For a shrewd communicator, it is a mystery why Prime Minister Narendra Modi has mismanaged his media strategy. In the beginning, his reluctance to hold press conferences was seen as a knee-jerk reaction to the harsh and often unfair media coverage he received following the 2002 Gujarat riots.
But silence is never an option for a political leader in a democracy. Modi’s refusal to hold interactive press conferences has led to the creation of an entire industry devoted to maligning him. It comprises an ecosystem faithful to the old order. As I’ve written before, the only thing worse than misinformation is no information. Just as nature abhors a vacuum, media abhors silence. It fills it up with sources (often non-existent), innuendo (mostly inaccurate) and allegations (frequently unfounded).
The PM’s relatively unscripted interview with ANI on New Year’s Day underscored the fact that interactions in a press conference setting would enable Modi to convey his economic and social agenda with even greater clarity. Not only does the PM not hold press conferences, his government has one of the most inept briefing protocols of a major democracy.
In the absence of regular media briefings by the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO), Ministry of External Affairs (MEA), Ministry of Defence (MoD) and other key ministries, the government’s narrative is severely compromised. In virtually every controversial move the government is caught flat-footed. A prime example: the Home Ministry’s order specifying the 10 agencies that can intercept data on public computer devices. There was no preliminary briefing by the ministry that the order had been passed in 2009 by the Congress-led UPA government, allowing the media to question the BJP government’s authoritarian intent.
Modi has tried to replace the traditional press conference with his weekly Mann ki Baat radio programme. He believes bypassing the mainstream media and going straight to the people works better in a country where media consumption is low. But Mann ki Baat and regular press conferences are not either-or alternatives: they are supplementary. Both are essential. One connects to Bharat, where the votes lie. The other connects to India where narratives are built.
What prevents Modi from opening up to the media? Critics have pointed to an unscripted question asked of the prime minister at a recent event on how tax policy has placed a “burden on the middle-class”. Modi dismissed the question, saying only “traders” think like that. Stung, the PMO ordered that in future questions at an open forum will have to be vetted before submission.
This creates the impression that Modi is afraid to take tough questions. That plays right into Congress President Rahul Gandhi’s hands who frequently fields questions at press briefings and taunts the prime minister for not having the courage to do so.
In 2011, on behalf of the Press Club, Mumbai, I had invited Modi, then CM of Gujarat, to address a gathering of over 200 journalists. He was initially keen but then demurred. The reason he gave was odd: he was unwilling to answer questions in English. I said Hindi was fine but there would be tough questions. No filters. No advance vetting. In the end Modi politely declined. It was three years before he was elected PM.
Modi’s reluctance was particularly surprising given the eloquent and forceful speaker he is. A robust question-answer press conference conducted in Hindi can dispel many misgivings about the government’s functioning and inform voters about the progress of several ambitious infrastructure projects.
The absence of cogent briefings by the MoD over Rafale is an especially damaging example of how the lack of swift, robust communications has created an opportunity for the Opposition to attack Modi through a series of innuendoes and distortions.
It is probably too late now to correct Modi’s media strategy. The Left bias in the mainstream media controls the narrative. India is listening to that narrative. Bharat will soon too. It can tip an election. The Opposition has smelt blood. Modi continues to speak at large rallies and ignore the press. Media-friendly Opposition leaders like Rahul Gandhi, Sitaram Yechuri, Mamata Banerjee, Mayawati, Akhilesh Yadav and Arvind Kejriwal use the media effectively to get their message across.
The bias against Modi in English media (bar a few “friendly” TV channels and newspapers) is deep-rooted. Some of it though is compromised by conflict of interest. The Editors Guild of India is now considering a suggestion I made recently that all members of the guild should disclose potential conflicts of interest that can arise from their business or personal relationships.
If, for example, a television anchor has a familial relationship with a political leader, or a panellist in a debate on Rafale is closely related to one of the Supreme Court petitioners against the deal, these facts must be disclosed at the start and conclusion of the programme through a scroll running at the bottom of the screen. That’s not all. In news programmes on specific subjects—Kashmir, for example—where an anchor has a serious personal conflict of interest which could colour his or her journalism, he or she should be recused.
All this does nothing to fill the information vacuum around the BJP-led NDA government. The BJP’s best spokesperson is Modi. By not taking live unscripted questions from the media, he is yielding control of the narrative to the Opposition.
The author is an editor and publisher