Modi-media relationship status: It’s complicated

Modi's refusal to take questions in 'uncontrolled' settings is similar to how strongmen in other parts of the world engage with their media

Prime Minister Narendra Modi speaks as BJP President Amit Shah looks on during a press conference at the party headquarters in New Delhi. (PTI Photo)

Towards the conclusion of Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) President, Amit Shah's press conference on Friday, duly attended and 'addressed' by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Shah was asked if the party had regrets or felt there were some unfulfilled tasks. He said the biggest failure was the party's inability to "take the media along even after five years, couldn't convince you…."

Flashback to 2001, shortly after Modi became chief minister of Gujarat. For journalists living in Ahmedabad and reporting on the state government, the information department used to run a daily bus service. This took scribes from a pre-selected spot at a fixed time and bussed them to Gandhinagar where all government offices were located and most ministers and officials lived. After doing their daily rounds, meeting sources, attending briefings, these journalists would return to the city and then head to their offices to file stories.

Among the first decisions of the Modi government was to stop this facility for journalists. This was the beginning of his disdain for journalists although it became full blown after the Gujarat riots in 2002. The changed tactic stood in sharp contrast to his concerted bids to reach out to the media in his early days as an emerging satrap and when he was stationed in the Capital's party office in the late 1990s. In his largely 'apolitical' address at Shah's press conference, Modi recalled these times when he regularly interacted with journalists. But at that time, he did not hold any office of power. 

During his tenure as chief minister and especially from 2007-08, by when he personally began nurturing ambitions of becoming prime minister, Modi played the part of a victim of the media, especially the English language press, which was labelled 'sickular press' by his storm troopers. 

He was particularly offended by the consistency with which the national media, which did not face local pressure like journalists working out of Gujarat, followed up on investigations of the 2002 riots and kept asking uncomfortable questions. The famous aborted interview with Karan Thapar in October 2007 underscored Modi's hatred for journalists who probed him on his role in the riots and his decision not to ever offer an apology.

This was known to every journalist in the national capital and by the time it became evident that Modi would become prime minister, many among them began turning defensive. But, despite their changed ways, most were aware that Modi was not known to either forgive or forget and he was unlikely to rediscover his old love for journalists. Yet many decided to play 'safe' and check their thoughts. Such journalists have benefited by gaining 'access' and even one-on-one interviews. 

After becoming prime minister, Modi stopped the practise of taking press parties on official visits either abroad or within India. He never lost an opportunity too of making snide remarks against the profession even when abroad  — on his first visit to Japan as PM in September 2014, after gifting a copy of the Bhagvad Gita to Japanese Emperor Akihito he remarked that his act could be used to create a controversy on TV in India.

Besides not losing opportunities to take a dig at the media and denying access to them, Modi developed 'direct communication' channels with the people. His social media accounts, already a hit prior to his ascendance, were backed by Mann Ki Baat, modelled on lines of US President Franklin D. Roosevelt's Fireside Chats which he ran between 1933 and 1944.

The portal mygov.nic.in, that was modelled on the lines of similar initiatives in other countries, also enabled Modi to deflect criticism that he is closed to dialogue. In his speeches, Modi regularly mentioned that inputs from people were taken via suggestions sent through the plethora of e-channels he created. 

Each of these efforts — aimed at bypassing mainstream media — were essentially little more than vehicles for disseminating his viewpoint and unable to provide a platform from where probing questions could be asked or a critical look taken at decisions and policies. Constant targeting of the media and individual journalists who did not wish to get 'embeded' in the system demonstrated that Modi favoured Pravda-isation of the Indian media when every report, analysis or commentary gets reduced to a smarter form of a handout.

Modi's relationship with the media, his refusal to take questions in 'uncontrolled' settings, is similar to ties that other strongmen in the world have with their media. Last year, US President, Donald Trump, labelled the press as "enemy of the people" and stayed away last month for the third year running from the annual White House correspondents’ dinner. His attacks have been reminiscent of attacks in the 1930s on German press. 

Elsewhere, while Vladimir Putin blatantly singled out critics in the media and even bodily harmed them, the killing of Washington Post reporter and commentator Jamal Khashoggi on instructions of Saudi Arabia Crown Prince, Mohammed bin Salman (MBS), underscores that authoritarian regimes have always in history attempted to muzzle the press. Everywhere, the story is the same — ‘nationalistic’ leaders label critics in media and civil society as ‘anti-nationals’ and provoke public anger against them. 

Pulitzer winner, historian Ron Chernow who delivered the key note at the dinner from which Trump stayed away, said that they "now have to fight hard for basic truths that we once took for granted." But he exuded hope by claiming that Trump is just one chapter of bad fiction in America's history.

Days before the verdict on May 23, it would be foolhardy to raise any such expectations. After all, for the record, Modi 'did address' a press conference. 

(Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay is a Delhi-based writer and author. His latest book is RSS: Icons Of The Indian Right. He has also written Narendra Modi: The Man, The Times (2013)

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