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On Tuesday, rumours started to circulate that the Modi government was contemplating making the the Hindi word “Bharat” the country's only name, officially discontinuing the usage of “India”.
The speculation had its origins in the fact that the G20 invitations from President Droupadi Murmu went out from the “President of Bharat”. Adding to the buzz was a source-based story about the renaming by Times Now, a channel seen to be close to the Modi government.
Remarkably, this thin plank was enough to focus the entire media conversation around the idea of changing India’s name. As India’s entire mass media dropped everything from the civil war in Manipur to upcoming byepolls to discuss this subject, conversations ranged from decolonialisation to Hindutva.
Ironically, by the end of the week, the Bharatiya Janata Party itself was trying to calm down the furore it had itself sparked off. On Thursday, several news outlets quoted government sources to say that Prime Minister Narendra Modi had advised his ministers to stay out of the debate.
The incident highlighted one of the most important aspects of the Modi age: the BJP’s ability to whip up a media frenzy out of thin air. In mass politics, this is a powerful weapon – and one to which the Opposition has almost no answer.
The “Bharat versus India” rumours are just one example of this phenomenon. Over the past few months, the news cycle has moved frantically from topic to topic, all orchestrated by the BJP. This included discussions on a Uniform Civil Code, simultaneous elections to the Lok Sabha and state assemblies, the special session of Parliament, a possibly fabricated story of an ornamental staff or sengol gifted by the British to Nehru and the just-concluded G20 summit. In most host nations, the G20 summit is a low-key event. But in India, the Modi government converted it into a palooza, with television news running breathless coverage of the rather bureaucratic affair.
Many of these topics are frivolous. Bharat versus India or the sengol have no relevance to the governance and politics of modern India. But as a previous India Fix has noted, even the media attention on topics that are relevant to politics rarely translates into policy. In the case of the Uniform Civil Code, for instance, after the intense media coverage, senior BJP leaders put out anonymous tips to some media houses that there would be no such policy action in the near future.
In many ways, then, for the BJP. the media frenzy seems to be an end in itself.
What explains this unusual governance style? Part of the answer lies in today’s media environment, where society is suffused with information via television and social media. For the ruling party, swamping this environment with information that seems to favour it seems like good strategy. In calmer times, there would be a risk to carrying false news or promises that could not be executed. But in the contemporary flood of information, this hardly matters. Voters have little time to remember previous news storms before they are hit with the next one.
The other part of the answer is the authoritarian nature of the Modi government, which thrives on this sort of media chaos. Both Russia’s Vladimir Putin and former American president Donald Trump have similar styles. In fact, one sharp Vanity Fair analysis called Trump the “distractor in chief”. “By hijacking headlines and warping the news cycle through sheer gravitational force, Trump is rupturing the journalism landscape, one land-mine tweet at a time,” explained the writer, Mike Mariani. “The effect, it would seem, is to undercut any attempt at vigilant analysis or coherent investigation into his administration.”
Compared to Modi, Trump is, if anything, an amateur at this game. The former US President relied on his skills as a rabble rouser by saying outrageous things on social media to control the news cycle. Modi’s methods of control are far more structural. In India, most of the national media works under a powerful set of informal restrictions instituted by Modi’s BJP. As a result, the ruling party is not only the source of many news cycles, it also controls their distribution.
These are, to say the least, suboptimal conditions for a democracy to work under. The free flow of knowledge is critical for voters to be able to make informed decisions at the ballot box. But in India’s case, large parts of the media are beholden to the government and are pumping out distractions rather than news.
For example, even as the media is fixated on the weekend’s G20 summit in New Delhi, killings continue in Manipur’s civil war and serious allegations have been raised about the Election Commission related to rigging in a Muslim-dominated Assembly byepoll in Tripura. Yet, the media has simply ignored these events, preferring to focus on the pageantry of a summit that is more about diplomatic posturing than any real power play.
With the Opposition’s back against the wall, it has attacked the media and tried to concentrate on social media as a mass broadcast channel. However, social media still cannot match the reach of traditional media. Moreover, the BJP has a vociferous presence on social media too. As a consequence, the Hindutva party’s near-total control of the news cycle continues even as India heads into the 2024 Lok Sabha elections.