Narendra Modi, BJP's prime ministerial candidate, remains one of the country's most polarising figures. His supporters love his strong, decisive hand and his track record of delivering growth in Gujarat as CM after a decade of stagnation and inefficiency under the Congress-led government. His detractors abhor him for the massacre of thousands of Muslims that occurred under his watch during the Gujarat riots of 2002.
With the election knocking at the door, question arises: Do the pros of electing him outweigh the cons?
Modi has some common traits with 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 by subverting the very democracy that created them.
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 is well known. In 2009, Modi launched a 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.
Indian media is highly compromised today. India ranked 140th in the World Press Freedom Index in 2013, its lowest rating since 2002. "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.
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 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.
But Modi has even a stronger media at his service now. Modi stopped paying APCO Worldwide for its services early in 2013. "Modi does not need either the party or PR agencies; television news media is doing the job for us," recently said a senior BJP leader.
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 to Rahul Gandhi.
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. Sadly for Hartosh Singh Bal, political editor at Open, this story was one of the last articles he oversaw at the magazine.
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 in 2011. Less than two years into his tenure, in 2013, he was removed from his position by the board saying that he was underplaying Narendra Modi. Journalists like Varadarajan have gotten the message loud and clear: Criticize Modi if you insist, but you risk losing your job.
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.