Over 67 months, the Narendra Modi government has overtly, covertly and expertly extended the Standard Operating Procedure (SOPs) of the #GujaratModel—freezing government ads; bringing corporate pressure on owners; filing bogus FIRs; trolling, name-calling; denying access and licenses; getting editors replaced; owners changed, etc—to get mainstream media to toe its line and manufacture consent.
Suddenly, it is up against its biggest challenge: Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon, the owner of The Washington Post, and the world’s richest man.
Problem No. 1: Narendra Modi, who allegedly “works” 18 hours a day, has not found time to meet Bezos during his latest visit due to “scheduling issues”.
Problem No. 2: Team Modi’s resident chartered accountant Piyush Goyal did not think Bezos investing $1 billion was a big deal, till some heavy back-pedalling became necessary.
Problem No. 3: BJP’s foreign affairs cell “head” Vijay Chauthaiwale has asked Bezos to inform his “employees in Washington DC” of the dynamism, energy and democracy he has discovered on his India trip.
That last statement by Chauthaiwale may or may not have implied The Washington Post, which is owned by Bezos, not Amazon.
Letting it hang like that may have been a useful escape route for a government which is fast running out of friends and desperately needs investments to create jobs. But BJP spokesman are past masters at putting both their feet in their jalebi-laden mouth.
Chauthaiwale is quoted by The Indian Express as saying that he did have The Washington Post in mind: “While Mr Bezos is so positive about India and its democracy, I want to say that he should give the same message to his people at The Washington Post. I think Washington Post is one-sided and biased against Mr Modiji”.
The BJP man later told Reuters that there was “a lot of problem” with the newspaper’s coverage of India, without giving any specific examples.
“The Washington Post editorial policy is highly biased and agenda driven.”
The Calcutta newspaper The Telegraph has the Bezos-Chauthaiwale tangle on page one. And the Hyderabad daily Deccan Chronicle has an editorial on the topic (below) in which it speculates that the snub to Bezos was “a reaction to the editorial stand by the Washington Post“.
Despite the initial apprehensions when Jeff Bezos bought it, The Washington Post is a vastly improved product today. Under Marty Baron, the Post has rediscovered its smarts. It is talked about and winning awards again.
Its India correspondent Niha Masih, formerly of NDTV, has done superb ground reporting from across the country.
When Modi won a second term in May 2019, “India’s dangerous slide” was the Post headline. It called Modi’s revocation of Article 370 in Kashmir a “dark moment”.
It has taken potshots at Modi being conferred the ‘Global Goalkeeper’ award by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
And it recently said that trying to crush the opposition to the Citizenship Amendment Act would only serve to undermine India’s democracy.
All this seems to have got under the skin of the Modi government, but it’s also possible that Modi’s petulance with Bezos could well have to do with the appointment four months ago of Rana Ayyub as a “global opinions writer”.
Former Tehelka journalist Ayyub is the author of the Gujarat Files, a self-published book based on undercover interviews with the key players of 2002. It has been translated around the world in several languages.
Obviously, it shows the latter-day Chanakya and Chandragupta Maurya in their administrative glory.
As Post columnist Ayyub has done some searing pieces. “India’s protests against the citizenship bill could be a tipping point against authoritarianism,” read the headline of a recent piece.
She also sneaked in Dexter Filkins of The New Yorker into Kashmir, who published a 16,000-word essay titled “Blood and soil in India“, the headline drawing its inspiration from the Nazi nationalist slogan “Blut und Boden”.
Rana Ayyub on the Post payroll, along with former pet-hate Barkha Dutt, may have set off the red flags atop Raisina Hill.
Then again, all this may just be pure dhandha.
Mukesh Ambani‘s Reliance has plans to go the Amazon way and Modi not meeting Bezos may just be a soft nod to the Gujarati businessman who happily used Modi as the brand ambassador to launch his telecom service, Jio.
Or, it could be the baniya brigade, which has been keeping up a steady clamour against deep discounting by Amazon and Flipkart. The issue is now before the Competition Commission of India and various ministers have made comforting noises.
But for all the hoo-ha businessmen know which side of the bread is buttered. With the GDP tanking, joblessness at a 45-year high, investments dying, and things not looking up, Piyush Goyal’s sophistry has been met with disapproval by the corporates.
Ill-treating Amazon will also not go down well with the media, which benefits hugely from its advertising at a time when retail advertising is declining even for the biggest players, the economy is not looking up and Acche Din sounds like a joke.
Last time, the Modi government tried to change the rules for Amazon & Co, there was criticism in unison. And, while Piyush Goyal made light of Bezos’ $1 billion investment with the promise of one million jobs, The Economic Times squarely backed Jeff Bezos.
What the Modi government wants The Washington Post to do is not difficult to guess, but it is difficult to imagine Jeff Bezos getting on the phone to tell his editor he has been sacked? Or, ask him to tone down editorial criticism; to drop a columnist or two? Or, to announce that he has sold the paper to Dainik Jagran.
After all, the executive editor of the Post is Marty Baron, the “hero” of the Oscar-winning movie Spotlight. And he does not look after the opinion pages: Fred Hiatt does.
Last year, Baron said that in six years of Jeff Bezos’s ownership, he had not experienced editorial interference.
Then again, Marty Baron is 66, and the word is he might retire this year or next.
The Washington Post, like The New York Times, has bravely taken on Donald Trump. One of its staffers keeps a roster of the lies of the President. But America has the First Amendment, the institutions and a collective conscience that values media freedom.
In India, Jeff Bezos may have put his hand in a very rotten dabba of dhokla.
For the record, the buzz is that Modi also did not find time for Arthur G. Sulzberger, the publisher of the New York Times, and Stephen Dunbar, its president, when they came visiting in November 2019.
Screenshots: courtesy The Telegraph, The Indian Express, The Economic Times