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Commentary: Why is the mainstream media shying away from taking PM Modi’s name over covid mayhem?

The international media has put the prime minister on the front page, holding him responsible for the ongoing health catastrophe. But the Indian media, both newspapers and news channels, still haven’t shown any courage and are instead blaming everything on the ‘system’

The cover of this week’s Outlook magazine says it all. Despite the “repeated calls for help” from the citizens of India amid the mayhem caused by the second Covid wave, followed by the country’s supreme leaders prioritising election rallies over anything else, one of India’s most respected magazines, in a bizarre manner, has blamed it all on the Government of India. But the Government, which the magazine has reported as ‘MISSING’ in the headline, is a non-living thing and very much present. The magazine still could not name the Supreme leader, though.

Outlook is just an example of media houses following a clear cut and one-line instruction — you can name anyone except Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Home Minister Amit Shah in a negative headline.

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Indian media has seemingly out-smarted the instruction by blaming it all on a non-living thing called the Government or System. Perhaps, they have found a safe passage in the Constitution, which says a company is an individual.

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Handling pressure from the ruling dispensation is something media houses across the globe have learnt to navigate over the years. At times, the media houses toe their government’s line. But on issues related to national disasters and security, the media has always been very vocal about the handling of a crisis by the government of the day.

Donald Trump's shoddy handling of the Covid crisis in 2020 was widely reported by the US media and the responsibility of people dying because of the systematic failure was put on Trump. Similar was the case in the UK when Boris Johnson’s government wasn’t performing as per expectations while dealing with the Covid situation. 

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However, one wonders why the Indian mainstream media has failed to hold Indian Prime Minister Modi accountable for the horror the country is going through. And this means only asking the right questions to the PM about his callous handling of the situation at least on two counts — leading election rallies and allowing Kumbh Mela to continue even as the pandemic was spreading faster than forest fire.

During the first wave of Covid last year, Prime Minister Modi and Home Minister Shah were seen handling the system with iron hands, which is precisely the right way to make the Indian system or bureaucracy work. But when Covid was penetrating deep into the country in its second wave last month, both leaders were equally busy—not in managing the situation but in elections.

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Even though the Indian Express in one instance had asked Shah in an interview about the election rallies despite the threat from the pandemic, there was no combined and escalated pressure from all media houses in order to force the duo to shift focus to Covid management work rather than holding rallies.

In India, we have often seen the media being under extreme duress from the ruling dispensation, be it any government. But this was the media’s moment to rise, to show the present government a mirror. Instead, what we see is the media blaming the system and not those running it. The international media has been vocal about Modi’s lacklustre handling of the crisis. But no Indian paper or magazine has put it on their front page, asking ‘why didn’t the leaders see it coming?’, or even when they did, ‘why was there no war level response?’

If the Indian leadership has failed the people, the media has failed the people even more. There were a few instances when the media or a few individual journalists were seen pointing fingers at the government but that would be a mere tokenism in a crisis like this.

While people have the right to say that there was no harm in being sympathetic to the government, cooperating with it in a crisis and giving it benefit of doubt on many counts — it is evident that the media failed to make the leaders tighten the system stuck in bureaucracy, which was either working in a thick-skinned manner or taking random decisions.

The mainstream media’s silence has made the government much more complacent, hoping that once this wave passes, everyone will forget the suffering. Just like people have forgotten the miseries triggered by demonetisation or the migrant crisis during the first wave of the Covid pandemic.

This time, both the government and the media may be proved wrong because people who have lost their dear ones because of carelessness or oversight are unlikely to forget the mayhem.

Asking the leaders to handle the situation rather than getting overwhelmed with crowds in rallies was not equal to “not supporting” the government or the country. It was not equal to creating any sort of anarchy. It was not equal to trying to unsettle the current dispensation.

Can media still save its face? Yes. By showing some courage, by pinning the responsibility of the 4,000 plus lives lost every day on the leadership instead of “thanking” a chief minister for organising vaccination camps for journalists. Does this mean that this vaccination camp will cost in terms of being soft on the government?

The media has nothing to lose but its future will be at stake if it does not do immediate course correction. Nothing to lose because all the media outlets are already bleeding and may take at least a couple of years to recover to the 2019 levels.

But their revival is at stake if they do not join forces to wake up the government from its slumber even now. This revival is largely dependent on the growth of rural India, which was expected to have more dispensable income on the back of a good monsoon this year. They barely have social media. They rarely have access to oximeters, oxygen concentrators, ventilators and better medical infrastructure. If the bodies of Covid suspects found floating in rivers are any indicator, rural India is in far more danger. If the media does not aggressively help them, their distress will cost the revival of the economy, which will hit media the most.

It’s in national good to fix responsibility and every media outlet has a responsibility towards its viewers and countrymen.

Owning a mistake, apologising for oversight or overconfidence is never a bad idea. Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal did apologise for leaving Delhi after a short stint when he formed the first government and got a thumping majority after that. We Indians are large-hearted people when it comes to forgiveness.

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