Up in the sky, it’s a bird, it’s a plane, it’s Superman. Actually, it’s a “satellite” (Zee News, India Today), a “missile” (Times Now, NDTV 24×7, WION) and a “white streak in the sky” (India TV) culminating in a “great ball of fire” (Zee News, India Today) as India conducted a “space surgical strike” (India TV) to blow up a LEO (low earth orbit satellite) that Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced Wednesday.
Looked at differently, these representative videos and graphics of “Mission Shakti”, launched Prime Minister Modi into another stratosphere of election campaign —a Republic TV anchor lauded his “political will” to “show military might”. Or as “defence expert”—there are so many of them around on TV these days – R.P. Singh said: “What Modi has done, no one has done.”
Why was the missile tested now? Why did PM Modi have to make the announcement? Modi neither said nor did the TV news channels ask. It didn’t matter – TV news was either busy celebrating or trying to understand the exact nature and implication of the achievement. “It is a big deal,” explained Pallava Bagla, science editor with NDTV, “it is a very important demonstration of weaponisation of space capability.”
That may be, but to the ordinary eye, the TV narrative of ‘India declares war on space’ was simply a continuation of the IAF Balakot airstrikes—all those flying machines zipping in and out of the screen bore a striking resemblance to the fighter jets we saw just the other day.
So was the chest thumping: “India is ready for space warfare” (Republic TV) with its “space weapons” – “our satellite killer” is ready (India Today) and the “world [is] watching amazed” (News X). That led to the customary political war games that broke out immediately following Modi’s “masterstroke” (CNN News18). Even as Zee News wondered if ‘Jai Kisan, Jai Jawan and Jai Vigyan’ would be the BJP’s latest poll weapon—could it replace ‘Main Chowkidar Hoon’— Congress president Rahul Gandhi fired his first salvo: he complimented the DRDO and wished the PM ‘happy world theatre day’.
Union Minister Arun Jaitley came out all guns blazing at a press conference where he congratulated the “visionary PM” and attacked the “clerical” opposition.
Meanwhile, India Today reported that the CPM complained to the Election Commission that Modi’s live broadcast was a “clear violation” of the model code of conduct.
The saga will continue but for a day, this space odyssey of ‘Bharat Mazboot’— as the PM called it – certainly changed the media message.
In fact, the PM could have announced virtually anything and it would have had the same impact. With one tweet, Wednesday morning, saying he would address the nation, the PM took over the news cycle for much of the day and diverted the course of the narrative.
For two days, the media had been consumed with news and views on Congress’s minimum income guarantee scheme. In one fell swoop, PM Modi eliminated NYAY from the headlines and replaced it with Modi’s Star Wars.
TV news coverage of his address, before he delivered it, also said a lot about the news channels: they can always conjure up something out of nothing. No one knew what “the important message” from the PM would contain in the “unprecedented” broadcast (India Today). “Is it a decision? A piece of information?” wondered Republic TV’s anchor.
Perhaps it’s about the capture of “a terrorist mastermind”, said the Times Now anchor, almost wistful.
“There’s heavy firing along the LoC,” warned Republic TV.
“Join the dots,” advised India Today’s Gaurav Sawant in a most superior voice, “It has to be security related…I am speculating.”
Bhupendra Chaubey’s speculation led him further astray: “I think it’s the economy,” he predicted (CNN News18).
And when anchor Rahul Shiv Shankar claimed on Times Now, “It is related to external affairs,” he didn’t realise how close he was to the truth. He then added the most important point about the TV address: “It could have an impact on the elections, on the discourse…”
India Today’s Ankit Tyagi agreed: “(this) is aimed at the elections… (it gives Modi) a massive advantage.”
And so, the speculation, like the suspense, continued for a good hour before PM Modi revealed something none had imagined in their wildest speculations.
But then, more often than not, speculation on TV news is dubious.
Here’s an example – the on-off Congress-AAP alliance in Delhi. Last week, NDTV 24×7 had sealed the deal. It never happened. Tuesday morning, News X announced with fanfare: “Alliance done in Delhi” and “Congress 3 seats, AAP 4”. India News also said the “deal was through”. India Today “accesses inside details—seat sharing is being worked out—4: 3 formula”. Times Now agreed, adding that “Rahul to take final call”. Where Times Now goes, Republic is sure to follow—and vice versa—so it ran a headline, “Cong-AAP alliance?”
Soon after 3 pm, Congress Delhi chief Sheila Dikshit held a press conference where she praised the NYAY scheme. There was no mention of an alliance.
That put News X in two minds: it said the alliance was “likely”, however, sources said the deal was “sealed”.
On TV’s news cycle, they go round and round in circles.