Sonali Kolhatkar


(A person with a mask of now-Prime Minister Narendra Modi tied to his head takes part in an April 2014 rally in Varanasi, India, in support of Modi’s candidacy. Photo by Shutterstock not reproduced)


Palagummi Sainath, or P. Sainath, as he prefers to be called, is India’s most decorated journalist. In addition to the World Media Summit award that he just won, he is the recipient of many prizes, including the prestigious Ramon Magsaysay award for his work covering India’s poor and rural areas. What sets Sainath apart from most Indian journalists is that he has steadfastly covered the country’s most dispossessed communities and has refused to participate in a rapidly Westernized media landscape that puts profits over integrity.


I met the distinguished 57-year-old journalist in Los Angeles recently during one of his rare visits. On a personal note, this was a momentous occasion for me, as Sainath knew well my own grandfather, S.Y. Kolhatkar, a prominent activist in India’s independence movement who was once the head of a major journalists trade union. Sainath would have been an extraordinarily young man when he knew my grandfather—a testament to the long career he has had.


In an interview on Uprising, Sainath told me that, sadly, most American views on India are reflected by the likes of Thomas Friedman who see India as an economic success story. In reality the economic reforms that successive governments have undertaken over the last few decades have, according to Sainath, meant that “inequality has grown faster than anything else in Indian society.” To be sure, a handful of Indians have become spectacularly wealthy, as this Forbes list of the 100 richest Indians documents. Sainath contends that the 100 Indians are worth the equivalent of 10 to 12 percent of India’s GDP, in a country of 1.25 billion people.


While India ranks sixth worldwide in the number of billionaires, it is in an embarrassing 135th place out of 187 on the United Nations Human Development Index. “So yes,” Sainath admitted, “at one end of the spectrum you have this fantastic success—[but] I would not call it an achievement.”


India began liberalizing its economy in the early 1990s. As this government agency website explains, starting in 1991 India shifted “to a more open economy with greater reliance upon market forces, a larger role for the private sector including foreign investment, and a restructuring of the role of Government.” Consequently, “[t]he reforms have unlocked India’s enormous growth potential and unleashed powerful entrepreneurial forces. Since 1991, successive governments, across political parties, have successfully carried forward the country’s economic reform agenda.”


The crucial point in India’s recent elections, missed by most analysts, was that the newly elected Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and Prime Minister Narendra Modi represent a smooth economic transition from previous governments. Fears of Modi’s social programs tinged by Hindu fundamentalism are of great concern. But the market fundamentalism adopted by the BJP and its rival Congress Party ought to worry us equally, if not more. The resultant grinding poverty and deep inequality from three decades of economic liberalization constitute India’s greatest dirty secrets. An arguably simplistic comparison to the United States is in order: Republicans and Democrats agree on the basic assumptions of Wall Street supremacy based on the benign morality and overstated innovations of profit-driven corporate entities (there are differences in the margins certainly). On social issues of reproductive rights, religion, gun ownership and homosexuality, they often take opposing positions, giving the appearance of a divide.


According to Sainath, “They [India’s dominant politicians] have a clear social agenda … this is the return of Hindu fundamentalism.” He explained: “The social agenda of BJP is very different from that of the rest of the political spectrum. The moment they’re in power, they’re getting into textbooks, putting in absolutely obscurantist and bizarre nonsense on the agenda for education.” In just one eerie example, earlier this month Subramanian Swamy, a BJP leader, called for the burning of history books that he considered antithetical to Hindu heritage.


But poverty in India has risen so much in recent years that social issues may be slipping under the radar. One marker of extreme inequality is the extent of internal migration from rural to urban areas, which dramatically increased over the past decade. “For the first time in independent India’s history,” Sainath said, “urban areas have added more human beings than rural areas. That’s never happened before. People are moving in the millions to cities and towns in search of jobs that are not there.”


The main reason for the mass migration has been that India’s most important industry—agriculture—on which rural communities depend, has changed dramatically. Having adopted a model that in Sainath’s words is “entirely American” in its shape and form, Indian farmers have been driven to economic dependency and eventually to ruin. This is a model dependent on purchasing large farming equipment, commercial fertilizers and pesticides sold by major corporations such as Monsanto.


Acknowledging that poverty remains a daunting issue impacting India’s poor majority, Prime Minister Modi has made ambitious promises, such as ensuring that every Indian has a bank account in order to undermine unscrupulous money lenders. His plans were summed up in a far-reaching pledge he made to voters at a rally earlier this year: “You give me 60 months and I promise you a life of happiness and peace.”


But Modi has also made promises to the world’s corporate elites. During his recent visit to the U.S. he breakfasted with CEOs of major companies, assuring them that India’s program of market reforms would resume full force despite some hiccups over corruption and protectionism. The question is: The two promises are somewhat mutually exclusive, as history has shown, so to whom will Modi remain true?


Sainath didn’t hesitate, saying that Indians don’t need to wait 60 months to learn whether Modi will make good on his promises. Modi and his BJP colleagues were in power from 1998 to 2004 and “actually succeeded in causing incredible damage in 60 months, which is why they were wiped out in the 2004 elections,” Sainath said.


So why does it seem as though Indians have not seen through the facade? First, Modi has less of a mandate than the media has let on. Sainath explained, “What the BJP has achieved is a decisive electoral victory, [but] there is no great faith or mandate when seven out of 10 Indians have voted against you. This is the first time in India’s history that a political party has achieved a majority in Parliament with 31 percent of the vote.”


In 2005 a controversy erupted in the U.S. over prepackaged TV news segments based on “video news releases” that public relations firms created and provided to news outlets for broadcast. The practice, when exposed, was referred to by some as “journalism for sale.” Similarly, in a story that Sainath himself broke, Indian news media in recent years were found to be publishing pieces paid for by candidates. He called it the pay-to-print scandal.


Such a concept is familiar to us in the United States, where a presidential candidate can win an election while losing the popular vote. In fact, despite India’s different political system, its latest election, according to Sainath, “was conducted like an American-style presidential election and not in the form of a parliamentary democracy.”


Second, the media have fawned over Modi to such an embarrassing extent that Sainath calls them “sycophantic.” Indeed, the cult of personality built up around Modi verges on the absurd. A news anchor who covered Modi’s win gushed, “Narendra Modi has not only won the elections; he has won the nation’s heart.”


There was a time just a few decades ago when the only broadcast medium of note in India was the state-funded Doordarshan channel. Today, a dizzying array of cable TV and other broadcast channels provide 24-hour news coverage in a manner that is unsurprisingly similar to the U.S. corporate media model. In fact, Indian cable TV may have surpassed American TV with sensationalism bordering on hysteria, busy graphics that overload the senses and an overabundance of commercials.


Sainath commented that “the level of corporate concentration of ownership is exponentially greater than it was 10 years ago.” In fact, the third richest man in the world, an Indian named Mukesh Ambani, is believed to own most of India’s media institutions, Sainath said. “He owns more media than he knows.” The Australian media magnate most familiar to Americans, Rupert Murdoch, is also among the top media owners in India. So it is not surprising that Indian media have suffered from some of the same problems as U.S. media.


When I asked Sainath whether Indian social movements were capable of recalibrating national institutions, but he replied cynically, telling me, “I think those movements are pretty much on the back foot because they are usually fragmented. There are a 1,000 or 10,000 battles locally in different parts of the country,” that overwhelm them.


The world’s second most populous nation can choose many other paths toward democracy, freedom and justice. For now, India continues to follow U.S. models on many fronts, from the economy to elections to the media. But it does so at its own peril.


(Supplied by Iraj Beheshti; November 1, 2014)

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