Critics of Modi migrate online as mainstream media stays deferential

By Reuters
April 19, 2024
India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi attends a meeting with US President Donald Trump and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo during the G20 Osaka Summit in Osaka on June 28, 2019. — AFP/File

NEW DELHI: There’s scarcely any critical evaluation of Prime Minister Narendra Modi on India’s mainstream television channels and most newspapers as the world’s most populous nation heads toward a general election that begins on Friday.


India’s once-in-five-years election usually draws fiery debate and mudslinging across its sprawling media. But this year, criticism of Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is mostly online, some of which has gone viral in recent weeks.

YouTuber Dhruv Rathee has accused Modi of behaving like a dictator in a Hindi-language video that has over 27 million views, citing what he called silencing of critics, the use of federal investigation agencies to browbeat the opposition and the crushing of farmer protests.

Neha Singh Rathore, who produces popular music videos in the Bhojpuri language of eastern India, asks “What is happening in our country” in one of her songs, with stanzas on cronyism, shady electoral funding and the lack of action on unemployment, inflation and alleged violence against minorities.

Dozens of other voices that oppose Modi are active on YouTube, Facebook and Instagram, many in the Hindi language of India’s heartland that is the BJP’s power base.

“People have lost faith in traditional media, including most newspapers and TV channels,” Rathee told Reuters from Germany, where he moved as a teenager to attend university.

“They are watching independent journalists on social media to understand the real issues.”

In his video, the 29-year-old says: “The media has been bought. Every institution has been compromised, opposition leaders have been arrested, who is left? Only we, the people. We are the last hope. Protecting Indian democracy is our duty.”

The prime minister’s office did not respond to requests for comment. In the past, the government has denied it has sought to silence dissent, and that only those who have broken the law are arrested.

BJP spokespersons declined comment.

Despite the online criticism, opinion polls predict Modi and the BJP will easily win the seven-phase election, powered by Modi’s stratospheric approval ratings. Votes will be counted on June 4.

Gilles Verniers, a senior fellow at Centre for Policy Research, a Delhi-based think tank, said the response to Modi critics online indicated “there is an appetite for a lot of people for critical content, for a view that differs from the content that the BJP diffuses.”