistan. [Link]

This is about as nonsensical as it gets. At the minimum, Haider is unaware that Pakistan has still not granted India the MFN status despite the alleged domestic political consensus.

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On Tradition and Modernity

Tradition should not be defended at all costs

Writing in The Hindustan Times, Madhu Kishwar opines,

As for restrictions on the use of mobile phones, even ‘ultra-modern’ families in metros are worried about the adverse effects of their children’s addiction to mobile phones and related gadgetry. So many families have begun to restrict their children’s access to mobile phones and the internet. In cities they are called ‘enlightened’. But rural families become Talibani for wanting similar controls.

The message is clear: first, if you are coerced to ape western-style clothing, no matter how inconvenient, we should embrace it as a step towards “liberation”. But even a mild advisory that we should stick to more convenient traditional outfits is dubbed as a sign of backward obscurantist thinking and Talibani temperament; second, parents, teachers, community elders are not allowed to have any say in matters of dress code and larger matters of social morality. This privilege is exclusively reserved for metro-based self-appointed social reformers and zealous TV anchors who have taken on the mantle of ‘civilising’ Indians since our colonial rulers were made to leave India without completing their historic mission. [link]

That India suffers from a colonial hangover is not in doubt. English is often used as a social differentiator in India with felicity with a particular language equated with intelligence. Or take the habit of appropriating people of Indian origin who may have achieved a particular distinction in the world even if they retain no connections to India anymore. Or in some cases even when they are distinctly uncomfortable with being suddenly included in the larger Indian parivar.  And there is the obvious obsession in India with the White skin and the blatant racism it often results in.

Nevertheless, viewed in its entirety, Ms. Kishwar’s arguments are regressive and dangerous. First, she is plainly disingenuous in arguing that the community elders—Khaps in common parlance—issue ‘mild advisories’ which may presumably be  ignored with no consequences. As multiple cases in states like Haryana have demonstrated, Khaps have no compunction in acting like ruthless murderers when their dictates are ignored. To equate this to parents being concerned because their children are spending too much time on the internet or are accessing age-inappropriate websites is unfortunate.

Second, these ‘community elders’ are often amplifying age-old prejudices. For instance, when Khaps ban mobile phones for young girls, they do so because they fear such instruments may allow these girls to choose—horror of horrors!—their own partners. To defend this in the name of tradition is to applaud the perpetuation of age-old gender biases. Or every relationship in India should now be susceptible to a community veto? Bluntly put even more then the defraying of tradition, what khaps fear most is the loss of control and the power it provides.

More broadly speaking, debates on what constitutes appropriate social behavior are hardly unique to India. In the United States, for instance, gay marriage retains a certain degree of political potency despite quickly changing attitudes particularly among the young. Because India stands at the cross-roads of tradition and modernity, the edges are particularly sharpened. Perhaps, the urban elite needs to view the instruments of old order and their fears with more sympathy. Nevertheless, understanding why people are acting in a certain way should not extend to justifying their regressive behaviors. And we should not fall in the trap of introducing false equivalencies—a malaise all too frequent in the Indian discourse (check India-Pakistan).  An India in which a young woman is freely able to exercise her inalienable rights to ‘life, liberty, and happiness’ is inherently superior to a country in which community elders decide what is suitable for her.

Ms. Kishwar is correct in arguing that what qualifies for individual freedom is circumscribed by prevailing social norms which may be deemed ‘progressive.’ Ms. Kishwar is certainly welcome to add her powerful voice to this contestation of ideas but by placing tradition at an exalted pedestal, she is merely doing her cause a great disservice.

After all, if all you want to do is to defend tradition, then what exactly is wrong with the Taliban?!

On the Immigration Debate

There is a difference between refugees and economic migrants

In a recent cover story in the Outlook magazine on the Assam riots, Saba Naqvi et al. write,

Secular India must confront the fact that a nation built so proudly on the principle of rejecting the two-nation theory is still engaged with fiercely debating the issue of insider/outsider. The rhetoric again stokes the subliminal fear of the invader, the immigrant, the fifth columnist, the traitor among us. These are often the poorest of the poor, engaged in the menial tasks locals are unwilling to do. [link) (highlight mine)

Let’s think about this for a minute. Outlook often emphasizes that India is a desperately poor country where more than 300 million survive on less than dollar a day. It often tells in great detail tales of absolute poverty and deprivation which are often too common in India.

Then who are these Indians who won’t do the jobs Bangladeshis do? Exactly what kind of jobs these are which are beyond even the most desperately poor Indian?

This is nonsense of course. If Naqvi and gang had a little more intellectual honesty, they would admit that they have borrowed the language from the US immigration debate where it often argued that illegal aliens engage in jobs which Americans refuse because of low pay or particularly harsh conditions. Considering US is a much richer country than India, this argument at least has some traction. In the case of India, it is complete bunkum.

Indeed, it is hard to imagine a more rambling piece than what Naqvi has produced in which everything from the two nation theory and communalism has been dragged in. In the entire Outlook issue, it is unclear if it is defending illegal immigration from Bangladesh or simply arguing that these are all Bangla speaking Indian Muslims who are being needlessly victimized. That is not the same issue. Foreign citizens cannot be compared to Indians.

More broadly speaking, India should grant long-term visas to those who are persecuted—whether Pakistani Hindus or Rohingya Muslims—but Bangladeshi Muslims illegally entering India are economic migrants. Now, it is certainly possible to argue that it is virtually impossible to deport 10 million illegal immigrants and a work permit system should be instituted. However, unless one inhabits the la-la land where all boundaries have conveniently disappeared and nation states have becomes superfluous, the issue of insider/outsider would remain germane. (Naqvi should ask the average Dhaka-ite if he considers India a different country.) Dragging the two nation theory into it is just fanning the communal flame—but perhaps that’s precisely Naqvi’s schtick.

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