Did India Today ‘strike a balance’ before 2024 election results? Not quite

In the run-up to the polls, nine cover stories of the magazine hailed Modi, with one even branding him as ‘reformer, messiah of the poor, and Vishwaguru’.

WrittenBy:Sumedha Mittal
The cover of India today's latest issue.

The latest edition of India Today magazine has caused a furor on social media, with chairman and editor-in-chief Aroon Purie putting to paper the “ultimate political paradox” that the supreme leader may have “feet of clay”.    

In the magazine – with the title Striking a Balance, written across the length and breadth of its cover featuring smiling faces of the NDA and INDIA bloc leaders – Purie writes a humbling account of Modi, pointing to the central agencies’ “undermined” autonomy and use as “instruments of terror”. He also notes the “casual” employment of “loosely drafted, draconian laws”, such as the PMLA and sedition law.

The BJP can no longer rely “exclusively” on Modi’s “magic”, declares Purie, adding that the politics of “aggressive” Hindutva nationalism have run their course.  

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But until April this year – till days before the first phase of the Lok Sabha polls – the publication and its editors were gushing over the Modi government and its “stupendous” feats. They, in fact, conferred a metaphorical halo on Modi in at least nine of its editions published over the past year – with one even branding him as a “reformer, builder, messiah of the poor”, and, of course, the “Vishwaguru”.

Newslaundry examined the cover stories of 53 issues of the weekly magazine published between June 12, 2023 and June 10, 2024 to look at its coverage of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the BJP, the opposition, and whether it bore semblance with Purie’s recent observations. 

Of these, the INDIA bloc featured in seven cover stories. But five of these were published after April 15 and during the polls. Nine editions of the magazine, or 16 percent of all editions published during the year, featured Modi on its cover. In nine of these issues, cover stories and letters from Purie praised the PM – with little or no caveats. 

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From cover pages titled “Bold and Brave” and “Redefining Bharat” against pictures of Modi to illustration of the dear leader sitting with Home Minister Amit Shah and BJP president JP Nadda atop a JCB – infamous for its alleged use by the BJP governments to target minorities – the publication went full throttle.    

Six cover stories dedicated to Modi in 7 months of 2023

In its June 2023 issue, titled Bold and Brave to define the first four years of the second tenure of Modi, the publication’s group editorial director Raj Chengappa wrote that “faced with a polycrisis”, Modi “pushed through daring reforms to weather the storm. But the challenge is to stay the course.”

In a separate editorial, Purie called Modi’s second term “unique”. He said that out of India’s 14 PMs so far, none has been handed such a “poisoned chalice” but “most strikingly, Modi turned crisis into opportunity. Big, bold reforms lit up that murky phase.”

Another issue that hit the stands in July last year was on Modi’s state visit to the USA, titled Friends in Need. Its cover featured Modi and US President Joe Biden in a conversation, while the cover story authored by Chengappa was on “pitfalls and quantum leaps in the Indo-US ties”. 

Purie wrote in Letter from the editor-in-chief: “For someone denied a visa to the US for all of the previous decade, Modi managed a stunning turnaround, establishing a cosy chumminess.”

In one other July issue last year, the cover featured an illustration of Modi, Shah and Nadda atop a bulldozer, smiling and purportedly razing the placards of the opposition parties. The cover story looked into the BJP’s strategy to “defang” the opposition as its game plan for the 2024 elections. 

The main story began with high praise: “Those who work closely with Narendra Modi know nothing the prime minister says or does is random… In the past nine years that Modi has ruled the country, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has imbibed in large measure the management style of its iconic leader.”

This was followed by two more magazine issues directly related to Modi in September last year – one of their covers iterated that “He will be back in 2024”, while the other one was about India hosting the G-20 Summit.  

“Modi’s popularity remains high and the BJP is set to win a majority again. But the economy continues to be a concern,” read the magazine cover with the title He will be back in 2024 against Modi’s full-sized image. Purie commented in his letter: “He banished the near universal factor of anti-incumbency and his popularity rankings defy the law of gravity.”

