I interviewed General VK Singh before he became a minister. This was soon after he had retired amidst swirling rumours that he was planning to join politics after his rather controversial exit as army chief. He struck me as a fine man (as most soldiers are) but also a rather angry man who seemed to believe that the entire world was conspiring against him. He spoke with bitterness over his conflicts with the government, with his fellow senior officers and with the political class. He also seemed incensed with the media, especially the Indian Express which he believed had been less than fair in its criticism of the general’s temperamental behaviour. ‘You media persons have not just targeted me, but you have insulted the entire army! I will not take this lying down, ‘ he told me at the time. I came out out of the interviews with the distinct sense that the general’s angst could well prove his undoing one day: after all, a military man is expected to observe sobriety and restraint, not seek to become an anti-establishment hero.
Regrettably, I fear I have been proven right. First, it was his tweet after attending the Pakistan national day celebrations where he expressed ‘DISGUST’ over what was seen as a symbolic move by the Modi government to reach out to Islamabad. When he was reportedly pulled up, he was forced to backtrack and make it appear as if his remarks has been misinterpreted. Now, he finds himself in another row with the media, this after he tweeted that the media were ‘presstitutes’, a term he has used before too, and one which is freely used by a section of Modi supporters on twitter to express their anguish over what they see as biased and falling media standards. Gen Singh’s remarks were reportedly prompted by the fact that the Times Now news channel tweeted that the General was finding his efforts at rescuing Indians in Yemen less exciting than attending the Pakistan national day celebrations. Clearly, the channel had missed (or chosen to disregard) the sarcasm in the general’s tone, but should that be reason to call the media ‘presstitutes’?
Let’s be clear: General Singh is not some anonymous twitter handle who can get away by spewing venom and abuse on the media. He is a senior member of the council of ministers who is expected to mind his language in a public fora like twitter. He has every right to feel that the media has been less than fair to him, but should he be calling the media ‘presstitutes’? Sadly, Gen Singh seems to be taking his cue from the prime minister who has on several occasions called the media ‘news traders’, another offensive term popularised by right wing storm troopers on social media. Yes, we in the media need to introspect on falling standards of journalism but should senior politicians be seeking to constantly play to the gallery by denigrating the media? Is this part of a conscious and deliberate strategy to intimidate a section of the media into submission? And should the media silently accept these intemperate utterances without raising a voice of protest?
I don’t know about my other colleagues, but as someone who has spent 26 years in this profession, I find the situation extremely worrying. Three days ago, the prime minister used the term ‘5 star activists’ rather crudely and loosely to target the legal system. Now, one of his ministers uses the term ‘presstitutes’ to attack the fourth estate. Not surprisingly, the general is trending on twitter, a home for the permanently outraged who relish media bashing. On twitter, farmer suicides won’t trend but a minister abusing journalists is more grist to the mill for those who believe they have the right to ‘take down’ the media, especially those who will not fall in line with the ruling establishment.
I applaud the General for having led the rescue mission in Yemen, although I may point out that previous governments have also served the country nobly in such crisis moments and the real credit must always go to the faceless Indian armed forces and diplomats who organise the rescue and relief operations. But while applauding General Singh, I also expect an apology from him. You have insulted my profession General Saab, and if you felt offended as a soldier when you were targeted all those years ago, then I have every reason to feel offended today. Hisaab barabar!