When Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited the White House last month, U.S. President Donald Trump took the opportunity to praise India’s media. “You have a friendly press,” Trump said, according to the Hindu newspaper. While the U.S. president is known for his combative interactions with some of America’s journalists — he recently posted a video on Twitter depicting himself body-slamming a person whose head had been digitally replaced by the logo of news network CNN — India’s media has largely endorsed Modi’s economic reforms, his Hindu-nationalist policies and his tough stance on Pakistan.
India’s press has long had a streak of nationalist pride, especially when it comes to tensions with neighbors like Pakistan and China. And there have for years been strong followings for its more shrill commentators.
But with increasingly populist policies in India, as in the U.S., some observers have expressed concern about the potential for a circular loop between the media and Modi that sees him taking an even tougher stance on geopolitics, and swinging further to the right on issues of caste and religion. The risk is that policies playing to Hindu religious sentiments or anti-Pakistan fervor increase as Modi approaches a national election in 2019.
“Media war-mongering could stir the masses and put pressure on the Indian government to take drastic and escalatory action,” said Michael Kugelman, a senior associate for South Asia at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, D.C. “Such a tense and angry media environment could have spillover effects in what is increasingly a tense and polarized society.”
G.V.L. Narasimha Rao, a spokesman for Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party, denied the government was influenced by media stories. He declined to say if the media was becoming more nationalistic, but said there was still a segment of the press that had enjoyed decades of patronage from the rival Congress party.
“It’s a free market,” Rao said. “We have a thriving media. But like politicians have their democratic duties, media have the duty to be unbiased.”
While communal tensions have simmered under prior Congress governments, civil society groups have expressed concern about violence related to caste and religion under the BJP-led administration. One analyst recently found that incidents of mob violence have risen since the BJP took power in 2014. The ruling party has denied that violence has increased.
In recent months, Hindu mobs have beaten Muslims to death on the suspicion they harmed cows — sacred animals in Hindu culture — while others have engaged in vigilantism. There have been clashes between so-called upper caste Hindus and disadvantaged Dalits, formerly known as “Untouchables,” while right-wing groups have attacked student protesters. A spate of violence, including a 16-year-old Muslim killed on a train after he was accused of being a “beef eater,” led to protests across the country on June 28.
“The shrillness of the media discourse certainly impacts politics and we have already seen evidence,” said Milan Vaishnav, a senior fellow for South Asia at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, D.C. “We have seen the effects that Fox News has had on the political discourse in America and the end result is sharper polarization.”
On June 29, Modi condemned the violence, saying killing people in the name of cow worship “is not acceptable.”
In India’s media, few have affected the tenor of the national debate more than Arnab Goswami. He helped pioneer a newly-aggressive style of news anchoring at Times Now and recently launched a new channel called Republic TV.
Goswami regularly yells at guests and turns down their mics to silence them. His new channel has pledged to “unmask human rights lobbies” and recently urged the government to deport a Kashmiri separatist after he tweeted in support of Pakistan’s cricket team.
“We don’t have one inch of space for people like that,” Goswami said on-air during that debate.
Republic TV has ties to Modi’s coalition. It is owned by ARG Outlier Media Asianet News Pvt, which lists Goswami and his wife as directors alongside Rajeev Chandrasekhar, an entrepreneur and lawmaker.
The network has run several critical segments on non-BJP politicians, including on the Congress party’s Shashi Tharoor, who later filed a defamation case, which is ongoing. Goswami did not respond to several requests for an interview.
Chandrasekhar, who has invested in other Indian news channels, declined to comment on Goswami’s politics. “Every one of our media brands follows its own independent editorial line,” he said in an interview in his Delhi office.
While there is a liberal press that criticizes Modi’s policies, a government minister helped popularize the term “Presstitutes”,and on June 19 a BJP spokeswoman recently filed a criminal case against a critical journalist for a tweet.
Sparring with an NDTV news anchor in early June, a spokesman for the BJP accused NDTV of having “an agenda.” Just days after, the Central Bureau of Investigation raided NDTV’s offices and the New Delhi home of the channel’s founder. CBI spokesman R.K. Gaur said by email the agency was investigating a “criminal conspiracy” that resulted in a “wrongful loss” at ICICI Bank, a private company. NDTV said the raid was over a loan that was repaid years ago, and called the CBI probe part of a “witch-hunt against independent media.”
Gaur said the CBI raid was not related to the channel’s editorial content. Rao, the BJP spokesman, said he would not comment on individual outlets or journalists, but that “some media is unfairly critical, and we will certainly point that out.”
Modi himself appears to be no fan of the traditional media. He rarely grants interviews, preferring to communicate through Twitter and the radio show he hosts on the state broadcaster. Analyst Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay, who wrote a biography of Modi, said the prime minister actually has very little to fear.
“Media definitely is much more jingoistic now and much more attuned to Modi and the BJP than ever in the past,” he said.