In the first of this three-part series (“ >Investigating the charges of bias ”, March 7, 2016), I had laid down some of the philosophical underpinnings that inform my work and the value grid I deploy to evaluate complaints. I am grateful to all the readers who have responded to this exercise of understanding how this newspaper addresses the question of bias. The responses reveal the diversity of opinions held by the millions of readers. The majority upholds the idea of pluralism. It thinks that pointing out any deviation from the accepted path of diversity is an integral part of this newspaper’s ethos. It is as concerned as this newspaper is about the debilitating injury that has been inflicted on India’s social fabric by one variant or the other of majoritarian chauvinism.
However, I am surprised by the reaction of a section that has accused The Hindu of bias against the present government and about this endeavour to look at the newspaper’s coverage over a given period. This section does not want any comparison with any of the earlier regimes. But how can one evaluate the charges of bias in journalism without comparing the newspaper’s coverage of one regime with that of another? What is these people’s perception of this newspaper’s criticism of former Prime Ministers Rajiv Gandhi, P.V. Narasimha Rao, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, and Manmohan Singh for their failures? Can exceptionalism be a yardstick to measure bias? Is it bias or is it professional creed to retain the core values and cardinal principles of journalism to hold people in power accountable?
Looking at the reportage of this newspaper over the last quarter century was a refresher course on post-liberalised India. While it would have been a worthwhile exercise to begin analysis from 1991, I have restricted my study to the two terms of the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government. This will give every reader of this newspaper a chance to verify the claims made in this column, as all editions of this newspaper since 2000 are online. Readers are encouraged to do their own analysis to compare their findings with mine.
During the two terms of the UPA, this newspaper carried about 6,260 editorials, 3,130 columns, 3,130 lead articles on the Editorial page and 6,260 Oped/Perspective articles. They covered a range of topics from national politics to international relations; economic issues to development agendas; and multilateral negotiations that included trade negotiations, nuclear negotiations, and disarmament negotiations to climate change and health issues, among others. In all the analyses, no punches were pulled and issues were looked at in a critical manner without the newspaper becoming an apologist for the ruling dispensation.
As early as in 2004, the editorial titled “ >The Left’s dilemma ” (August 25, 2004) spoke about the ambivalent nature of the Left’s support to the UPA government: “The challenge for the CPI(M) and the CPI is to retain their separate identity — and rein in the Congress whose political proclivities and policies they have little faith in. No purpose will be served if the Left parties confined themselves to mere criticism without forcing a change of policies on issues that matter most to their core constituencies.”
The 2006 editorial before the Budget session looks like it was written for the present government. In the leader titled “ >Storm clouds over budget session ” (Feb 15, 2006), the newspaper warned: “Twenty months after the United Progressive Alliance came to power at the Centre, not much remains of the euphoria that attended that famous victory… Today storm clouds have gathered over a regime returning to Parliament for the budget session. The issues and terms of engagement have changed, the euphoria is gone.”
In June 2006, a lead article, “ >Reclaiming the public imagination ” (June 21, 2006), explained how disquieting impressions were gaining ground. By not correcting them, it stated, Manmohan Singh might be inviting dangerous challenges not just to himself but to the interests of the Indian state. It read: “Judging by newspaper front pages and television headlines, it seems the Manmohan Singh Government no longer commands the public imagination. The Prime Minister himself rarely makes it to the headlines. The Government gives the impression of either not having an agenda or not knowing how to stay on top of it.”
The 2007 editorial on Ottavio Quattrocchi was biting in its tone and intent. The leader, “ >A conspiracy of silence ” (Feb 26, 2007), said: “Last year, officialdom deliberately scored another own goal: notwithstanding the Red Corner Notice, it conspired to lift the freeze on Mr. Quattrocchi’s London bank accounts, upheld by two British courts, by falsely stating that there was no evidence to link the deposits with the Bofors payoffs… L’affaire Bofors continues to remind us that the cover-up of corruption is as bad as the original act itself.”
The editorial “ >Nine long years ” in 2013 summed up the way this newspaper reported the functioning of UPA-II. It read: “UPA-II’s balance-sheet is a story of overwhelming negatives. From misused and wasted funds in the Commonwealth Games to massive irregularities in the allocation of precious natural resources such as coal and spectrum, the scams have unspooled one after another, revealing brazen execution and complete disregard for norms of governance. But rather than learn from its misadventures, the government sought to clumsily cover up its tracks, bringing not just further ignominy on itself but earning the wrath of the Supreme Court which was hearing the coal block allocation case... As the UPA enters the final year of its second term, it will surely also reflect on the damage the scams have done to the image of the Prime Minister himself.”
I did not find any editorial that was fawning or an opinion piece flattering the powers that be during this decade. On the other hand, there was no mincing of words about what was missing and what should be done.