Prime Minister Narendra Modi keeps claiming historical firsts. However, the one thing he can genuinely claim as a real first is the fact that he is the first prime minister in democratic India to never have held a press conference.
With barely 16 months left for his term to end, he has not felt the need to hold himself and his government accountable to a free press. How fundamental this is for a real democracy is evident in the fact that even US President Donald Trump, with his permanent fulminations against “fake news” and a press he perceives as irremediably hostile, has held regular press conferences and continued the well-established practice of the White House spokesman holding nearly daily briefings for accredited correspondents.
Ending age-old traditions
Modi used to mockingly call his predecessor Dr Manmohan Singh “Maun Mohan Singh”, but he has beaten Singh in his bid to take away the meta-institutional respectability of a free press.
Unlike Modi, who is an elected prime minister, Singh was a nominated prime minister. But Singh did not shy away from press briefings. He held at least two each year and regularly spoke to the media aboard his flight during foreign trips.
Modi, much to the delight and applause of right-wing trolls, did away with the practice of carrying the media with him on his dizzying schedule of foreign trips – which nearly add up to 40.
Unfortunately, Modi portrayed this as an example of the “luxurious lifestyle of the Lutyens-paid media” as he was given to railing to his faithful. The reality, as with most claims made by Modi, is somewhat different. The media accompanying the prime minister got a free ride on the taxpayer money on Air India flight but paid for their own accommodation and other expenses.
This tradition enabled the press corps to interact with top officials and ministers accompanying the prime minister and in turn made the government accountable to the people – a fairly standard practice in most democracies.
Modi has made no secret of his disdain for the media and has given carefully choreographed interviews only to two friendly channels. In one case, Modi wore the colours of the group and the said group took out full-page advertisements launching their telecom foray. The interview, such as it was, was unintentionally hilarious thanks to an overawed editor/anchor and with Modi helpfully asking questions as well as launching in to monologues.
Not once did the “journalist” interrupt him or ask a follow-up question. This was a prime example of the embedded “Modi megaphones” in the media.
Modi has ensured that his ministers follow suit and are either hostile, like Union Minister for Information and Broadcasting Smriti Irani, who cultivates a constituency of trolls on social media, or terrified to meet the press. Even ministers such as home minister Rajnath Singh, who earlier had cordial relationships with the media, have walled themselves up, perhaps under instructions from the heavies in the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO).
More so, the earlier practice of Press Information Bureau (PIB) accredited corespondents getting free and unfettered access to ministries is under threat. Even if you have a PIB card, you are now expected to disclose which official you are meeting. The official is subsequently subjected to hostile questioning. This has ensured that most “sources” have dried up and reporters face unprecedented problems in getting routine information.
While the government may be gleeful, the citizens are poorer as the government is using intimidation to cover up information it does not want leaked. Take the case of the Right to Information Act (RTI). The Modi government, which has virtually centralised all power in the PMO, has the worst track record in replying to RTI questions – there is 80℅ increase in RTI queries rejected without reason under this PMO.
This clearly is a PM who truly believes that he is above institutional scrutiny whether from the media or citizens.
A watchful eye
Modi has also discontinued the practice of the prime minister having a press advisor who used to be a point person for the media. Before Modi, all prime ministers, including Atal Behari Vajpayee, had a senior journalist or an official as press advisor. Now the media has no clue as to whom to call in the PMO.
A trusted Modi aide has been deployed even in the Central Hall of Parliament where journalists earlier had access to members of parliament and ministers. This Gujarat official stands at the entrance and makes a list of BJP ministers and MPs who speak to journalists.
Clearly those so openly watched and listed now avoid journalists for dear life. “After I had an innocuous exchange with a senior print media editor, the same day I got a call from a top party leader asking what I had told him. It was quite embarrassing,” said a senior minister.
Gujarat journalists who have covered Modi as chief minister are not remotely surprised. They say Modi employed similar methods in Gandhinagar to completely freeze the press out. Modi also ensured that the assembly barely met and that even when sessions were on, they were hardly attended.
Despite his dramatic bowing before the steps of the parliament, he has replicated the “Gujarat model” in Delhi. The current truncated winter session is a testament to this. The winter session was truncated because Modi and his entire team was busy campaigning in Gujarat.
Modi prefers a one-way dialogue with his Twitter handles, his NAMO app and his radio monologue “Mann Ki baat“. The trouble is that no questions are tolerated or allowed in this one way spiel.
Foreign corespondents also complain of being made to feel like “pariahs” if they write a story the Modi government believes is unflattering. A senior editor of a French paper despairingly said, “How do I write about ‘love jihad‘ and the lynching of Muslims over beef as shining examples of Modi’s good governance? Or even about the disaster that was demonetisation in any kind of flattering light? We get calls from unhappy ministers and that’s pretty much that. Post that, access is frozen out.”
A chilling legacy
Interestingly, Modi only dislikes the free media. More so, a few cheerleader channels, described by former BJP leader Arun Shourie as “North Korean channels”, who devote all their time to attacking and holding the opposition to account, as well as propaganda websites which have come up under Modi’s regime, are flourishing directly and are even indirectly funded by the BJP.
Modi’s disdain for institutional accountability which is built into a democracy is an ominous portent especially as he and BJP chief Amit Shah move into 24/7 campaign mode for the string of upcoming state elections and the 2019 general election.
The lack of even a single press conference and the belief that he is above any media scrutiny is a chilling effect that Modi has undoubtedly had on Indian democracy.
Swati Chaturvedi is a Delhi-based journalist.