The COVID-19 disaster unfolding in India is being meticulously documented by Indian journalists, who are keeping the government accountable. After seven years of Modi, this is a startling departure from the standard for India’s largely obedient media. It’s still a little late. The front page of the country’s largest-selling newspaper, the Hindi-language Dainik Bhaskar, on April 15 featured a night-time shot of a crematorium in the city of Bhopal, sprinkled with the ghoulish orange glow of pyres. The banner headline read, “The government’s data is bogus, but the pyres speak the facts.”
On April 12, the city of Ahmedabad in Gujarat, Prime Minister Narendra Modi‘s home state, declared 20 COVID-19 deaths. According to the local newspaper Sandesh, 63 people died from the virus that day in only one city hospital. Bhopal officially confirmed four COVID-19 deaths on that day. However, the paper discovered that 112 COVID-19 victims had been buried at the city’s three crematoriums. Newspapers, tv stations, and internet news outlets have all drawn attention to similar under-reporting in other regions of the world.
Many Hindi and English-language news networks, as well as regional news sources, are vehemently pro-Modi. They also consistently inflated the government’s victories and either glossed over its shortcomings or found ways to blame them on Modi’s discontents: the opposition, liberals, Muslims, activists, socialists, demonstrators, non-governmental organisations, and other various “anti-nationals.” Modi’s ascension to national power in 2014 marked the beginning of the taming of India’s newspapers. His rise coincided with a reshaping of the editorial leadership of some of India’s major news organisations, especially national-level television networks.
Democratic regimes around the world crave media validation, and their spin doctors work hard to get positive headlines. In India, Modi has made it clear that, with a few notable exceptions, it is the media that seeks the government’s permission. Any news show is a battle for ratings as well as winning the master’s affections for a dominant segment of the network, derisively dubbed “godi media” (Hindi for “lapdog media”).
Because of their large state and party advertising budgets, India’s federal and provincial governments hold immense control over media companies. In the 2019-2020 fiscal year, the federal government alone spent almost $270,000 on ads every day. Access to authority and business favours are additional incentives to remain on message. Modi has used these levers to turn some of India’s biggest names in the news industry from barking watchdogs to obedient poodles. Today, India ranks 142nd out of 180 countries in the World Press Freedom Index, trailing military-ruled Myanmar (140) and Thailand (140). (137).
Adding to Modi’s theory about the pandemic-
Cheerleading for Modi’s every move is as popular as misinformation. Whatever the prime minister does is a “masterstroke.” So it has been with the response to the pandemic. The first COVID-19 case in India was confirmed in January of last year, but his government ignored the opposition’s warnings about the impending catastrophe until March. “There’s no need to panic,” the country’s health minister tweeted on Mar. 5, 2020. “India DOES have a robust healthcare system which is being appreciated globally.”
Modi’s propaganda about India’s vaccine leadership was also reinforced by the media. One of the two “Indian” vaccines is indigenous, but the major one, the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine, is as Indian as a Mercedes-Benz is Chinese it is manufactured in India under an outsourcing contract. Vaccines produced by two Indian firms were sent abroad either as part of a negotiated global scheme of equitable vaccine distribution or as commercial exports, with the exception of a small amount of Indian handouts. And there was enough to export because Modi wasn’t buying anything for himself.
Modi did not assist the two Indian companies in scaling up production to meet India’s needs, nor did he allow international vaccines in, as this would contradict his India vaccine tale. Vaccines are currently in short supply, and vaccination rates are dismally poor. If the media had demanded to know what he was doing to vaccinate his citizens, rather than talking about it, India would have been able to deal with the second surge more effectively.
Major parts of the Indian media have abdicated their oversight duty at every stage of the COVID-19 saga over the last year. They refused to challenge Modi, allowing him to use a national tragedy to boost his image, consolidate power, stifle opposition, and pass off grandstanding as governance. They, like Modi, let India down when it needed them the most.