The Income Tax ‘survey’ at the BBC’s offices in Mumbai and Delhi has led to some heated debate. The positions are broadly predictable. The opposition sees it as an attempt to punish the BBC for broadcasting the documentary, India: The Modi Question, on the Gujarat riots. Jairam Ramesh of the Congress said the government was “hounding the BBC”. Samajwadi Party leader Akhilesh Yadav accused the government of standing for fear and oppression. And press bodies such as the Editors Guild of India and the Press Club of India also issued statements condemning the action.
The Narendra Modi government has offered a two-pronged response. Journalists were sent a press note with a lengthy list of accusations against the BBC and the media was asked to attribute these serious charges to ‘sources’. No government department or official was willing to be named.
BJP spokespersons and supporters were more upfront. Gaurav Bhatia, an official spokesman for the party, called the BBC “the most corrupt corporation in the world”. And on social media, pro-BJP handles directed abuse at the BBC accusing it of a colonial mindset, of having no respect for the truth and more.
Where you stand on this debate probably has more to do with your political views than it does with the facts of the case. So I won’t waste time going into the accusations against the BBC, especially as no specific charges have been levelled to date by any responsible body.
By now we know that the Modi government prefers to level charges of financial impropriety against media organisations that it regards as hostile instead of focusing on the content of the reporting. We don’t know how valid these charges are because the inquiries are ongoing and, as far as I can tell, nobody has been convicted on any of the charges yet.
It might sound cynical but the truth is that this approach has been largely effective. It may not silence the government’s most die-hard critics but much of the domestic media now prefers to tread very carefully.
But, here’s what I can’t work out: when it comes to foreign media and the BBC, what is the end game?
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Somebody in the government must have ordered the ‘survey’ and the seizure of laptops and phones belonging to BBC staffers. Whoever did this could have acted for one of three reasons.
One: there really is a case for the BBC to answer which warranted the sudden action.
Two: there is so much anger in the BJP over the BBC documentary on the Gujarat riots that the action was retaliation, pure and simple.
And three: since the government has had some success in cowing down the domestic press, it believes that the same approach will work with the foreign media as well.
Let’s consider the first option. If the government has hard evidence of tax evasion by the BBC, it should say so. Reports attributed to ‘sources’ and planted in the media are not enough. And judging by the fury directed against the BBC — “the most corrupt corporation in the world” — this is not just a simple investigation.
The second option is understandable, if misguided. Perhaps many people in the Modi government do have reason to be angry with the BBC. But are they really punishing it by ordering a tax ‘survey’?
The BBC is not a single monolith. The people who sit in the Mumbai office, for instance, have nothing to do with the Gujarat documentary. If you hassle them it may make you feel better for a couple of days but it makes no difference to the people who made the documentary. Or to others in London who will continue to report unfavourably on developments in India.
But it is the third option that is the most concerning. No government anywhere in the world has been able to successfully bully, intimidate or frighten global media. God knows enough governments have tried and failed. Retributive action only deepens the perception that something is very wrong and the government doesn’t want it reported. On 12 February, the Editorial Board of The New York Times wrote that the Indian government’s “actions to suppress freedom of the press are undermining India’s proud status as the world’s largest democracy”.
Does anybody in the Modi government believe that by hassling the BBC, such criticism will disappear? That what works at home will work with foreign media too? Or that global media will think twice before posting negative reports about India?
In fact, it will only get worse now.
This is why it is so hard to make out what the government’s end game is. We have been in this situation before. In 1971, Indira Gandhi threw the BBC out over documentaries that she believed showed India in a poor light. The BBC was allowed back later when Gandhi realised that the expulsion had achieved nothing.
During the Emergency, several foreign journalists were expelled and much abuse (similar to what we are hearing now) was hurled at the global media by the government and its cheerleaders.
But when Indira Gandhi returned to power in the 1980s, she abandoned her earlier hostility and gave interviews to the foreign press recognising that her petulance, sulks, shrill rhetoric and punitive action had made no difference. In fact, they had probably made things worse for her.
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India as a global superpower
India is in a better position today than it was in 1980. We are a huge market. We are a major global player which (as the Ukraine conflict demonstrates) is courted by both Russia and the US but makes its own decisions in its own interests. The Prime Minister has the friendship of major world leaders who seek him out at global gatherings.
So, even if global media attacks the government it will not make much difference to how India is treated on the world stage. Perhaps this makes the government more confident in pushing the foreign press around.
But you could also look at this differently: if Modi has the confidence of world leaders, why does he care about a little-watched documentary that his government has anyway banned? When his followers focus excessively on it, they give it more importance than it would otherwise get.
The Income Tax investigations against the BBC have brought that documentary back into the headlines.
Has that helped the government or harmed it? Wouldn’t the documentary have been forgotten by now if the BJP had not made such a fuss?
Of course, the government has the right to investigate the BBC if it feels that the corporation has a case to answer to. And it has a right to feel aggrieved by all the press it has received in recent months.
But is this the right way to proceed? There seems to be no scenario in which this ends with any kind of triumph for the BJP or for the government. And there seem to be many scenarios where this leads to more criticism and more problems.
So forget, for a moment, the domestic political battle currently raging with its rhetoric about ‘colonial mindset’ vs ‘fascist regime’ and ask a simple and pragmatic question: how can this approach ever work to the advantage of the government?
For the life of me, I can’t figure that one out.
Vir Sanghvi is a print and television journalist, and talk show host. He tweets @virsanghvi. Views are personal.
(Edited by Theres Sudeep)