Is "Right-wing Hindu-nationalist" balanced and fair reporting?

BY Sankrant Sanu| IN Media Practice | 26/05/2014
When we allow this flavour of reporting to go unchallenged we unwittingly weaken India's ability to negotiate with the world on our own terms.
SANKRANT SANU asks why avowedly Christian leaders in the UK and US are not similarly tagged. PIX: FRANCE 24 English

As a new government is taking charge in India, it is time to reflect on the terminology used about India in the Western press and also by English-language Indian journalists writing in India and abroad. 

Western news outlets routinely describe Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the BJP as “right-wing Hindu-nationalist” in practically every news report. This is problematic for a couple of reasons. Firstly, it is not clear that the label “right” and “left” so easily apply to Indian politics and do not map clearly to Western political categories. Certainly no economically right-wing politician in the West would declare in their first major address after being elected that the “the new government is completely dedicated to the poor” as Modi did in his first meeting of the BJP parliamentary committee. 

Nor is the label “Hindu-nationalist” entirely accurate, particularly since it is used pejoratively. British Prime Minister David Cameron, recently wrote in The Church Times, the leading Anglican newspaper, “I believe we should be more confident about our status as a Christian country, more ambitious about expanding the role of faith-based organisations, and, frankly, more evangelical about a faith that compels us to get out there and make a difference to people's lives.” 

Now, it is worth remembering that Britian is not officially secular. It has a state religion and an official Church, the Church of England. Their head of state, the Queen, is also head of the Church. Despite Prime Minister Cameron’s clear espousal of Christianity, and its centrality, both legally and restated by him, in the conception of their nation, the Conservative party is not routinely called a Christian-nationalist party. To make this contrast even clearer, let us imagine that Prime Minister Modi made the statement: 

“I believe we should be more confident about our status as a Hindu rashtra, more ambitious about expanding the role of Hindu organisations, and, frankly, more evangelical about spreading Hinduism to make a difference to people's lives.” 

All hell would break loose in India if Modi were to say this. However, this is just a restatement of Prime Minister Cameron’s statement about Christianity and Britain. But for some reason, Prime Minister Modi apparently has to be tagged as a “Hindu nationalist” in every press report while Cameron is not tagged as a “Christian nationalist”. 

An even clearer example is George Bush Jr., who made no bones about his faith as a born-again Christian. Bush explicitly loosened the purse strings so that federal money could flow to “faith-based” organizations. But he was not routinely described as an evangelical Christian in every news report.  There is a misconception, however, that Bush was somewhat unique in modern American presidents. Every US president, Republican or Democrat, publically avows his Christian faith. Bill Clinton was Southern Baptist, a conservative Christian denomination and attended church every week till he went to college.  He could “quote scripture with the best of them.” Jimmy Carter was a self-described evangelical born-again Christian. Obama also avowed “I am a Christian. I have a deep faith.” 

Despite affirmation of (Christian) faith being practically a pre-requisite to be President of the United States, presidents are not tagged by their religion in every press report. We must start to question when Prime Minister Modi continues to be tagged as such. 

This is not only the question of a level playing field. It also leads to a mis-understanding of India and its pluralistic nature. The BJP is not a Hindu party that will impose Manusmriti on everyone. People in Pakistan are very surprised to learn that the BJP has a Muslim general secretary and Christian MLA’s and MP’s. An improper equivalence is created, fanned by Indian writers in Pakistani newspapers, that the BJP is somehow the equivalent of its Jamaat-e-Islami, which is fighting to have Sharia law in Pakistan. 

Now the odds of the Jamaat having a Hindu or Christian general secretary are, to put it mildly, quite low. But this incorrect equivalence causes Pakistanis to make statements like “unlike India, we have never had the religious right win an election.” This misunderstanding can become an obstacle to peace and also provide further impetus for atrocities on Pakistan’s vanishing Hindu minority. If you actually examined the parties’ official positions and religious affirmations you will find the BJP left of the leftmost mainstream political party in Pakistan. The BJP affirms its commitment to secularism, even if it derides its opponents’ flavour of it. A Pakistani party can only affirm its commitment to the Islamic state. 

While we are on the subject of Pakistan, practically every Western news agency finds it necessary to use the phrase “nuclear-armed neighbours” in any article about the two. Perhaps it is time we start repaying that reminder when talking about “nuclear-armed neighbours UK and France” or in the case of the United States, the “only country to have deployed a nuclear weapon in war”, in every foreign policy report about these countries. Nor does every report dealing with US-China relations state they have nuclear warheads pointed at each other.  We need to start recognising the messaging when “nuclear-armed neighbours” is repeated in every report, just as “right-wing Hindu nationalist” is.  It is the Western gaze on the natives that they do not apply to themselves. 

When we allow this flavor of reporting to go unchallenged we unwittingly weaken India’s ability to negotiate with the world on our own terms. 

Sankrant Sanu is an author and entrepreneur based in Seattle and Gurgaon.  He is a graduate of IIT Kanpur and the University of Texas and holds six technology patents. Follow on Twitter @sankrant

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