Weathering One Year of Modi’s Media Blitz

Modi’s media strategy is a complex one that is best summarised as ‘engaging with the media on his own terms’ in order to set the ‘national’ agenda.

EVERYONE'S WATCHING MODI: Famous morphed photograph circulated on social media by Modi fans shows Barack Obama closely following the Indian Prime Minister on TV.

EVERYONE’S WATCHING MODI: Famous morphed photograph circulated on social media by Modi fans shows Barack Obama closely following the Indian Prime Minister on TV.

In George Orwell’s dystopian classic 1984, ‘big brother’ was always watching you. In Modi’s utopia, which just celebrated its first birthday, ‘big brother’ is always speaking to you. Promising, haranguing, beseeching, preaching and finger-pointing. It is all meant to be riveting theatrics and great television.

Weathering this media blitz comprising 200 planned press conferences and rallies and about 5000 jana sabhas amplified through every conceivable media platform relentlessly, was not a matter of choice for most. All India Radio ensured that it travelled with you en route to work or leisure; larger-than-life Modi hoardings saturated the visual landscape; the one year celebrations figured prominently in office and indeed drawing room gossip and stayed with you through noisy TV networks well into the night till you hit the sack.

Clearly, this is overkill by any standard and as media critic Shailaja Bajpai of Indian Express recently noted, ‘If TV polls are correct on public appreciation of the PM’s performance, then why is the BJP preaching to the converted?’

Their master’s voice

Modi’s media strategy – and yes, it is a carefully thought through strategy – is a complex one that is best summarized as ‘engaging with the media on his own terms’ in order to set the ‘national’ agenda. The strategy has operated at several levels in the last one year.

At the most obvious level, Modi mistrusts the independent, private media. He prefers to speak to the people via Doordarshan, AIR (‘Mann ki baat’), or his twitter handle. Only DD and ANI travel with him when he goes abroad; to which one may add PTI when he wants to speak to the Indian public at large. Those reporting the Prime Minister’s Office say all they get are handouts. The message is tightly controlled by his trusted 70-year old aide Jagdish Thakkar, who Business Standard says, has the ‘uncanny ability to keep information out of reach of those people deemed unfit to receive it.’ PMO beat reporters complain that Thakkar ‘neither responds to message or calls nor does he answer queries.’ A senior reporter who covers the PMO said, ‘Nobody knew about the recent meeting between Modi and Manmohan Singh till Modi tweeted. And the fact that Singh had gone to meet the PM on Modi’s invitation became clear only after the former prime minister’s office clarified. The PMO beat is atrophying‘, he adds.

Every kind of government media is being used to spread the message. The launch of the country’s first ‘Kisan’ channel and the recent circular by the Information & Broadcasting ministry directing the all-powerful Director General (News) to report to the ministry instead of the Prasar Bharati board, which is supposed to be autonomous, are good examples. Prasar Bharati insiders say ‘the ‘Kisan’ channel will enable Modi to communicate directly to the farmers, a constituency where the BJP has traditionally been weak’.

While Modi is one of the most accomplished users of social media, tweeting furiously every time he has to make a point and logging around 12.7 million followers, second in the global list after Obama, he also sees the medium as a threat.

As a recent report in the Indian Express suggests, social media is closely monitored by the ‘New Media’ wing of the I&B ministry, which also monitors around 600 TV networks. In the last year, the I&B wing has trawled around 40 million websites and submitted 1395 reports to the PMO. This, 24X7 feedback serves as ‘advance warning’ to the government and shapes many of its policy level reactions, apart from providing feedback to the Intelligence Bureau, the Home Ministry and the Ministry of External Affairs. For example, recently the MEA sought feedback from the New Media wing on how Modi’s visit to the USA compared with that of Manmohan and even Narasimha Rao earlier. With a Centralised Monitoring System  to track digital information being put in place, the move from monitoring to surveillance is a short one, as Edward Snowden’s revelations have shown.

Distrusting domestic media

In his first year, all but one of Modi’s interviews were to the foreign media. The French newspaper Le Monde turned down an interview which would have involved emailed answers. In other cases, it is unclear if and how much the PMO vets questions beforehand. But the fact remains that interviewers have stuck to questioning Modi about India’s growth story or the lack of it, or India’s future prospects vis-a-vis China, rather than questions on domestic matters which might make him uncomfortable. (See for instance interview to CNN’s Fareed Zakaria).

