BJP-ruled India has an op-ed shaped global problem. Ever since Prime Minister Narendra Modi came to power in 2014, his domestic critics have found new shores to launch their attacks from. These include The Washington Post, The New York Times, Gulf News, The Guardian, and Foreign Affairs, among others.
The problem has only deepened in the Modi government’s second term wherein the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) and the dilution of Article 370 revoking Jammu and Kashmir’s special status were enacted.
So, why is it that only a certain point of view gets aired in allegedly “liberal” bastions like The New York Times? Or only negative stories about India make it to The Guardian? Why is it that The Washington Post’s standards of proof and fact-checking required for Indian claims of hitting Balakot in Pakistan are never applied in case of its star columnist Rana Ayyub, who has yet to produce a shred of proof for anything she has written so far?
The binding factor
The default choice of the Western liberal media is so pronouncedly anti-Modi government that it is easy to dismiss them as writers of fiction in India. It’s not like the Indian press asks author J.K. Rowling to talk about Britain or Maya Angelou the US economy. But the British and American media do ask Booker awardees Aravinda Adiga and Arundhati Roy to comment on India.
The reasons, as usual, are multi-causal and complex.
The Washington Post, for example, is spoilt for choice. Almost all the think tanks are within a 2-km radius of the newspaper’s K Street headquarters in Washington DC. They can seek out op-eds by Jeff Smith at the Heritage Foundation, Ashley Tellis at Carnegie, Dhruva Jaishankar at Observer Research Foundation (ORF), Sameer Lalwani at Stimson Center, Richard Rossow at Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) – all of whom will be less than a 20-minute walk away. These people are classified as serious experts on topics ranging from the Indian economy to Indian nuclear weapons. Yet, the newspaper’s star interpreter of India is Rana Ayyub. Why?
The answer is simple. Few of those outside the policy circle have heard of Jeff, Ashley, Dhruva, Sameer or Richard. Their precision and nuance are for the technically minded — they can’t and won’t dumb it down to suit the prism of the country club liberals and the enraged masses. Rana Ayyub, on the other hand, will — even the Supreme Court had rejected her book Gujarat Files – Anatomy of a Cover Up, which an NGO seeking further probe into Haren Pandya murder case had relied upon, by saying it was “based upon surmises, conjectures, and suppositions”. But as long as Rana Ayyub can bring the clicks to their site, she’ll always be more valuable than any serious analyst.
The working gang of the foreign press
There’s a reason movies do better than documentaries. The state of journalism is such that no one gets as excited by facts as they do by yarns and sharp, polarising opinions. That’s why digital media needs people like Rana Ayyub and Swati Chaturvedi. Many of them have formidable social media following, which always helps bring web traffic.
One test is to see how many of their articles are published in the print version of the newspapers they write for. The second point is the way publications pick columnists, which isn’t driven by the salience or substance of the authors’ arguments. The dirty secret of the publishing trade is that organisations choose someone they are socially and politically compatible with in this age of hyper partisanship.
If you’re a member of the Italian Cultural Centre or the Foreign Correspondents’ Club in Delhi or if you are just waltzing by Khan Market, you’ll often find the NYT, WaPo, Guardian, WSJ correspondents hanging out there. Invariably, they are influenced by the likes of Rana Ayyub, Arundhati Roy, and Pankaj Mishra. These foreign journalists don’t want answers; they seek validation of their pre-existing views. Much of this has to do with the social dynamics of Delhi where White people slot themselves into a social strata that would be well outside their station back home — not unlike British cockney colonels who suddenly found themselves catapulted to hunting with maharajas in India.
Left’s permanent struggle with narrative
The champagne socialists’ unmistakable feature is that once it crowns you as a legitimate voice, it starts promoting you socially and economically as well. The champagne socialist influencers amplify the ‘Left voice’ by sharing articles written by other like-minded authors, so that the ecosystem continues to flourish. This lobby consists of status quoists who now feel dispossessed by the Modi administration and the only tool to fight back is a full-scale narrative hijack. This is where foreign publications and their op-eds come in, fighting the diplomatic war against India in cahoots with the desi Left.
There are two aspects to this narrative hijack — and none seems to be working for the Indian Left. The first is the global hyper partisanship and the near simultaneous collapse of the centre brought on by social media. Be it the US, the UK or India, social media has essentially taken us back to the Athenian Agora period when Socrates was condemned to drink hemlock. There is no room for nuance or building bridges, and the extreme viewpoint invariably seizes the narrative. The second factor further disturbed the Left’s narrative game — the emergence of leaders such as Donald Trump, Boris Johnson and Narendra Modi on the Right. For these leaders, the more extreme the virtue signalling, the easier the election contest, which I have written about earlier. In a way, The New York Times and The Washington Post are ensuring Modi’s re-elections by such strident content — a classic case of the path to hell being paved with good intentions.
Let’s be clear, though. In this day and age, there is no money for serious research. Falling media revenue means that cheaper opinions will always be prioritised over expensive facts. Here, the yarn spinner always wins. The only one who gets carried away by this drama is the gullible public. Media outlets and their agent provocateurs regard this template as a cash cow, while the targeted politicians love it — the more media outlets publish such voices, the more votes they get. It’s a classic win-win situation that suits everyone.
The author is a senior fellow at the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies. He tweets @iyervval. Views are personal.
This article has been updated to reflect changes about authors who write for foreign media.