At a show of strength ahead of the polls in Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh, AAP national convenor and Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal earlier this month accused Hiren Joshi, a senior official in the prime minister’s office, of pressuring the media into curtailing coverage of his party.
The statement has come at a time when the AAP has been trying to make a spirited entry into the political terrain of Gujarat, which has been the BJP’s fortress for nearly three decades and where Kejriwal’s party suffered a humiliating defeat in the 2017 polls.
However, having revived its electoral significance through victories in the Surat and Gandhinagar civic polls and panchayat elections, the AAP is posturing as a serious contender for the upcoming elections after securing a record win in Delhi and Punjab. And it is against this backdrop that the party’s concerns about a media “blackout”, allegedly at the behest of the BJP, assume relevance.
But who is Hiren Joshi, and is there any truth to Kejriwal’s allegations against him?
From teaching career to PMO
An officer on special duty for communications and IT in the PMO, Joshi is believed to be the “eyes and ears” of PM Narendra Modi. He, along with his team of techies, is said to be the architect behind the PM’s digital media presence, and his proximity to Modi is no secret.
It is not the first time that Joshi has been accused of pressuring the media. In 2021, Congress spokesperson Pawan Khera had made similar allegations during a debate on ABP News; his party colleagues have done the same over the years.
Nor is it the first time that Joshi’s name has featured in connection with targeting of AAP through the media space. In 2017, a Frontline report alleged that a top editor of a national daily informed Joshi and then home minister Amit Shah about Kejriwal’s intention to abrogate all powers of the centre in the national capital. It alleged that the union government urgently sought a report on the matter.
Despite the absence of a bureaucracy background or a BJP membership, the 51-year-old has been continuously associated with Modi since 2008, when he was first handpicked by the then Gujarat chief minister to handle the latter’s digital presence.
It was an encounter by chance.
In 2008, according to the Economic Times, Modi was attending an event for engineers organised by the Gujarat government, but there was a technical glitch. Joshi, who was then an assistant professor of electronics and communication engineering – at the Manikya Lal Verma Textile and Engineering College in Bhilwara with 18 years of teaching experience – quickly solved the problem, impressing the CM.
Hailing from Rajasthan’s Banswara, Joshi had studied electronics engineering in Pune, and subsequently finished a PhD at the Indian Institute of Information Technology and Management in Gwalior.
Metamorphosing into his new role under Modi in 2008, Joshi helped build the latter’s websites in different languages and craft a larger-than-life image of the PM prospect ahead of the 2014 polls. He was mentioned as a significant player in what was called India’s first “data-led” election. An OSD in Modi’s cabinet since 2008, Joshi was elevated to the PMO in 2014, and promoted as joint secretary in 2019.
A journalist covering the PMO said that Joshi’s stature has increased so much, especially after the death of PMO PRO Jagdish Thakkar, that even union ministers and BJP chief ministers want to be in his good books.
But how much does his mandate exist beyond the digital space? And is coverage of the AAP now being curtailed at the BJP’s behest?
Senior journalists and editors from Gujarat who spoke to Newslaundry differed on Kejriwal’s allegations. While some said they treated BJP and Congress as the main players in the election, and gave AAP due coverage, others said there was pressure from the BJP to give Kejriwal’s party less space.
An editor said the coverage was “very one-sided” In Gujarat, and that there was “only BJP in TV and newspapers”. However, another senior editor at a newspaper in Gujarat said it required substantial editorial courage to give space to a report on AAP.
The PMO is yet to react to Kejriwal’s allegations on Joshi while the BJP has hit back, calling him a “bayan bahadur”, or loudmouth.
A senior journalist alleged that the BJP boycotts panel discussions if the AAP is invited. “The social media handling and coverage of AAP is very strong and consolidated, but in mainstream media or even the web portals, AAP coverage is very poor.”
Another journalist working with a local news channel said that while the “Hiren Joshi effect” wasn't visible in Gujarat, the BJP pressures them to invite two specific AAP leaders to debates. “One reason that they give is that the new AAP leaders get personal. We give AAP coverage but for us BJP and Congress are the main two parties.”
Other senior journalists, however, denied such claims.
“I have worked as an editor for 10 years but have never gotten a call from Hiren about what I should or shouldn't cover,” said an editor, while another said that their newspaper has been consistently featuring AAP without any bias.
A state bureau staffer at a Gujarati newspaper said the only difference is that the AAP has stopped giving advertisements since the last two months to papers in the state. “It is not that coverage is not happening or there used to be more earlier…we give space to everyone.”
‘More of a phenomenon outside Gujarat’
“Hiren Joshi is more of a phenomenon outside Gujarat than inside,” said a former editor at a leading newspaper in Gujarat, speaking on condition of anonymity. “Most of the newspapers here are owner based; they bow before they are asked to bend. Hiren Joshi doesn't have to give instructions here anymore.”
The journalist recalled that they had only received a call from Joshi once when a column accused Modi of playing a role in the 2002 Gujarat riots.
But there are other allegations too.
For example former cabinet minister Subramanian Swamy, who has, on more than one occasion, accused Joshi of paying trolls to target him and his family.
“In 2010, when the CBI was investigating the Sohrabuddin case, the CBI raided Hiren's personal office in Ahmedabad as well,” said a senior investigative journalist from Gujarat. “He also used to look after the surveillance of other people, including party workers. But it is Amit Shah and Modi who used to scrutinise most of the media in Gujarat. They used to hold meetings with editors and owners.”
A journalist covering the PMO said, “There is no direct threat, but it is simply conveyed to the reporter to let their editor know that the PMO is upset…Hiren sets the narrative. He not only tells the journalist but also union ministers what to tweet.”
Newslaundry reached out to BJP spokespersons, media cell in charge, and state heads, for a response, but they refused to give an elaborate response while denying the allegations.
A senior journalist from Gujarat said it was all about a difference in attitude. “The media in Gujarat is not crumbling to its feet like the media in Delhi. Here, news against BJP is published as prominently as the name of the prime minister in the item.”
Newslaundry also reached out to the managing director of Sandesh and the owner of Gujarat Samachar, but they refused to comment on this issue. An editor associated with News18 Gujarati also refused to talk.
A questionnaire has been sent to Hiren Joshi. This report will be updated if we receive a response.