NEWS

Our Totally Bipolar Relationship With Foreign Media Is Unhealthy And Hypocritical

We can’t have it both ways.

08/12/2016 11:35 AM IST | Updated 08/12/2016 11:40 AM IST
Getty/ @spignal/ @sameerhashmi

The explanation might be completely innocuous. It could have been a misunderstanding, a miscommunication, a shortage of chairs. But the fact remains that for reasons unspecified, journalists from The Economist, the BBC and some Indian media outlets were kept out of RBI governor Urjit Patel's press conference.

Stanley Pignal, the Mumbai correspondent for The Economist put out a flurry of tweets expressing his surprise.

He also tweeted that the spokesperson said it had nothing to do with critical coverage of demonetisation. He mentioned he had been critical of the new governor for not speaking to the media but "did not expect RBI to freeze us out of press conference. It's their call obviously."

The BBC's business reporter Sameer Hashmi tweeted "Even the BBC has not been allowed for the press conference. Indeed a sad day for transparency." He said he was told it was about "space constraint."

The Reserve Bank of India has said it would sort out the issue with the media involved and it saw no reason to offer explanations to other media. Well and good. But until it does, the fishy smell just refuses to leave.

And it's not dispelled in the least by the likes of Shashi Shekhar, member of Prasar Bharati tweeting mockingly.

That is exactly not the point. This is not a size matters game. This is not about The Economist throwing a fit and demanding special gora privileges or to get ahead in the line. It's not about an entitled British paper acting as if India's still a colony. It's not about India being an older civilization than Britain and what does Britain have to teach us anyway? And it's not even about whether Indian journalists are invited to Federal bank meetings in Washington DC. They should be if they want the access but this is not about diplomatic tit-for-tat. It's about the perception about why a norm is abruptly changed.

And yes, the Indian publications that did not get in matter as much as The Economist.

But more than anything else, this whole kerfuffle reveals our continuing hang-up about what magazines and newspapers from small and not-so-small islands across the globe say about India.

At one level, those supporting this decision are chest-thumping in jingoistic pride saying this will teach foreign media a lesson, show them that Indians cannot be pushed around anymore. It's flaunted as an issue of national backbone. We won't kowtow obsequiously and treat you with reverence just because you are international media. We cannot be taken for granted.

"This whole kerfuffle reveals our continuing hang-up about what magazines and newspapers from small and not-so-small islands across the globe say about India."

But many of those same people go all out to make sure Narendra Modi wins the online poll for Time Person of the Year, with exhortations to go and vote flying fast and furious in social media. It was no surprise that this year at least Donald Trump would probably be the Person of the Year because as the editors said it's "hard to measure the scale of his disruption." But Modi ended up winning 18% of the readers' vote ahead of Trump, Julian Assange and Barack Obama who got about 7% each. That enraged many on Twitter promptly who thought Modi had been cheated of his democratic victory and dismissed the poll as a "gimmick" completely missing the fact that the reader poll was an entirely different beast from Time magazine's jury which actually chose the Person of the Year. It's not like the electoral college just overturned the popular vote. In this case both results stand.

What does it mean? It means that Modi supporters really got out the vote for their man. Poll host Apester said according to The Times of India that Modi performed especially well among Indian voters as well as voters in New Jersey and California both of which have high desi populations. It's probably the same reason Arvind Kejriwal pipped Modi to the No. 1 spot in 100 most influential people poll in 2014. That does not make either the most influential person in the world. At that time 93% of Modi votes and 88% of Kejriwal votes were dubbed fake by Time who said there were attempts to inflate the voting numbers, with millions of votes being added in a matter of hours. (Kim Jong Un, by the way also won in 2012 in what was believed to a rigged vote).

AFP/Getty Images
An Indian salesman arranges copies of Time magazine featuring a cover photo of Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi at a store in Ahmedabad on March 18, 2012.

This time, right on cue, union minister Ananth Kumar said the country's backing of Modi's demonetisation gambit was proved by the fact that he won the online readers' poll for Time Magazine's Person of the Year.

This schizhophrenic attitude towards how India is reflected in the western eye is our old and persistent hangover. Every nugget of praise is immediately hyped and broadcast from the rooftops. Every criticism makes us bristle. When The Economist said in 2014 that India deserved better than Modi, and Rahul Gandhi was a less divisive if "uninspiring" choice, Modi's supporters exploded in outrage as if The Economist's endorsement really mattered that much to Indian voters. "Nobody cares about your opinion on @narendramodi" tweeted an angry Modi supporter. But obviously we do. Obviously it rankles. We care way too much. When Modi made the cover of the Asian edition of Time Magazine his followers were over the moon.

If Paul Krugman had praised demonetisation the same critics who say he does not know anything about India would have been praising his sagacity and those lauding his comments now would be dismissing them. But indeed, why do we care so much more about a stray comment from a Krugman anyway?

We really have to make up our mind. Do we care about what the international media thinks about us, or do we not? We can't have it both ways.

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