Manmohan Singh is rarely interviewed by Indian media. RSS journal Organiser scolded him for this in an editorial recently. But Singh is actually a talented interviewee and foreign journalists love him. It is almost embarrassing to read his interviews with Europeans because they are so fawning with him.
And yet the press conference he held in Delhi last month was his first in four years. Why does Singh not speak to Indian journalists? Let us look at his press conference. Here’s the first question:
Tell-all: Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s press conference last month was one of his rare interactions with Indian media. T Narayan/Hindustan Times
“Sir, mera naam Umakant Lakhera hai. Main Hindustan*, jo Hindi akhbar hai, uska Dilli mein chief of bureau hoon. Pradhan mantriji, mera aap se yah sawal hai ki aap se pehle Bharat mein jitne bhi pradhan mantri hue hain, economy ke baare mein vey log bahut zyada nahin jaante the. Yah desh ki khushkismati hai ki aap economist hain aur aap ne azadi ke baad ka, Bharat ki economy ke utar-chadhav ka, bahut lamba samay dekha hai. Mera aap se yah sawal hai ki aaj price rise par control kyon nahin hai? Aisa kyon hota hai ki inflation kam hota hai aur mehngai badhti hai? Pehle ke zamaney mein mantri jab bayan dete they, to agley din mehngai ghat jati thi, aaj aisa kyon hota hai ki aap ke jo ministers hain, aapke mantri jo bayan dete hain, uske agle din mehngai badh jaati hai? Aisa kyon hota hai ke economy sarkar ke control mein nahin hai aur aam aadmi ka zinda rehna mushkil ho gaya hai? Common man ko lagta hai ke sarkar ke niyantran mein cheezein nahin hai. Economy ka jo slowdown hai aur jo mehngai hai, aap us par apne vichar prakat karein.”
Also Read Aakar Patel’s earlier Lounge columns
The press conference continues in this manner. There’s little reason for Singh to engage Indian media, especially Hindi media, because it is all like this. The opening question asked by Washington Post’s owner Lally Weymouth, who interviewed Singh last year, was: “You are (US) President Obama’s first official state visitor. What would you like to accomplish in Washington?”
We find this sort of objective questioning difficult to do, as our television channels testify every night. This is because Indian journalists look not for information, but for agreement with the convictions they hold. European journalists do not make pleas on behalf of the common man (who in India is represented by the Hindi journalist rather than the prime minister).
There are good journalists in India, but they tend to be business journalists. Let us quickly understand why. Unlike regular journalism, business journalism is removed from emotion because it reports numbers. There is little subjectivity and business channel anchors are calm and rarely agitated because their world is more transparent.
Competent business reporting here, like CNBC, can be as good as business reporting in the West. This isn’t true of regular journalism in India, which is uniformly second rate.
V.S. Naipaul spotted this in our headlines. Citing ones such as “Masses must be educated to make democracy a success” he concluded, rightly, that India was “a nation ceaselessly exchanging banalities with itself”.
India is the only major newspaper market in the world where newspapers are open to selling their stories. The problem isn’t that Indian proprietors are evil or that they’re looking for short-term benefit while eroding the paper over time. In my experience of six newspapers, the proprietor has always been more knowledgeable than the editor.
The problem is the reader. It is unthinkable that its readers would continue to patronize The New York Times if it were revealed that the newspaper’s reporting was available for sale. But in India it’s fine, and the space is available for the proprietor to profit.
About 10 years ago, Indian editors came under pressure to take their newspapers “upmarket”. In Europe, going upmarket means adding pages that carry reports on opera and literature, but that’s not what the word means here.
In India, upmarket means carrying photographs of well-dressed, wealthy people: What is referred to as Page 3. Coverage of celebrities is actually downmarket, but in India it’s inverted. There’s no demand from readers for real upmarket content in India, and even if there was, there are few journalists qualified to provide it.
This is because you cannot make a living as a writer in India, which is surprising because we have 100 million speakers of English and think of ourselves as being a giant market. But this isn’t true and there is little consumption of writing. The reason Indian writers are paid little is that it does not really matter what you write here. One writer is as good or bad as another, and the good writer is actually the familiar face (which explains why the same people—Pritish Nandy, Shobhaa De—write everywhere). There is also the problem of quality, it must be admitted, and you can count the number of Indians asked to write for publications abroad on the fingers of one hand.
A century ago, 5% of India was literate. Formal schooling came to India only after Macaulay’s Minute, which we are taught to hate. Indians were educated in English in numbers quite recently, after we could produce no alternative to Macaulay’s vision. In the 1970s, this urban literacy in English produced publications that were new and different. India Today and Sunday sent reporters to write about India’s villages. What they came back with surprised readers, who hadn’t known what a truly frightening place India was.
Bihar’s police blinded a dozen undertrials with cycle spokes and acid in Bhagalpur (the story of this casual act of punishment took weeks to emerge). Government engineers on deputation regularly abused tribal women, and there was no end to stories about the barbarism in the Indian village (there still is no end).
But there was always something missing from this journalism, and it is this: You could read Indian newspapers every day for 30 years and still not know why India is this way. The job of newspapers is, or is supposed to be, to tell its readers five things: who, when, where, what and why. Most newspapers make do with only three of these and are unlikely to really tell you “what”. This is because urban Indians are tired now of reading the horror stories that come out of our villages. Only a couple of newspapers, such as TheIndian Express, persist in reporting news that isn’t pleasant, and they haven’t much circulation.
No newspaper at all can tell you “why”, because they do not know themselves. The same stories from 30, 50, 100 or 500 years ago keep repeating here, and the peasant will still murder his daughter for falling in love. The happenings in the city are also difficult to understand. The news from May was that Delhi University sold radioactive Cobalt-60 as scrap. This killed the merchant who bought it and crippled another. The university, which is supposed to be a research body, had unthinkingly buried some of the other Cobalt-60 earlier and this will poison the ground. Why are we so casual? Nobody can say, and there will be an explanation along the lines that it was an accident. But this will happen again, of course. Union Carbide’s plant in Bhopal was owned by Americans. But it was managed, staffed and run by Indians. Its foreman was Indian and its workers were Indian. Why were they so casual about their own safety? The media doesn’t know, but it is convinced the solution lies with getting Warren Anderson.
Aakar Patel is a director with Hill Road Media.
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*Hindustan is published by HT Media, which also publishes Mint.