The mainstream media has diluted the concerns of seven chief ministers about an assault on federal structure, misuse of central agencies, financial injustice, etc. Instead, the entire media coverage has reduced the whole issue to party politics and differences over holding medical and engineering entrance exams (JEE-NEET).
Congress president Sonia Gandhi held a virtual meeting of these seven chief ministers on Wednesday. They were the West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee, Maharashtra Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray, Jharkhand chief minister Hemant Soren, Punjab chief minister Amarinder Singh, Rajasthan chief minister Ashok Gehlot, Chhattisgarh chief minister Bhupesh Baghel and Puducherry chief minister V Narayanasamy.
Hindi daily Dainik Jagran (National, July 27, 2020, p.1) has dismissed the whole issue as an exercise of party politics. In its reporting, the daily writes, “Though the whole opposition is not united, Sonia Gandhi by holding a virtual meet of seven chief ministers wants to create an impression that the Congress represents the opposition”. Note that Dainik Jagran has made references to GST (Goods and Services Tax), the misuse of Central agencies inside the text but its focus was other than the real issues.
Several other newspapers gave primacy to JEE-NEET entrance exam. Due to the corona pandemic, the combined medical and engineering exams for the year 2020 had been postponed earlier and now it has been rescheduled to be held from September 1 to 6. According to an estimate, 24 lacks candidates are likely to appear in the entrance exams and such a gathering increases the risk of spread of coronavirus. The opposition parties have been demanding the deferment of these exams. The governments of six opposition ruled states on Friday went to the Supreme Court, seeking the “review of its order permitting the Centre to conduct NEET and JEE entrance exams this year amid the persisting COVID-19 pandemic.”
Hindi daily Pioneer (New Delhi, July 27, 2020, p. 1) confined the discussion of the chief ministers and their objections to the attack on the federal set-up to NEE-JEE entrance exams. In its front-page lead story headline, Pioneer has run the headline “Seven CMs will go to Supreme Court” (Supreme Court jayenge sat rajyon ke cm). The Hindi daily did mention the objection of Jharkhand CM Hemant Soren but it was reduced to a few words. Note the part related to NEET-JEE was printed on page one while objection to the violation of federal structure was sent to page number nine.
Other Hindi dailies such as Hindustan (New Delhi, July 27, 2020, p. 1) and Jansatta (New Delhi, July 27, 2020, p. 1) were not much different. In their respective lead stories, Hindustan writes “The Opposition’s siege on NEET-JEE” (NEET-JEE par vipaksh kee gherabandi), while Jansatta runs the following headline (“Seven states will go to Supreme Court for deferment of NEET-JEE” (Pareekshayen rukwane sat rajya jayenge uchchyatam nyayalay). Hindustan has made no reference to any issue related to centre-state relation, GST, misuse of central agencies, etc.
Urdu dailies have taken different approaches to cover the event. For example, Etemaad (Hyderabad, August 27, 2020, p.1), drawing on the news agency PTI, gives prominence to NEET-JEE issue. Inquilab (Mumbai, August 27, 2020, p. 1), on the contrary, drew on the news agency UNI, and began the opening paragraph, stating the concerns of the chief ministers that federalism (wafaqiyat) has been bulldozed by the Modi government.
Among the English dailies, The Indian Express and The Asian Age have highlighted the NEE-JEE issue. Even the headlines of these dailies were almost similar. “7 Opposition CMs say will move to SC to seek NEET-JEE deferment” (The Indian Express, New Delhi, August 27, 2020, p. 1) and “CMs of 7 Opp. States plan to move SC against JEE, NEET” (The Asian Age, New Delhi, August 27, 2020, p. 1). Although The Indian Express does mention the objection to “violation of federalism by the Centre”, it does not carry it forward.
Unlike them, The Telegraph (Kolkata, August 27, 2020, p. 1) has given a detailed reporting of the meet. It has not shied away from reporting what the chief ministers have objected to. For example, the daily quotes Maharashtra chief minister Thackeray: “Do we want to reach a situation where only one man rules this country? What will be left of democracy without federalism? The dues and compensation under the GST is a genuine grievance but the fundamental question is whether we should go back to the old system. The states have a right to collect taxes. Or should we explore a middle path?… The states are undoubtedly distressed because of non-payment of GST dues. The states cannot survive in this financial distress. But why should we meet only in crisis? We should evolve a common programme and approach the Centre collectively for people’s rights. There are issues like environment, exams and resources. Development does not mean loot of natural resources. We shouldn’t wait for a crisis. Our unity should ensure the crisis is averted in advance.”
In the above-mentioned meeting, West Bengal chief minister Banerjee spout financial injustice inflicted on the states. The Telegraph carries a few lines of her statement: “Every scheme will be decided by the Centre; we share data and financial burden but the Centre will write to beneficiaries as if the state has done nothing. They collect taxes from our people and then we have to beg for our share”.
Similarly, Jharkhand chief minister Soren spoke about the issues related to the states not getting GST dues, the centre breaking the financial backbone of the state, how public resources are being privatized. The Telegraph also carries Soren’s statement: “We saw how the migrant labour issue was handled by the Centre. The economy is in a mess, there are massive job losses and the people are very angry. The Centre has broken the backbone of states financially by not paying GST dues and denying aid for the Covid-19 fight. Then there is discrimination against Opposition states…All resources are being privatised. The Centre is strategically collecting revenue by increasing cess and excise duties on petroleum products despite low international prices of crude oil but the states get nothing. Coal and iron blocks are being sold to private parties. There are issues like the new environment law and the sale of PSUs and even the railways. The whole strategy is to disturb the Opposition-ruled states. We have to counter them politically, otherwise the country will be destroyed.”
The issue of federalism is one of the core issues in modern India. From the tragedy of Partition to the agitations in the states including Punjab are linked with federalism. Even lopsided development is connected to federalism. The imposition of the presidential rule to dismiss democratically elected state governments by the centre, mushrooming growth of central security agencies to harass opposition leaders and unequal financial relations are some of the few examples of centralization of power and violation of decentralization and federalism. The Hindu/Brahminical right-wing rulers have often tried to usurp the power of the states, creating anger among the regional leaders, minority groups as well as democrats.
The way the media has shifted the focus from the attack on federalism to issues of party politics and differences over holding NEET-JEE exams points to the embedded nature of the mainstream media.
(Abhay Kumar is a Ph.D. from JNU. He is broadly interested in Minority and Social Justice. Earlier, he held a Post-Graduate Diploma in English Journalism from Indian Institute of Mass Communication, New Delhi and worked as a Delhi-based reporter with The Indian Express. You may write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org)