The issue on the G-20 Summit featured Modi on its cover, accompanied by Biden on his right, and Xi-Putin on the left. The cover read, “The big power game”, and said that “the geopolitical divide deepens as XI and Putin skips G20, but India succeeded in bringing global south centrestage.” 

Purie said Modi had “helped” the world move “closer” to India’s theme of “One Earth, One Family, One future”. 

The issue, after the results of the five assembly polls were declared in December, carried Modi’s full image in the foreground and Amit Shah and JP Nadda in the background. The cover story was titled “2024 BJP in pole position” and analysed how the crucial wins in three heartland states of Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh had deflated the Congress.

Purie equated the assembly polls to “semi finals”, and said it had given an “unambiguous answer with the Narendra Modi juggernaut devouring the landscape as usual…Modi neutralised the issue of the case census, supposedly the trump card of the INDIA alliance.”

2024: ‘Exclusive’ interview, Ram mandir, bids on Modi hat-trick

In January this year, the magazine carried an “exclusive” interview of the PM. The cover featured Modi’s picture, while the title read, “Narendra Modi Redifing Bharat”.  

The interview was preceded by an 11-page report by group editorial director Raj Chengappa, calling Modi a “reformer”, “builder”, “messiah of the poor”, “Vishwaguru”, “master strategist”, “mentor”, “CEO”, “tech champion”, “growth king” and finally, the “visionary.” 

Chengappa purportedly asked several tough questions in the interview: What is your management style? What is the ‘Modi Guarantee’ for the 2024 general election? Is there a ‘Modi Way’ out of this global disorder? What is your wish-list for the coming New Year? How is the BJP different from these so-called parivarvadi parties?

Purie, who also accompanied Chengappa for the PM’s interview, wrote in his letter: “There have been leaders who have attempted to bring about change with some success but they pale in comparison with what Modi has done and plans to do. He has a grand vision and is on a mission to realise it.” 

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Next month, in the issue published on February 5, the magazine covered the grand Ram temple consecration in Uttar Pradesh’s Ayodhya. The front cover was a picture of Narendra Modi touching the feet of newly installed Ram Lalla. The main story, titled “The Hindu revival”, detailed the consecration ceremony in 22 pages.  

It was followed by an article from the media group’s vice-chairperson Kalli Purie, on her impressions of the event as one of the 7,000 special invitees to the ceremony at the temple complex in Ayodhya. 

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The junior Purie wrote that the atmosphere in Ayodhya “was not sober or peaceful, it was electric. An unleashed energy that was bouncing off the freshly made walls. It was as though the city was celebrating its revival”.

Aroon Purie commented that Modi was like a “statesman” in his speech at the temple. “When Prime Minister Narendra Modi performed the rituals to consecrate the idols of Balak Ram, in the magnificent new Mandir at Ayodhya on January 22, India turned a chapter in its tumultuous history.”

The publication had another issue in February with Modi on the front-page, this time pictured walking in a confident stride. Heading for a hat-trick, read the title – the second such cover headline published within six months, suggesting Modi’s return to power for the third time in a row. 

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The edition’s cover story was based on the Cvoter’s Mood of the National Poll, which declared that Modi’s personal popularity is “still high” and the BJP under him is set to win the polls with a “clear majority”, although unemployment is a concern. 

In his letter, once again, Purie heaped praises on Modi: “It is difficult for the Congress to match the perfect pairing of the charisma of Narendra Modi and the political astuteness of home minister Amit Shah…Brand Modi is clearly not subject to voter fatigue.”

In a rare instance, he also mentioned Congress supremo Rahul Gandhi as a “credible player”. “The other perceptible change is the gradual consolidation of Rahul Gandhi as a credible player.” According to the India Today poll, Gandhi’s acceptance has risen from 14 to 16 percent, purportedly “benefitting” from the Bharat Jodo Yatra but not “at the cost of Modi.” 

