India’s Modi Ignores the Press
As Modi celebrates, his chosen election rapporteur criticizes his lack of media accountability
Social media is awash today with messages marking the first anniversary of Narendra Modi’s swearing in as prime minister. Modi himself is celebrating with tweets to his on-line followers and others that make exaggerated claims about his government’s successes.
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. People can of course reply through tweeting or other statements, but Modi has avoided on-the record questions from the media, and amazingly has not dared to hold a press conference that would be attended by Indian and foreign journalists to mark his first year in office today. Nor has he done a television interview.
This lack of a willingness to expose himself to media questions has been widely criticized, but Modi might be surprised by the fact that even Lance Price, the British writer who he personally selected to be the chronicler of last year’s election victory, says he should open up.
“I believe it is a fundamental principle of a democracy that an elected prime minister should be accountable through the media,” says Price, whose book The Modi Effect: Inside Narendra Modi’s Campaign to Transform India, was published in March. “That means answering legitimate questions put freely by journalists on a fairly regular basis.”
This is what Modi has resolutely refused to do since becoming prime minister, preferring to tweet one-liners that do not lead to journalists’ questions. He has also relied on his considerable skills at oratory to mass audiences where no journalist can question him, and on his able all-purpose finance and information minister, Arun Jaitley, to face the press.
Price, who used to be a spokesman for prime minister Tony Blair, voiced his criticism during a session on Modi’s first year that I was moderating at the Jaipur Literary Festival’s JLF at South Bank in London on May 16. I asked him at the end of the session to imagine he was again a prime ministerial adviser – for Modi – and comment on his chances of winning a second five-year term in 2019.
He thought Modi could be re-elected if he made more progress, and was very critical of him for not making himself available to the media. Later he gave me the comment I’ve quoted above. He also said, “I was given exclusive access to Narendra Modi for my book, but unusually for a journalist it is an exclusive I would gladly give up”.
Lance Price was head-hunted
Price says he was head-hunted for the job of writing a book on Modi’s victory, and that he had about five hours of interviews with prime minister in three sessions last year. No other writer has had anywhere near that access. Rajdeep Sardesai, who wrote 2014 The Election that Changed India and who was also on the JLF panel, had no meeting, even though he has known Modi for some 20 years and talked with him till the election.
At first glance, it seemed odd that Modi should choose to provide the opportunity for long and exclusive book interviews with a writer who, though he had visited India several times, had never written about the country – nor was he in India during the election, so he had to start his research from scratch.
But maybe that was the exactly the detachment and lack of background knowledge that Modi wanted because it would limit what the author could achieve in terms of critical analysis and comment, revisiting history such as the Godhra 2002 riots in Modi’s Gujarat.
Price says in his book that Modi may have chosen him because he wanted to be recognized on the world stage and be compared “as a consummate genius of electoral tactics” with people like Blair, But, he adds (and I agree), the more likely reason is that he “came with no prejudices or preconceptions.”
Modi is probably pleased with the book, which does not have the personal revelations and insights one might have expected after five hours of interviews. Instead there is a workmanlike history of the man and a very detailed account of the election campaign, with special emphasis on social media and mass communications.