Full disclosure: The writer is a former journalist who has worked with Times Now and Headlines Today between 2004 and 2013. He currently works as Associate Vice-President for Times Group’s Radio Mirchi.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s disdain for the media after 2002 (specially the English section) is well known and documented. Little wonder then that soon after taking over as Prime Minister, he made it clear that his tools of communication with the masses would be his website, his Twitter handle and platforms like Mann Ki Baat.
Modi wanted to bypass (even better: short-circuit) mainstream media outlets and didn’t feel the need to even appoint a media advisor. Much to the disappointment of scribes, he stopped the practice of taking journalists along with him on important foreign trips. Not only did the Prime Minister not engage with the media himself, bureaucrats and ministers who did so were also asked to stop doing so for their own good.
In June 2014, writing for The Economic Times, Ajoy Bose argued that the move could backfire:
“There is a vast difference between discouraging unscrupulous influence-peddling journalists and media proprietors from misusing their access to corridors of power and a concerted policy to marginalise the media. A relatively free and combative media have remained one of the few tangible highlights of Indian democracy. Any hasty step to diminish this role would certainly not be in the interest of the country.”
But Modi is a man who is not easily persuaded — he carried out his first year in office without any contact with the media whatsoever, his radio broadcasts and tweets – a relative novelty then – were doing the job. But the one-way communication was becoming monotonous after a few months, prompting John Elliott to write in the Newsweek in May 2015 –
“Amid all the trending, it is worth noting that the prime minister’s communications with his electorate, and the wider world, are a one-way street where he speaks and others receive the message. Of course, people can reply through tweeting or other statements, but Modi has avoided on-the-record questions from the media. Amazingly, he has not dared to hold a press conference, which would be attended by Indian and foreign journalists, to mark his first year in office today. Nor has he done a TV interview.”
So what changed in the second year of Modi’s Prime Ministership? Why did he choose to break his code of no interaction with the media?
The opposition certainly didn’t force him to it, but hotheads and loudmouths in his own party were snatching away his carefully constructed narrative of vikaas. Regardless of how much development was actually happening on the ground, Modi knew that the mandate had come to him on the basis of development, which finds mention in the 2014 manifesto 81 times, and not Hindutva (which finds no mention).
In fact, even Right-leaning publications began to point out by the end of 2015 that Modi was losing the media script. It was becoming evident that his “I-am-above-this-pettiness” attitude was harming him and the government’s reputation.
“…his barely disguised contempt for the media is not exactly helping matters. Nor is the fact that the party also does not appear to have an effective media team after stalwarts like Arun Jaitley, Nirmala Sitharaman, Ravi Shankar Prasad, Prakash Javadekar and Piyush Goyal joined the government. In fact, the party appears to be making things worse, unable to either put out an effective response to controversies or to get loose-tongued party members to keep silent. As a result, the party often ends up taking responsibility (and not just getting blamed) for even actions of lone lunatics who are not associated with it at all.”
The above is from a piece in the Swaraj Magazine.
By his second anniversary, the much-touted Mann Ki Baat was losing steam. It had become a 30-minute drone session in which the Prime Minister spoke about everything — from the mundane to the philosophical. News channels, that used to carry the full broadcast earlier, began cutting it short.
His Twitter presence, with 20-plus million followers, was reduced to nothing more than a platform to wish people a happy birthday or announce daily schedules. People wondered where the PM disappeared when events like Dadri unfolded — when the leader of the nation was required to send a strong message.
Much like his touted, ambitious programmes, Modi wasn’t really breaking the Internet as an India Today Group-Cicero snap poll, found: “the noise over online trends and hashtags notwithstanding, 72 percent do not follow him (Modi) on social media.”
Moreover, according to the poll, 56 per cent respondents had not even heard of Modi’s Mann ki Baat.
With the narrative slipping on the development front and hotheads talking centrestage, the PM had to do something. What could have galvanised him into action was the open threat that Subramanian Swamy was mounting on his administration. First Raghuram Rajan, then Arun Jaitley and then Chief Economic Adviser.
Modi understood that people needed to see him talking, answering questions that he never takes on his radio show and dousing the fires resulting from Swamy’s remarks. Modi stating that Rajan is as much an Indian as anyone else was a clear message for the hotheads to back off.
Hours later, the Bharatiya Janata Party cancelled two events where Swamy was supposed to speak – an indication that Modi’s interview was part of a larger strategy.
The Prime Minister – for now – seems to have silenced Swamy, got the focus back on himself and changed the narrative to the efforts he’s mounting on development, black money, Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) and so on. Sure there will be endless debates over why Arnab Goswami didn’t ask “tougher” questions or why his aggression suddenly dissipated. But there was perhaps a larger game that was afoot here — the PM wanted to get his point of view across and he chose a prominent English anchor to ensure that this message got to the national and international audiences as well.
But hopefully Modi has realised that speaking has more benefits than keeping mum, an erudite PM like him shouldn’t repeat the mistake of Manmohan Singh — who was advised to take the media for granted.
Narendra Modi may still feel victimised by the media for the 2002 coverage and indeed sections of the media may still ask about Gujarat. But that shouldn’t stop the Prime Minister of India from engaging with the mainstream media, which still touches a whole lot more people than tweets do and initiates a dialogue that carries more weight than a one-way radio sermon.