By GVL Narasimha Rao
The Congress Party’s crude attempts at censoring the social media are not isolated, mindless actions of overzealous ministers, but are part of a well calibrated strategy to muzzle all voices of dissent in order to restore the hegemony and stranglehold of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty over Indian media. Believe me, these aren’t cheap gimmicks to divert public attention from the multitude of United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government’s scams. Rather, these are the audacious attempts of a desperate government trying to shove under the carpet all the dirt that has been kicked up by the UPA government’s dubious record in office.
The salvage operation began in right earnest after Sonia Gandhi’s return to India on September 8 after her surgery abroad. A series of strategy meetings were held to review the stark failings of the government in handling the Anna Hazare crisis and to draw up a plan to shake off the image that Congress party was synonymous with corruption.
The ambitious action plan included ‘disciplining’ and ‘managing’ the mainstream television and print media; unleashing a vicious campaign against members of Team Anna; flinging baseless corruption charges against non-Congress ruled state governments hoping some mud would stick to achieve “moral equivalence” in public perception; using and employing “Congress friendly” officials in opposition ruled states like Gujarat to create administrative hurdles etc etc.
I focus in this article on how the UPA government went about muzzling the media. To threaten the Television channels of dire consequences and cancellation of licenses, the Union Ministry of Information & Broadcasting has notified amended “Policy guidelines for uplinking of television channels from India” on December 5. These guidelines were approved by the Union Cabinet on October 7. The guidelines read, “Renewal of permission (for uplinking to existing TV channels) will be considered for a period of 10 years at a time, subject to the condition that the channel should not have been found guilty of violating the terms and conditions of permission including violations of the programme and advertisement code on five occasions or more. What would constitute a violation would be determined in consultation with the established self-regulating mechanisms. The renewal will also be subject to the permission holder’s acceptance of all of the terms and conditions of permission as the Government may prescribe by way of policy pronouncements from time to time.” The signal to TV news companies is clear: fall in line or face the axe.
The TV news industry believes that these new guidelines are arbitrary, shocking and are an attempt to curb media freedom by slipping in a ‘five violations clause’ to be adjudicated by government-nominated bureaucrats. To the delight of the UPA government, many news channels have already ‘fine-tuned’ their news coverage, while others will be ‘watched’ in the coming days about their coverage of future anti-corruption agitations.
To arm-twist the print media, the Ministry of I & B directed the Directorate of Audio Visual Publicity (DAVP) – DAVP is under the Ministry of I & B – not to release government advertisements and tender notices to ‘errant’ publications. The idea is to hurt the publications financially to force them to ‘behave’. One such case that has been reported is that of the English newspaper DNA published from Mumbai, Ahmedabad, Jaipur etc.
In a signed article dated September 18 titled “Ambika Soni’s adventures in arm-twisting,” DNA’s editor-in-chief Aditya Sinha wrote, “For about ten days, the Government of India’s DAVP stopped advertisements to this newspaper… And then, during a general chat about the newspaper, she (Ambika Soni) came to the point: she said that DNA ought to look at its coverage over the past few weeks and introspect….The day after the meeting with Soni, DNA started getting DAVP ads again. Presumably, from the government side, the mission was accomplished.”
The editor’s indignation does not seem to have lasted long enough. In an edit page article dated November 13, Aditya Sinha waxed eloquent: “Why Narendra Modi will never become PM”. The otherwise articulate editor made virtually made no substantive point in support of his outlandish claim. But who cares as long as the government’s bosses are happy and the paper’s cash register keeps ringing. The sudden sobriety of the print media in general post-Anna agitation has media watchers wondering if it is the result of government’s interventions.
Having ‘managed’ the mainstream media easily, the government has now turned its attention to the all pervasive and tricky social media. The social media is unforgiving and uncaring and it allows all shades of opinion to be purveyed. Sonia Gandhi is reportedly annoyed with the abuse—and rightly so—by some NRI blogs portraying her in a bad light. Oddly, the existing legal provisions are stringent enough to deal with any aberrations if abusing freedom. Then, why do you need to preview and pre-censor the entire social media content, which the law clearly does not allow.
The real threat perceived by the Gandhis is that they are quite unpopular on the internet. For instance, an online survey by MTV showed that Rahul Gandhi was rejected by 90 per cent of youth as prime minister. In contrast, the Gujarat Chief Minister and BJP’s poster boy Narendra Modi who enjoys a huge following in the social media has over four lakh followers each on his Twitter and Facebook accounts and is the lone Indian to be nominated for award as the “Must-Follow Politician on Social Media.” Likewise, BJP stalwart LK Advani has a widely read and circulated blog and had widely employed social media tools for his prime ministerial campaign.
In recent years, social media has acquired enormous clout mainly due to its expanding reach and people’s ability to express their views freely. Curiously, this most nascent medium is setting the media agenda for television which in turn is setting the agenda for the print medium. The government thus feels the compelling need to “rein in” the social media to keep a stranglehold over the mainstream media. The viral nature of the social media and its virulent potential to decimate any government’s standing have indeed scared the government no end.
It isn’t an exaggeration to say that future electoral battles in urban India would be heavily influenced by the social media campaigns. The success of Anna Hazare campaign and the Electronic Voting Machine (EVM) reform online campaign that I personally led bear out this assessment. After its experience with the Anna Hazare agitation, evidently the government fears that a “Tahrir movement” might be at hand and wants to avert it at all costs.
Much like the aborted attempts to push through the Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) in retail, the government’s cynical attempts at muzzling the social media have already alienated chunks of social media users for whom the Congress party’s motives shall ever remain suspect even if it abandons its plans to carry through the censoring threats. Come next parliamentary elections, the urban India is certain to script the Congress Party’s epitaph. Can failed schemes like NAREGA and food subsidies save its decimation in rural areas? That is hardly likely. Nobody can save a government in a self-destruct mode triggering one backlash after another against itself.
(The author is a leading political analyst and columnist.)