The fact that my first anniversary column as a Readers’ Editor coincides with the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) official declaration of Mr. Narendra Modi as its prime ministerial candidate gives room to reflect on the role of this newspaper, its engaged readers and the institution of the readers’ editor for a range of reasons.
First, Mr. Modi is a polarising figure — he commands either total admiration or total fear and revulsion. Second, both his supporters and his detractors are vocal and write letters to my office. Almost every news item or opinion piece that appears in this paper dealing with Mr. Modi gets comments that are often contradicting each other, but all backed by strong emotions.
Third, there seems to be a wide gap in the perception about how the 2014 election is going to be played out. Mr. Modi’s supporters expect a straight fight between him and Mr. Rahul Gandhi, similar to the U.S. presidential elections. But, a substantial section of readers realise that the election is for 543 different constituencies, and the electoral issues — some may be common across the nation — may widely differ from State to State. The formation of the next government will depend more on arithmetic, aggregating the State tallies, rather than the charisma of a single individual.
In this context, how do I, as the Readers’ Editor, look at some of the complaints from the supporters of Mr. Modi who take offence when The Hindu is critical of his political philosophy and practices? Do I permit my own political beliefs to colour my judgment? Is there a guiding principle behind my approach to complaints from the readers? I try my best to keep my opinions to myself. I look at every complaint with an open mind. My assessments draw from two public documents — the terms of reference for the Readers’ Editor and the newspaper’s code of editorial values. I also derive from the wisdom of academics who have spent their lifetime exploring the principles of journalism, democracy and justice.
In my reading, The Hindu, in its news coverage gives a complete picture of what is happening within the BJP regarding anointing Mr. Modi, including its senior leader Mr. Lal Krishna Advani’s reservation about Mr. Modi’s ability to carry a diverse group with him. In its opinion pages, the newspaper helps to contextualise and provide a variety of opinions, and some of them are critical of Mr. Modi. These are not just opinions but are backed by facts and figures. So far, nobody has been able to find factual mistakes in what was carried. If there is any misrepresentation of facts, the newspaper will not hesitate to acknowledge and rectify it.
The Hindu has not denied the fact that Mr. Modi is an important figure in the forthcoming election. But, it did not endorse him. Neither has it endorsed anyone else. This distance from competitive politics is a virtue. To refrain from joining partisan politics but to inform people of what is happening with partisan politics is good journalism.
On what basis do I form this opinion? I draw from philosopher John Rawls. In his captivating book, The Theory of Justice, he talks about tolerating the intolerance. He wrote: “First, there is the question whether an intolerant sect has any title to complain if it is not tolerated; second, under what conditions tolerant sects have a right not to tolerate those which are intolerant; and last, when they have the right not to tolerate them, for what ends it should be exercised.”
After exploring this idea further, Rawls concludes: “What is essential is that when persons with different convictions make conflicting demands on the basic structure as a matter of political principle, they are to judge these claims by the principles of justice. The principles that would be chosen in the original position are the kernel of political morality. They not only specify the terms of cooperation between persons but they define a pact of reconciliation between diverse religions and moral beliefs, and the forms of culture to which they belong. If this conception of justice now seems largely negative, we shall see that it has a happier side.”
In the last two decades, we have witnessed the proliferation of media rather than a growth of plural media. The inherent limitation of this lopsided growth is the bandwagon effect. The bandwagon effect generates fear to dissent, apprehension to have a different perspective, discourages dissonance with the manufactured spirit of the Time and deviates from the first principles. It forces many to think that they should not be caught on the wrong side even when they do not really believe in the information avalanche. It seeks exceptions, special privileges and surrogate propaganda. On the other hand, a mature media opts for a broad-spectrum approach that consciously strives to retain the plurality of our body polity.
I believe this newspaper displays a rare courage not to jump on a bandwagon but to stick to the broad-spectrum model.
This article has been corrected for a factual error
>>A sentence in the third paragraph of “The bandwagon effect” (From The Readers’ Editor column, Sept. 16, 2013), read: “But, a substantial … election is for 534 different constituencies, ...” It should have been 543 different constituencies.