Time Asia editors could not be happier with the kind of ridiculous buzz its cover story on India’s Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has generated in a segment of the country’s media as well as among political blowhards.
The buzz is almost entirely created by some 24/7 news channels that smell ratings gold in continuing to stoke the theme of an underachieving prime minister that the magazine’s Krista Mahr writes about. There is nothing particularly original about the content of Time’s cover story in so much as it highlights political conflicts and government ineptitude impacting the country’s economic growth and causing a drift even as Dr. Singh appears inert.
At best what Time has done is engage in smartly packaged reflective journalism, by which I mean they recognized a certain mood in the kind of middle class urban Indians that would have heard of and fleetingly read Time and articulated their discontent. Earlier, they did something similar by featuring Gujarat state’s hard-charging Chief Minister Narendra Modi on its cover in rather flattering light. Then too the magazine seemed to know the pulse of its potential readership, a large part of which is already in the Modi camp. One can presume that the camp that loved the Modi cover is also the camp that would have loved the Singh cover. There is nothing stunningly wrong about that approach as long as facts, however cherry-picked, bear them out. I have no quantifiable evidence to support what I am saying but the impression in both cases in inescapable that the magazine seemed to be responding to a popular mood. In any case, isn’t that part of what the mass consumed media is supposed to do?
Coming back to how sections of the broadcast media have latched on to the Time theme of an underachieving prime minister, there are those who say that the magazine has been motivated purely by a marketing strategy in producing these covers. NDTV, which regards itself as India’s most serious and sober news channel, carried a 41-minute segment on the theme “Time brands PM ‘underachiever’: Editorial call or marketing gimmick?” That is rather ironic because if it is indeed a marketing gimmick, then it has been a manifest success because NDTV spent 41 minutes on it. This is the bane of 24-hour news channels because they perpetuate non-stories by pretending to examine whether they are non-stories.
In so much as Time talks about policy drift, slowing down of India’s economic growth, Manmohan Singh appearing to look askance at the state of affairs and so on, all of that has been discussed threadbare in the Indian media and by Indian politicians for over a year now. As I said in my July 8 post, if there is one person in India who does not need to be told the obvious is the one at the center of that obvious reality, namely Dr. Singh himself. In the end this is no more than just a cover story which will be chewed and swirled around during the 24/7 cycle and then spit out. It is perfectly legitimate for Time to do stories that can attract readership in any part of the world. What is laughable is the way the broadcast media is regurgitating it under the guise of informed analysis.
The notion that the media has found out something path-breaking in describing a perceptible slowdown is ridiculous because this is part of a cycle all reforming economies go through. The United States, the fountainhead of capitalism, continues to face some of the same challenges. So my advice to all concerned would be, “Hmmm.”