Readers of the Indian Express were in for something of a surprise on Thursday morning. In the Mumbai edition, most of the available space on Page 1 – an advertisment for a film titled “Dongri Ka Raja” squatted upon the bottom half of the broadsheet – had been devoted to the thoughts of the chief guest of Indian Express’ Ramnath Goenka journalism awards.
The chief guest, Narendra Modi, is also of course Prime Minister of India, so it could be argued - even if tenuously - that his speech was the most important thing that happened in India on Wednesday.
The Indian Express recorded Modi’s thoughts faithfully. As you might have noticed, even as prime minister, Modi’s oratorical success relies on rousing the emotions of his immediate audience. The examples he uses and the allusions he makes are inevitably tailored to the occasion. Sometimes he seems blithely unaware that his words will be reported in every national newspaper, on the Web and broadcast television. Either this is naivety or deep political skill. I think the latter.
For instance, when he spoke at the BJP National Council meeting in Kerala, he proffered the classic – and classically offensive – Hindutva trope of “uplifting” the trodden down Muslims by “purifying” them. He must have known his words would be picked over by analysts and scholars. But he knew also that his job at that meeting was to energise the cadre, to invigorate those who have silently served so that he may rule. A reminder, via Deendayal Upadhyaya, of relative positions on the purity hierarchy—that can work wonders.
In much the same way, the meat of Wednesday night’s speech to the extended Express fraternity dealt with Ramnath Goenka and the Indian Express. There was none of the anger he sometimes directs at the media and journalists. He applauded Goenka’s attitude during the Emergency, fighting for democratic values when near everyone else was pliant, and sacrificing his close relationship with the Gandhi family in the process. Yet it was this reference to the Emergency that must have been most troublesome to regular readers of the Express.
You see, Modi’s speech was certainly not the most important thing that happened in India on Wednesday. That would be Delhi Police’s detainment of Modi’s two biggest political rivals, Arvind Kejriwal and Rahul Gandhi. In the evening, just to show us that he definitely didn't approve of the Emergency, an inter-ministerial committee of the Union Ministry of Information & Broadcasting announced that NDTV India would be taken off air for a day, because of its coverage following the Pathankot attacks.
The sight of politicians entrapped by people in uniform is so unusual in India that through Wednesday, social media was rife with accusations that we had once again returned to the Emergency. Such exaggeration is typical to Twitter now. This time it was the standard bearers of the Congress and Aam Aadmi Party who were doing the truth-stretching. Yet, it was immediately apparent that the images of a forlorn Rahul Gandhi in the grips of Delhi Police would evoke sympathy where previously he had only inspired derision.
This is why it must have seemed to regular readers that both Modi and the Express had shot themselves in the foot yesterday. Modi by discussing the Emergency. Express by making the sitting prime minister chief guest at the nation’s best-regarded journalism awards. And then by accepting without interrogation his moralising comments, even as a grave overreach of power was perpetrated that very day.
In the two-and-some years of this government, no English-language newspaper has been as diligent as the Indian Express in identifying and exposing the missteps and malfeasances of the government and members of the Sangh Parivar. Even as every big media house has cosied up to power, Indian Express has been steadfast. On Wednesday, The Caravan reported that senior journalists at Express were very uncomfortable with having Modi as their guest.
In his vote of thanks, Express chief editor Raj Kamal Jha argued that Modi’s presence at the event signalled that those winning the awards that night were, in fact, the real journalists. He criticised the “selfie” journalists who have – physically or figuratively – clamoured around Narendra Modi since his appointment. If you run through the list of awardees, it’s clear he has a point. Each journalist had produced remarkable stories and deepened our understanding of this difficult time in India.
On Thursday morning, my favourite bit of Express’ page 1, apart from the advertisments for rajas from Dongri or otherwise, was the lead photograph in the newspaper. Two dozen or so of India’s finest journalists grouped around the Prime Minister.
Forget the rush and gush of selfie-taking. There was hardly a smile between them.