The Press And The Prime Minister, Over The Years
There’s a bee in Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s bonnet. His critics pillory him for not addressing a single press conference since he took office in May 2014.
The buzz is getting louder as the Elections-2019 campaign enters its second-half. His principal rival, Congress President Rahul Gandhi, recently dared him to hold a PC.
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Modi has responded with alacrity and vehemence to Rahul’s many insinuations. But his silence on this remains inexplicable. Critics call him, half-in-zest, the first premier who could enter the Guinness Book of Records for failing to hold a PC.
His ‘non-political’ televised talk with Bollywood actor Akshay Kumar was not his “first press conference” as initially announced on April 26. Nor was it an interview despite the use of that format. Now, it has re-charged an issue on which the media and Modi observers had all but reconciled.
India’s 16th premier in 73 years shuns the traditional media. He has done away with office of the Information Advisor. No impromptu media interactions and nothing that is not pre-scheduled.
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That he speaks only to those who fully agree and don’t ask uncomfortable questions is a given. He shows silent contempt for the rest – mainly the liberal lot who take their adversarial role too seriously. He has steadfastly stuck to “if you are not with me, completely, you are against me” stance. This is another given.
Yet, Modi remains hugely connected to his chosen audiences. He is world No. 3 on Twitter and No.1 on Facebook and Instagram. With his official page ‘liked’ by over 43.2 million people, Modi tops the list of 50 most-followed world leaders on Facebook. It’s puzzling how and when he finds time and energy to be on the social media.
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He connects with people through “mann ki baat” on All India Radio each month for the last four years. His Hindi oratory, the turn of phrase and coining of new slogans help him communicate like no other premier before. His penchant of talking about himself helps.
His media appearances have largely been limited to his archetypal rallies, conferences and joint appearances with world leaders whom he hugs. But a hug at home is a no-no.
Despite social media posts, broadcasts and scripted TV interviews with selected TV channels, his communication remains limited. There is a wide difference between mass media and media of masses.
He chooses the media; the media have no choice. Bulk of them has fallen in line. Reporters and editors do not matter. An ownership overhaul, direct or remote, has ensured his overwhelming presence. A friendly TV anchor calls his not giving press conferences a “new paradigm of communication.” Critics are mostly marginalized to web sites.
He honed his media skills long ago. An ever-smiling official at the New Delhi headquarters of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), Modi nurtured rapport with the BJP ‘beat’ media. Things changed when he became the Gujarat chief minister in end-2001. He courted controversy within weeks with sectarian violence under his watch. A thousand, mostly Muslims, were killed. The Supreme Court’s strictures on his government’s handling embarrassed the Vajpayee Government. Party hardliners saved him from being sacked.
That was India’s first televised violence. Local media was divided, but the one from the national capital (hence labeled “national media”) was intensely critical from where the global media took the cue.
As chief minister, Modi was keen to shed the ‘communal’ baggage and mount the ‘development’ platform. He did so with fair success, projecting the “Gujarat model”, despite criticism that made him a pariah in the West.
Once a Supreme Court-appointed probe cleared him, he doggedly shunned any questions and twice walked out of interviews when questioned about those riots. He never regretted his role and once compared riot victims as “puppies coming under a speeding vehicle.”
His silent war with the media continues. Yet, obvious, even if ironical, has happened since became the PM. The very media he shuns spend millions to report him. Media junkets, particularly the foreign ones that had become the norm since the 1970s, are passé.
Why recall these details that are unsavory to all? The government-media relationship seems unlikely to change, no matter who wins the elections. The era of ‘Comment is Free, but facts are sacred’, as celebrated British journalist C P Scott once wrote, ended long ago.
The media lost relevance to public life with its conversion from the Fourth Estate to private mint to print money for owners. This was long before Modi’s advent on the national scene. As one who can cause fear and distribute largess, he is certainly a big beneficiary.
Now, journalists who do not speak or write agreeably are called ‘presstitutes’. At least two of Modi’s ministers have publicly used that term. Social media troll has become everyday affair.
The media’s role and the respect journalists enjoyed in the past are arguable, but not denied. One of the largest in the democratic world, it has changed, for better or for worse.
Back to the press conference issue, since one can’t return, one can at least recall better times. Jawaharlal Nehru held press conferences annually and they were copiously published. Old timers recall the mix of humour and argument. Relationship was adversarial, but due to Nehru’s stature, also reverential.
Lal Bahadur Shastri galvanized the nation during difficult war-times during his brief tenure. The media role was highly supportive.
Indira Gandhi’s Vigyan Bhavan PCs, were long-drawn, moderated by H Y Sharda Prasad, her Information Advisor. Haughty when she chose to be, she rarely shunned the media.
Along with the Opposition, media critics were imprisoned during the Emergency, when “watchdogs became lapdogs”, as veteran L K Advani put it. Some Indira favourites wrote books lambasting her when she lost office. But after she returned to power in 1980, they survived to tell their stories.
“Why should I tell you? Then, my task will fail,” was Morarji Desai’s ascerbic style. Media’s allergy to his advocacy against alcohol was known. Typical of politicians of his era, he once dismissed an inconvenient question by one Mr Thomas saying, “you are Doubting Thomas” and one Mr Chakravarty was told, “you are from Bengal, then you must be a communist.” His laughter, and laughter all around diluted severity of the snub.
Chaudhary Charan Singh expected traditional obeisance from the media. He was once upset when told that journalists rise only for the President. “At least, respect my age,” he chided. Newsmen obliged.
Rajiv Gandhi spoke well when well briefed. His inexperience showed when he dismissed his Foreign Secretary at his Vigyan Bhavan PC. V P Singh was a media favourite, but his only PC as prime minister was a disaster when he came late, did not apologise and then ran into very hostile questions. Another media favourite, Chandra Shekhar’s tenure was just four months, but he remained among the most accessible politicians.
P V Narasimha Rao’s silence was mysterious. He would choose not to speak, but when he spoke little, softly and with determination, it was effective.
H D Deve Gowda’s only PC had a Western journalist asking a loaded question. “You have never seen a prime minister in dhoti?” he quipped with a mix of anger and amusement. The only ex-premier around, he shed tears at a PC recently.
His successor I K Gujral, known for his measured diplomatic pronouncements, was ready Punjabi jhappi.
Manmohan Singh, a good communicator as Economics teacher was heard with respect at conferences. His PCs, one in Egypt and another back home, however, had officials scrambling for damage control. Derided as “Maun Mohan Singh” by Modi, he took sweet revenge recently on the latter’s silence on economic failures.
Assuming Modi wins a fresh mandate, an avalanche of questions awaits him to deserve a PC. Will he? Won’t he?
The writer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org