Last Wednesday, to commemorate his two years in Rashtrapati Bhavan, President Pranab Mukherjee invited the media for tea. At the old ballroom — now inappropriately named the Ashoka room, considering the elaborate Persian hunting scenes on the ceiling — he delivered a charming speech outlining the importance of Sir Edwin Lutyens’ Viceregal Palace in the twilight years of the British. As an aside he also spoke about his continuing interaction — albeit in a non-political way — with the media. His various trips inside the country and overseas invariably contain a media contingent and Rashtrapati Bhavan has two officers responsible for servicing the media.
The president naturally spoke about his media outreach because the function was exclusively for the media. However, at the tea that followed in the old banquet room, a reporter for a English weekly magazine decided to give the president’s remarks a spin. Going from huddle to huddle, she said that the “story to do” was a comparison between the president’s open style — his press secretary had earlier called it the ‘democratization’ of Rashtrapati Bhavan — and the No Entry approach of the prime minister, Narendra Modi.
The media’s gripe with the new occupant of Race Course Road has already filled up many columns of the press, particularly the English language publications. Accustomed to being courted, wooed and briefed about each and every aspect of government by an active media department of the prime minister’s office that invariably included former journalists with existing links in the media, the fourth estate is miffed with Modi. Not only has the media policy been replaced by an information policy where the print and electronic media are treated on par with the social media, there is no one in the PMO to take calls and entertain queries.
Finally, in a move that left the media apoplectic with rage, Modi decided that he was not obliged to take a massive media contingent with him on his overseas tours. Interested media organizations could jolly well make their own arrangements but the government of India wasn’t going to either subsidize or facilitate a contingent that, if the past is any indication, contained as many non-journalists as those who actually reported. This withdrawal of an age-old entitlement has led to the end of the all-too-brief honeymoon he enjoyed with the media between the final stages of the election campaign (roughly from mid-April when the Congress collapse became self-evident to all but the wilfully blind) and the visit of the leaders of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation for his inauguration at the end of May.
Conventional wisdom deems that in the made-in-media society of the 21st century, no political leader can hope to survive in a democratic society by keeping the media firmly outside the gates. ‘Spin’ has become a favourite buzzword in political circles in the West and effective ‘spin doctors’ are much in demand in all democratic societies. The “government that has stopped spinning,” wrote The Times (London) with characteristic certitude in August 2003, “is the government that may well have stopped functioning.”
This over-weening importance attached to media presentation had a lot to do with the perception that new age politicians such as Tony Blair had taken the poetry out of politics and reduced it to weekly opinion polls, focus groups and targeting. In a searing, old world critique of New Labour, Lord Rees-Mogg, a former editor of The Times, wrote in disgust: “The government arrives at policy more or less by accident but arrives at propaganda —‘the line to take’— by careful planning and high-level discussions. The government is a presidency organised for propaganda not a Cabinet organised for policy.”
It is fortuitous for the political class that public disgust with unending spin was overtaken by the public revulsion for the media over their lack of ethics in the manufacture of news. In Britain, the circumstances that led to the closure of the News of the World — one of the most popular Sunday tabloids — led to the media as a whole being discredited. In India, the taped conversations of the public relations person, Niira Radia, with prominent journalists had a similar effect. Apart from breaking the myth about ‘objective’ journalism, it showed up many top dog journalists for what they actually were: brokers in the corridors of power.
Whether a disavowal of Western-style democratic politics or disgust with media that had hounded him relentlessly since 2002 determined Modi’s decision to switch from spin to bare-bone information will remain a matter of conjecture. However, two things are worthy of note.
First, unlike the Congress that was unduly sensitive to media criticism, particularly the English language publications and channels, Modi has survived the rough and tumble of politics by being disdainful of the media. Legends have grown around how he looked right through a prominent television anchor during the 2007 Gujarat election campaign and how he dismissed another star with contempt during one of his yatras in 2013. Indeed, confronted by a wall of media opposition as he transited from regional to national politics, Modi strove to bypass the mainstream media with an over-reliance on the social media where he could control the message. Contrary to some conspiracy theories of corporate media backing the ‘Modi for PM’ project, the Modi message was disseminated in 2014 from the social media downwards. It is only after the Modi campaign was on a roll that print and TV media jumped on to the bandwagon.
Secondly, Modi has concluded —rightly in my opinion — that the wider public doesn’t give a damn about either media conveniences or its trade union demands. Interestingly, he is not the only political leader of consequence to do so. Jyoti Basu was downright rude to the gaggle that used to greet him in the Writers’ Buildings corridor; J. Jayalalithaa never ceased being celluloid royalty; Naveen Patnaik was very civilized and extremely aloof; and there was the thick curtain that separated Sonia Gandhi from prying eyes, media or otherwise.
The media imagine that Modi is under an obligation to play the media game by the rules they have set. Modi feels that he can alter the rules to his advantage —even if leads to short-term hiccups. There is an unstated stand-off between Modi and the media that remains unresolved. For the moment, the media are undertaking a proxy war — trying to drag the government in the Ved Prakash Vaidik-Hafeez Sayeed meeting and having a ball massacring the unshaped views of the hapless Dina Nath Batra. But these are all sniper attacks. The media are yet to get their teeth into something more substantive such as a juicy corruption scandal or a serious policy mishap that will enable a frontal attack on the prime minister himself. On his part, Modi is using the honeymoon to establish an alternative outreach strategy that will not compromise on media exposure for the government’s policies and programmes but could end up limiting the media’s ability to be agents of influence.
In the West such an approach would undoubtedly have been politically hazardous. However, it is instructive to remember that Stanley Baldwin had no hesitation taking on the Beaverbrook press in the 1930s, knowing fully well that paper sales were no index of public opinion. Modi is only too aware of the media’s limitations in India. He also knows that there is a long way to go before the Indian media can acquire a self-image of being truly professional and without a collateral agenda. His priority is to get his message across. As long as there is a credible message, the medium will fall in place.