Modi’s deep-seated distrust of the Delhi media is reflected in his use of the term ‘newstraders’ and ‘bazaaru’, stems from his twin desire for self-projection and for controlling the message (and even the messenger in case of government-run media networks). This crystallised distrust according to  I&B minister Arun Jaitley, stems from Modi’s supposed ‘vilification’ post-2002, which forced him to start ‘talking to people directly over the heads of the media.’ The British public relations expert Lance Price writes, ‘Modi was wary of the big TV interviews because he believed quite rightly, that he would almost certainly be asked about the riots and there was a risk that whatever he said in reply could overshadow the positive message he wanted to put across.’

As Price, one of the few writers who got several sit-down sessions with Modi after his election, says in his book, The Modi Effect, his election team, in the run up to the polls, deliberately chose to focus on his social media profile in order to undermine the mainstream media (MSM). Quoting the BJP IT cell Chief Arvind Gupta, Price says there was a feeling of powerlessness in the BJP leadership because of the media’s clout in setting the agenda. ‘Our responses were totally dependent on the mainstream media who could choose to show our messages or not,’ says Gupta.

MSM falls in line

However, it has not taken long for the MSM to go along with Modi’s strategy.

The clearest evidence of this comes from Modi’s interview to a Hindustan Times editorial panel comprising its Editor-in-Chief  and a senior colleague who specialises in national security reporting (and who tweeted a photograph of himself with Modi under the touching heading, ‘Leader & I’). Despite the interview taking place in early April, barely eight weeks after President Barack Obama had adversely commented about the ‘threat to diversity’ (January 28), the interviewers did not think it necessary to pursue the issue with the Prime Minister, at least going by the transcript the newspaper published over two pages. As a result, in the absence of questions on key issues like ghar wapsi, saffronisation of education, the sense of insecurity among minorities. and the growing clout of the RSS, the news value of this interview was considerably diminished. Interestingly, the same newspaper, its reporters have said privately, issued instructions to journalists and editors soon after Modi became PM that nothing critical of the leader should appear lest he decline an invitation to be the chief guest at the ‘Leadership Summit’ the HT was organising a few months later. (In the end, ironically, he did turn down the invite).

More direct, and one may add, even brazen, has been the kid gloves treatment accorded by the media, especially TV, to Amit Shah’s discharge in a murder case by a special CBI court. The perpetually outraged and self-righteous ‘Times Now’ had only a three minute story on his discharge with one reporter actually claiming that Amit Shah ‘loved’ to be in touch with the police staff in the field – the very grounds on which the court had overturned the CBI plea that he was unduly influencing officers. There was nothing on ‘super prime time’, Arnab Goswami’s evening daily two hour ‘shoutathon’.

The first time Modi promised protection for constitutionally enshrined minority rights came a few days after Obama’s veiled criticism, but nine months after coming to power. But as it turns out Modi’s assurances haven’t cut much ice with his Hindutva colleagues. Recently, in all the so-called ‘exclusive’ interviews  Modi has given to mark the end of his first year as PM – most of which are identical in terms of content – he assured the public that ‘any discrimination or violence against minorities will not be tolerated’. However, Sakshi Maharaj, the influential BJP MP from Uttar Pradesh, carries on undeterred. He recently denounced the city of Hyderabad as a ‘terror centre’, and called upon Hindus to produce more babies.“Muslims do not have a religion. They only believe in ending humanity. It is right to say that not every Muslim is a terrorist, but is also true that every terrorist is a Muslim,” he said. Why Modi has failed to take action against such leaders from his own parivar is a question he hasn’t been asked in any of his various interviews.

Media a tricky beast

There is no question that Modi has redefined engagement with the media, especially television, in a way that has no precedent in post-liberalized India. He sets a scorching pace that constantly challenges everyone, not least the political class. It surprises no one to find him one day signing a bilateral agreement with Fiji and the next day addressing an election rally in Palamau, Jharkhand. But riding the media is never easy and uncomplicated. In South Korea, when he went overboard in his comment, ‘earlier you felt ashamed to be born Indian’, he came under fire from people on Twitter. Lance Price, ‘communication expert’ and New Labour spin doctor would have told him that even a Prime Minister as popular as Tony Blair, had to depart in utter ignominy after he pushed a reluctant Britain into the Iraq war on false premises. Speeches and spin will take a leader’s message only so far. Revolutions and counter-revolutions will not be televised or tweeted. In a democracy, they will be voted on, in the privacy of an electoral booth, far from the evening talk shows.

Correction: Narendra Modi has 12.7 million Twitter followers and he is the second most followed political figure in the world after Barack Obama, not third as originally stated.