This article has been corrected.
Narendra Modi, the Bharatiya Janata Party's (BJP's) candidate for Indian Prime Minister and the current chief minister of Gujarat, remains one of the country's most polarizing figures. His supporters love his strong, decisive hand and his track record of delivering growth in his state after a decade of stagnation and inefficiency under the current Congress-led government. His detractors abhor him for the massacre of thousands of Muslim people that occurred under his watch during the Gujarat riots of 2002. The debate can be boiled down to a single question: Do the pros of electing him outweigh the cons?
With just a few weeks left before India goes to the polls, eminent political commentator Pratap Bhanu Mehta recently reframed the question. More crucial than ideology or belief, he says, is the question of whether the leader can tolerate dissent. Mehta draws comparisons between Modi and other political "strongmen": Turkey's Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Sri Lanka's Mahinda Rajapaksa, and Russia's Vladimir Putin. These leaders also emerged against a backdrop of perceived national crisis, and are known for their decisiveness and achievements in governance. But when faced with challenges, they have reacted, as Mehta puts it, by "subvert[ing] the very democracy that created them." Just this past week, Erdogan has responded to the public outcry that followed allegations of his corruption by tightening his grip on the media -- even going as far as blocking Twitter.
Tolerating dissent has never been one of Modi's strong points. He has famously walked out of interviews and canceled appearances at the last minute because he didn't know what questions he was to be asked. But his love for content control has deeper roots. In 2009, Modi launched a well-known, highly effective PR campaign that successfully whitewashed his image, transforming him from Massacre Minister into Development Guru. APCO Worldwide, who Modi hired for approximately $25,000 a month, stressed Modi's track record of growth in his state of Gujarat and created a global "Friends of Gujarat" circle, forging favorable alliances worldwide, especially in the business community.
In India today, Modi has at his behest a pliable media industry that is willing to silence dissent in return for a generous fee. Together, the two make for a uniquely dangerous threat to democracy.
India ranked 140th in the World Press Freedom Index in 2013, its lowest rating since 2002. That is absolutely shameful for the world's largest democracy. The Indian media industry is in a state of crisis after a series of recent scandals. "Paid news," as it is known within the country, is a pervasive problem. News outlets now each enter into hundreds of "private treaties" with companies, in which journalists provide the businesses with favorable news reports and complimentary editorials in exchange for shares in the company. In the West, this sort of malpractice raises ethical red flags; in India, it's just a part of doing business. Walls between the sales and editorial sides of newspapers are systematically broken down in favor of profits. The proprietors of the Times of India, the widest-circulated English language daily, see no harm in selling their entire front page of the print edition to the BJP for a Narendra Modi advertisement, as they did on March 19. They have gone on record as saying that they see their main business as advertising, not journalism.
Modi stopped paying APCO Worldwide for its services early in 2013. A series of troubling incidents in the news industry over the past few months highlight the problems that result when a political strongman finds common cause with venal journalists. As a senior BJP leader confided to Open Magazine in 2013: "Modi does not need either the party or PR agencies; television news media is doing the job for us."
Corporate overlords of Indian media outlets today tend to be pro-Modi business magnates. Caravan Magazine devoted its December 2013 cover story to how Network18 (a conglomerate that includes two leading TV channels, Forbes India magazine, and Firstpost.com) has shifted its coverage to the right in the last few months. It mentions a study conducted by the Center for Media Studies, an independent think tank in Delhi, which showed that CNN-IBN gave Modi four times more on-air coverage on average than it gave opposition leader Rahul Gandhi -- a starker difference than at any of the other four channels surveyed. Top Network18 journalists have even taken to Twitter to speak out about the pressure they face within the organization to provide a certain angle in their news.
Open Magazine, known for its trailblazing exposés of corruption within politics and media, quoted several instances of journalists at Network18 receiving instructions from the top on Modi-related coverage. Reporters were ordered to maximize footage of Modi rallies and to minimize anti-Modi coverage. Sadly for Hartosh Singh Bal, political editor at Open, this story was one of the last articles he oversaw at the magazine. He was fired soon after, in November 2013, without explanation -- though Manu Joseph, Open's editor-in-chief, later revealed that the magazine's proprietor had said Bal was "making too many enemies ... political enemies." Bal's replacement at Open is PR Ramesh, who, according to Bal, is "considered close to general secretary of the BJP, Arun Jaitley." Jaitley is known within the BJP as their "bureau chief" for his influence in various media organizations.
He's not the only one. Siddharth Varadarajan, a vocal critic of both the BJP and the Congress, was appointed editor-in-chief of the Hindu, a 135-year-old, family-owned newspaper, in 2011. Less than two years into his tenure, in 2013, he was removed from his position by the board, who said that they were concerned with his "underplaying of Narendra Modi." A frustrated Varadarajan also took to Twitter to lambast media owners for self-censorhip.
Journalists like Varadarajan have gotten the message loud and clear: Criticize Modi if you insist, but you run the risk of losing your job. Or worse. A little over two weeks ago, the caretaker of Varadarajan's apartment in Delhi was beaten up by an unknown group of men, with a warning: "Tell your sahib ["master"] to watch what he says on TV."
The trail of media casualties extends beyond the national level. Thiru Veerapandian, a regional anchor for Sun TV, lost his TV show in 2013 merely for telling voters that they should think before they vote for Modi. Within his own state of Gujarat, Modi has overseen an even more brazen approach to media suppression. Bharat Desai (Times of India editor in Ahmadabad) and a photographer for a local Gujarati newspaper were charged with sedition in 2008 for exposing corruption in the police force. Manoj Shinde, editor of a local evening daily, was also charged with sedition in 2006 for criticizing the Modi government's flood relief efforts.
Though Modi has wisely steered clear of divisive comments about religion during this election campaign, he has a long-standing association with, and support base within, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), a Hindu nationalist right-wing organization known for its fear-mongering tactics. With the rise of the digital age, RSS has taken to cyberbullying, issuing online threats to Modi critics: intellectuals, journalists, and social media activists alike. In a recent case, Penguin India agreed to pulp copies of Wendy Doniger's recent scholarly book The Hindus, at the behest of a small group of right-wing Hindu campaigners who found its content offensive.* Modi's admirers were quick to voice their satisfaction at this victory. Subramanyam Swamy, a vocal BJP leader aptly described by the New Yorker as "a Hindu-nationalist hybrid of Larry Klayman and Glenn Beck," jubilantly tweeted: "Wendy Doniger buckles before the coming Saffron wave." Saffron is the color associated with Hindu nationalism.
A media landscape built on shaky ethical foundations, marked by a crumbling commitment to free speech and murky deal making, is a threat to democracy, regardless of which party is in power. This, combined with the Modi faction's intolerance, and the growing atmosphere of hostility toward those who speak against him, should be a cause for grave concern. Proprietors of news organizations are already risk averse, and today, criticizing Modi comes with great perceived risk. Dissent is crushed before it even has a chance to be tolerated.
Uzra Khan is a freelance journalist in Mumbai.
*Correction, March 24, 2014: Penguin India agreed to withdraw The Hindus from India and pulp all remaining copies. This article originally misstated that it agreed to publish the book. (Return to reading.)