A Confident Modi Lowers His Guard Against Media
Fresh from victories in Maharashtra and Haryana, a sort of referendum on his popularity, and the positive response to his various schemes, his reception in the US and enthusiasm in Australia over his going there—special Modi Express in which his fans will travel to meet him—and signs of foreign investments picking up, Modi knows his position is un-assailable
He is no longer the media -battered Modi of May 26, but one whose position is unassailable. The Festival of Lights, Cheer and Goodwill seems to have had an amazing influence on Narendra Modi who forgot all about his abhorrence and distrust of the media and promised to look “for ways to strengthen my relationship with you …and I will try to find more time to meet you more often.”
Modi who forgot all about his abhorrence and distrust of the media and promised to look “for ways to strengthen my relationship with you …and I will try to find more time to meet you more often.”
The change of heart after treating the journalists as untouchables for five months thrilled the 400 and odd of them assembled at 9, Ashok Road on the invitation for lunch by the BJP President Amit Shah. Modi spoke for about 10 minutes and won most of his media audience by recounting that when he was posted at the Party Headquarters and looked after the press, he used to arrange chairs and waited for the press corps. “Those days were different.” He added that he was friendly with quite a few. A man of action and one who does not say anything lightly, it can be expected that he will interact with Press more often. It is, however, not clear whether he will also meet any media person on one-to-one basis, especially editors and Channel chiefs.
At the meet, Modi broke the security cordon and walked towards the gathered press people but instead of stopping to meet editors and Channel chiefs, he moved on to the middle-rung journalists—foot soldiers who write reports. And he floored them. About 150 odd press people he met were thrilled and euphoric. Modi is a great communicator. They clicked selfies with Modi. And he obliged. They were surely won over.
Why this change of heart? It’s because Modi is now supremely confident of himself. Fresh from victories in Maharashtra and Haryana, a sort of referendum on his popularity, and the positive response to his various schemes, his reception in the US and enthusiasm in Australia over his going there—special Modi Express in which his fans will travel to meet him—and signs of foreign investments picking up, Modi knows his position is un-assailable.
He is no longer the Modi, battered and shaken by the media, tirade against him for over a decade when he took oath of office on May 26. The Modi of today is assured of his mandate and knows the media can do no damage to him. What a change! From that Modi who had developed a pathological dislike of journalists in English media, as a reaction to the decade-long criticism of his handling of the 2002 riots and of him personally as well—for years called mass murderer, fascist, bigot, communal, divisive and a collaborator in the riots—to a cool and assured Modi who knows that he is now beyond the reach of the media machinations.
The anathema in certain section of the media was so much that a lady anchor thought nothing of criticising Modi and castigating a foreign country for inviting the Gujarat Chief Minister. While interviewing a British MP, Barry Gardiner, she asked him why he invited Modi to the UK knowing about his role in 2002 riots. When he countered that Modi had been cleared by the Supreme Court, you cannot over-rule it. The lady said she could criticise the judgement. The MP, whom I know very well, later told me that it seemed a section. With such a backdrop, Modi’s distrust and animus against the media made him slam the door on the journalists. He lamented on his 100th day in office that he didn’t know how to reach a group of 22. He possibly knows the identity of these 22, quite a few of them might be journalists. Vinod Mehta while writing about the ‘Art 370’ against the media had said: “If liberals and pseudo-secularists need a hate figure to keep their adrenalin pumping, the reverse also holds: Right-wing politicians with a rising profile may come to terms with most enemies, but they keep at least one permanently handy. You could call it a pet hate. The prime minister’s pet hate is mainstream English journalists.”
Ironically, during the 150 days Modi kept the media out of bound, it gave him positive coverage generally, far more than it gave many other prime ministers. It would not have been lost on Modi that the media refrained from mentioning 2002 riots nor given any time to the likes of Teesta Setalvad ever since he became prime minister. And this despite the media is being kept at an arm’s length by Modi.
The other pertinent fact is that in these 150 days Modi innovated his own network for communicating with people. He could reach relevant news across the country effectively. Apart from using Doordarshan, he scheduled a programme Mann Ki Baat on AIR, in which he talks informally, in a chatty style. Every listener would feel he is talking with him. Modi struck gold with this programme. This has proved to be an extremely useful means of reaching the constituency the print or electronic media cannot.
AIR covers over 90 per cent of the population. Sources said that he planned to share his ideas through radio quite regularly. Modi also said in a tweet that he has received many ideas and suggestions for it.
According to officials, the speeches will be quickly translated into 24 Indian and 16 foreign languages. “The idea of the Prime Minister of India sharing his thoughts with countrymen has been received enthusiastically.” TV cannot cover most of the rural areas. Firstly, sets are expensive and secondly power is needed. Whereas, a simple radio set would cost around Rs100/ and can work on batteries.
