India's Modi Ignores the Press

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.

Apart from Price’s five hours, there seem to have been no other long interviews, though Modi has recently met (with Jaitley) a few carefully selected groups of editors and economics correspondents, and one or two foreign correspondents, who are then not allowed to report what is said.

Modi has given only two on-the-record to the Indian media – with the Hindustan Times last month and Dainik Jagran (in Hindi) on May 11. Then there was one with Time magazine, which ran internationally as a cover story on May 7 and one with The Economist.

The first three were reported as questions and answers, enabling Modi to be reported saying what he wanted, without being seriously pursued by follow-up questions. The Economist however only published selected quotations in a special 10-article report with the somewhat negative headline Modi’s rule – India’s one-man band – The country has a golden opportunity to transform itself. Narendra Modi risks missing it.

That cannot have been what Modi was hoping for, though he knew what he was getting into because the magazine couldn’t bring itself to recommend him and the BJP in the general election last year and fell back lamely on Rahul Gandhi and the Congress Party

There are strong criticisms, including this paragraph towards the end, which is scarcely what a Modi interview is supposed to generate: “He has not done enough to promote other talented individuals. In the course of a long conversation he never once refers to any of his ministers. He tends to say things like ‘I have created a ministry’ or ‘my government is acting’. When speaking about world affairs, he focuses on his personal rapport with other leaders. He seems to think he is the government.”

Earlier this month there were what looked like well-informed reports that Modi would hold his first press conference on May 23 to mark the first anniversary today of his swearing in. But he decided not to do so, and instead Jaitley was fielded at a big press conference to deploy his suave and agile lawyer’s mind to advocating and defending the government’s record. Jaitley is a good spokesman, but he is not the prime minister, and Modi’s decision not to appear in person was a setback for his image as a strong and confident leader.

Other prime ministers of course have given very few media conferences, notably Manmohan Singh and Atal Bihari Vajpayee who led India’s last two governments. But Singh was naturally withdrawn and wary of upsetting Sonia Gandhi, his party leader, while Vajpayee was ageing and spoke little.

Modi by contrast is a consummate extrovert who loves performing in public and does it well. He is doing neither himself nor his government any favors by standing aloof from the media and it looks as if his tweet-based public relations is not working because opinion poll surveys have found that only a small minority (20 percent in one survey) felt that Modi effectively communicated through social media and even fewer (17 percent) felt his big speeches made a substantial impact.

It is widely known that Modi’s distaste for the media stems from reporting after the 2002 riots, for which he was widely held responsible. But if he expects everyone to forget those riots and treat him on his current record, shouldn’t he put his 2002 views of the media behind him and deal with reporters, as Lance Price says, in the way that one would expect a prime minister to do in an open democracy?