India’s media shrugs its shoulders over ‘attack on democracy’

Shougat Dasgupta

 

On Friday, India’s winter parliamentary session will come to an end. For an international audience, such a session would ordinarily be of little interest. Yes, there were a couple of contentious bills on the agenda — mostly to do with “decolonizing” Indian criminal codes that were still largely based on British-era formulations.

But over the last week or so, this parliamentary session has turned into one of the most extraordinary in Indian history. On Monday, December 18, a record 78 members of the opposition in both India’s lower and upper houses of parliament were suspended for the remaining week of the parliamentary session. This was followed on Tuesday by a further 49 suspensions. Added to the 14 who were suspended in the previous week, 141 members of the opposition cannot take part in parliamentary proceedings for the rest of the session.

The lawmakers were suspended for disruptive behavior as they demanded that India’s Home Minister Amit Shah explain a serious lapse in parliamentary security in person. On December 13, two protestors were able to get past security, enter the lower house of parliament and set off two smoke canisters. Shashi Tharoor, an opposition member of parliament and bestselling author, wrote that he heard a “panicky” colleague “screaming ‘poison gas,’” as she ran out of the chamber. Other members rushed to tackle the intruders, while one threw the canister out into the grounds. 

It was over in minutes, Tharoor said. But the fiasco happened on the anniversary of the December 2001 attack on the Indian parliament which resulted in the deaths of nine people, apart from five allegedly Pakistan-sponsored terrorists who were killed in a shootout with security. Eight Delhi police personnel who were on duty at the time of last week’s protest have been suspended. The police report to Shah and national security is the responsibility of his office. “The home minister’s stubborn refusal to attend the House and speak there,” argued Tharoor, “is at the heart of the current dispute.”

India has a total of 788 members of parliament. The governing Bharatiya Janata Party alone accounts for 384 members across both houses, and with its allies has 431 seats. With the suspensions, it now means an already strong government with a clear majority stands virtually unopposed. Parliamentary business, including the passing of bills, is going forward without debate.

With the cooperation of the Modi-friendly media and the vast army of Modi supporters online, including among the Indian diaspora in the West, a narrative is being created that the opposition has made India ungovernable. That it does not take the business of governing seriously, preferring to showily protest rather than vote on new laws in parliament. The coverage that has followed the security breach and the opposition suspensions has fed into this narrative. 

Modi said little publicly about the security failure, except to call for an investigation rather than address the issue in parliament. However, he has reserved his greatest scorn for the opposition, reportedly condemning its “abject theatrics,” referring to the conduct of a suspended member of parliament who mocked India’s vice president, as other opposition MPs laughed and filmed it all on their phones. 

Equal weight is being given by the media to the mockery of the vice president, as to the breach of parliamentary security and the unprecedented suspension of 141 members of parliament. Speaking in Hindi, Tharoor chided a reporter from the Press Trust of India who asked about the members who poked fun at the vice president. “Why are you wasting hours on this trivial affair,” Tharoor asked (in my rough translation) “when there is an ongoing attack on Indian democracy by the government?” 

The official position on the suspension of opposition members of parliament appears to be a huge roll of the eyes, a stance that is being encouraged by media coverage. As a researcher wrote, without discernible irony, in an article published on the website of British-based think tank Chatham House, “While India has become less liberal, governance has arguably improved.” And it gets easier when there’s no opposition. The problem, as BJP member of parliament and Bollywood superstar Hema Malini says, is that the opposition just “asks too many questions.”  

Punch through the noise

As another year prepares for its curtain call, it is tradition to offer some sort of summary of the months gone by. Is there an insight to offer to readers that can bring shape to chaos? Only that trying to control chaos — through assiduous and determined fact-checking, for instance — is a Sisyphean task. Every time you push the boulder close to the top of the hill, down it rolls again, even larger, more swollen with lies, propaganda and distortions. 

So I’m going to defer to my colleague Natalia Antelava, Coda’s editor-in-chief who used to write this newsletter and is currently at Stanford University, tasked, alongside the other 2024 Knight Fellows, with thinking through some of the major, even existential problems that currently confront journalism. In a recent essay, she noted: “I believe we made a terrible mistake when we framed disinformation as a ‘fake news’ problem.” It meant journalists became “reactive, defensive and focused on symptoms, rather than underlying causes of disinformation.” Instead of embracing the Big Tech platforms as allies, Natalia argued, journalists should have been taking aim at a “business model built on monetizing the loudest and most obnoxious voices.” 

Because even as these companies argued that they were making room for new voices, they benefited from the expansion of noise.In that sense, X, Meta and the like are not so much the town square as the town bar. And they’re helping the burly drunks push their way to the front. At least part of Natalia’s work at Stanford will be to figure out how to turn the tables, how to help journalism that is slow-burn and carefully reported “punch through the noise.”

What we’re reading:

This incredibly long piece by former New York Times opinion page editor James Bennet in 1843 magazine about the anger and outrage he faced from colleagues after the decision to publish an op-ed by U.S. Senator Tom Cotton in 2020 in which Cotton called for the National Guard to be deployed to deal with street protests in the wake of the murder of George Floyd by a policeman in Minneapolis. While I don’t necessarily recommend you read all of it, this part deserves to be quoted at length:

“The new newsroom ideology seems idealistic, yet it has grown from cynical roots in academia: from the idea that there is no such thing as objective truth; that there is only narrative, and that therefore whoever controls the narrative — whoever gets to tell the version of the story that the public hears — has the whip hand. What matters, in other words, is not truth and ideas in themselves, but the power to determine both in the public mind.”

This seems to me disingenuous, especially in the context of Cotton’s truth and ideas-free op-ed. And as our experience with disinformation and the manipulation of narrative shows us, truth is a fragile, gossamer thing. Whoever controls the narrative and sets the terms does have the whip hand. This idea only appears to be a cynical position to people who enjoy the privilege, as Bennet once did, of controlling the narrative.

Disinfo Matters looks beyond fake news to examine how the manipulation of narratives and rewriting of history is reshaping our world.

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