Modi has also been writing personally to different category of people explaining a particular scheme launched, benefits from it and then requesting their help. He has already used this method of communication a couple of times—teachers, bank employees, insurance officials, industrial training institutes’ students and labour inspectors, for instance. Most who receive letter from the Prime Minister are awed and feel honoured. A lady teacher was so excited after reading the letter that she went round her neighbourhood showing the letter. The impact of such direct communication is what makes Modi retain the support of people.
But despite having set-up an extensive network of his own, Modi’s statement at the Diwali Milan that he will try to find time to meet the media more did come as a surprise. Yet, one cannot doubt his sincerity. A man of action, he is also a man of his words. He might not hold press conferences like the ones held at Vigyan Bhavan but meet he will. Details are unknown. An excellent communicator he might hold meetings like the Diwali Milan one. It is doubtful if he will interact on one-to-one basis.
Complete normalisation between media persons and the PMO might take some time, even a year or more. But it would never be like in the UPA days, when relationships between some politicians on the make and some journalists changed to ‘you take care of me, I will take care of you’.
This change was a reflection of how polity changed over the years. From a straight forward interaction of a political figure wanting publicity with a journalist keen to get information, albeit without any favours given or sought, the relationship became one of give and take.
The “politicisation of the journalists had not begun,” once M.S. Gurupadaswamy observed. “Favours were neither offered nor expected. The fervour of becoming free lingered. But since then gradually as the moral codes and conduct of quite a few politicians started to nose-dive, attempts were made to tempt and seduce journalists to do their bidding. Some fell for the bait but by and large Indian media has remained independent and unbiased. Although as saying goes only a few rotten fish pollute a pond.”
Ministers and political leaders nurtured favourite reporters or even fawning editors, and failing that a direct communication with the owner, mostly business houses, always liable to pressure. The politicians are to blame for they had the capacity to lure, tempt and seduce a journalist whose income limits his desires. The few journalists who opted for particular minister’s camp got politicised as well. Modi would surely be aware of their identity. He can and will ignore them. This group of usual suspects, who during the UPA government fell to temptations offered by some politicians, would feel left out as Modi would not touch them. They would sorely miss the previous regime, which means this group would always be opposed to Modi.
But the more serious fact is that quite a few in the English media are class conscious and also have serious ideological differences with Modi. This category will always be opposed to him. The comment by Mani Shankar Aiyer that Modi cannot become prime minister in this century smacks of class prejudice. His next sentence that if Modi wishes he could get a space opposite AICC office to open a tea shop affirmed the class consciousness. His comments, instead of harming Modi, helped in uniting all tea vendors and those who are opposed to such social divisions. When one tries to swim against the current, such outcomes should be expected.
The practise of give and take deepened during the UPA 2. And that affected the reputation of the entire media, most of which is upright and anxious only to perform its duties as watchdog. That one sentence that “it is in our interest that the Congress revives,” exposed the politicisation of quite a few Delhi media persons. It indicated the close relations they developed with the Congress politicians. But they could not help the Congress. The media does help form opinions but can hardly stem a wave, like the one whipped by Modi. What it did was to convince Modi that the Delhi English media was against him. To quote Mehta again, “An article of faith, alas, is a double-edged sword. It allows for no moderation. A successful politician brings many qualities to the table. Vital among them is sound instinct.
“So, if the PM’s gut-feeling is that English-speaking journos (head full of alien western notions apropos the Idea of India) are out to get him, he is perfectly entitled to his opinion.”
This is a candid and bold statement from one who was one of the bitterest critics of Modi. He is honest and bold enough to admit his change of opinion about Modi, obviously because of his work.Some believe that Modi is being wise in still avoiding jurnos in Delhi. Of course, all are not anti or pro him. These are the classical journalists who do not let their personal biases affect their edits and analyses. But some have continued to hit at him, by even fabricating or twisting facts. The recent Rajdeep Sardesai ugly incident in New York in which he allegedly said that Modi won just by 31 per cent vote and then on being heckled he reportedly asked, how much Modi paid were in extremely bad taste. To criticise one’s Prime Minister on a foreign soil is simply not passé.
There is another heavyweight TV journo who allegedly turned na khatha hun na khane dunga into khatha hun aur khane dunga in the blog this worthy anchor wrote. But even with such worthies Modi voluntarily offered to meet the media more frequently. It is to be seen whether now the irreconcilables declare a truce or continue their acerbic utterances against Modi. If they do it could be back to the closed door policy. As one rightly summed up: placing hurdles will not be of any use for Modi is flying these days.
A confident Modi has offered an olive branch, let’s see how the media reacts.
By Vijay Dutt