Purie’s rare critical tone towards Modi 

The two instances when Purie opted for a critical tone towards Modi were in the magazine’s editions on the wrestlers’ allegations against BJP leader Brij Bhushan Singh in June last year and in its issue on ethnic violence in Manipur in August last year.

On the protesting wrestlers, Purie wrote: “The Modi government has done much to bring dignity to the lives of women. It even launched the Beti Bachao, Beti Padhai scheme in 2015…It is, therefore, surprising that the government has not acted with greater urgency.”

On the Manipur ethnic violence, the editor-in-chief noted that Modi’s nearly three-month-long silence was broken “only to condemn the horrible incident whose video went viral” and came after some “flak.”

How did India Today cover the opposition?

In the past year, the magazine had seven cover stories focusing on the INDIA bloc, only two of which were published in the 10 months before the polls. Five of these issues came between April 2024 to June 2024, amid the two-month long election. 

Till the Lok Sabha polls, the magazine had dedicated its cover page to only one opposition leader, BRS supremo and former Telangana Chief Minister K Chandrashekhar Rao. None of the INDIA bloc leaders had the privilege. 

Ahead of the Telangana assembly polls in November last year, the publication’s cover story was: “Can KCR do a hat-trick?” Its description followed, “The Telangana strongman has to battle anti-incumbency and a resurgent Congress to win a third successive term.” 

In the same month, another issue of the magazine was titled “BJP versus Congress, Big Fight for State Democracy”. Its cover gave equal space to Modi and Gandhi – the only one out of the 53 issues published in a year. 

The main story looked at the two national parties’ strategies ahead of the assembly polls in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Telangana, Mizoram, and Chhattisgarh.

The magazine’s October 2023 issue focused on the caste survey released in Bihar by the then-INDIA bloc leader Nitish Kumar, and the politics of Mandal versus Hindutva. 

It said the survey was a “timely electoral plank to woo the significant OBC vote”, even as the BJP “dismisses” it as a mere ploy to “divide” the Hindu voters. 

This was the first time that Purie recognised that the INDIA bloc might have an edge over the NDA. “Modi has led the way with such force and imagination that it compels opponents into a weak reactive mode… However, Nitish’s political googly has attempted to put the BJP on the defensive. That’s why the Congress and others have swung around to backing a nation wise caste census with gusto.” 

Three months later, the magazine’s next issue was titled, “The Collapse of INDIA”. It explored why the opposition alliance had fallen apart and its impact on the general election. 

Purie said, “The fundamental problem with INDIA is that they have no compelling narrative for the electorate except that they are anti-BJP, Prime Minister Modi in particular. Besides, they have no national leader to project.”

A shift in narrative

In the nine issues published since days before the Lok Sabha polls began, five in a row focused on the INDIA bloc. The April 15 issue, titled “Can INDIA topple Modi?”, looked into the game plan of the INDIA bloc with deep-dive analysis on what works for them and what does not. 

On April 22, it published an issue titled “Can BJP storm South?” – which weighed the strategies of the BJP, Congress and the regional parties of southern states. 

The last April issue was titled “Why Gen V matters?” It was a deep-dive into the significance of young voters and what they think about the BJP and the Congress; Modi and Rahul. 

Another edition focusing on the opposition was published on May 13. It said the elections were a battle for survival for regional parties such as the TMC, RJD, Shiv Sena-UBT and the NCP Sharad Pawar faction. 

Finally, the issue published on June 3, coinciding with the last date of polling, focused on the politics of reservation and how it became a polarising issue in the polls, which “might” impact final outcomes. 

Purie noted that the BJP leaders asking for a 400-seat mandate to change the constitution, and the opposition’s similar allegations against the BJP, had “gained” traction, especially among the Dalit. 

“It was this point that the BJP went into urgent damage control mode,” he wrote.  

Newslaundry reached out to India Today and editor-in-chief Aroon Purie. While Purie was out of reach, the media group’s spokesperson denied to comment on the matter.

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