Neither Modi nor his government likes journalists to ask questions
Reporters aren't postal staff who pick up letters and drop them to addresses without any ifs and buts. Are they?
- Total Shares
I know the right question. But before I put it across at a news conference these days, I have several to put to myself.
And that presents an unusual challenge for a journalist who has covered successive governments for nearly 13 years.
"Are there good questions and bad questions?" I wonder. "Am I afraid of being judged?" or "Am I weary of questions or have I just turned cynical?" I ask.
Never before have I been pounded by such dilemma in my quest for possible missing links and overlaps while reporting.
But I am now and so are many others in the fraternity, I believe, whose craft traditionally lay in producing compelling answers and not spins that obfuscate facts.
On November 12, the nation's finance minister invited the press to the national media centre in the national capital.
It was supposed to be a significant event, given its timing - just four days after the prime minister's shock announcement that 500 and 1,000-rupee notes would cease to be legal tender.
What surprised me most at the minister's news conference were the responses over the planning and execution of the demonetisation exercise.
I couldn't help wonder if mounting miseries of the common man weren't a loud evidence.
On the contrary, I sensed the event was designed to serve as a covert compliment to a historically radical measure that its architects were defending as "bold".
Reporters were picked and chosen by the director-general of the Press Information Bureau for their questions, as if from a readymade red-and-green list.Will we ever get an opportunity to play our part boldly as the fourth pillar of democracy, Mr Prime Minister? Photo: PTI
Nevertheless, I asked questions that I felt the people wanted answered.
This was my first poser to minister Arun Jaitely: "My fellow colleagues and I, who are covering stories from ground zero, will disagree with you. Don't you think there is mismanagement at the banks and people are suffering?"
My second question: "Does the government have the exact data of black money being used for terror funding or is the entire demonetisation drive based on guesstimates?"
When the minister was answering, someone took away the microphone from my hand unceremoniously.
That narrowed down my opportunity to counter-question. I had no other option but to try out my vocal chords, but unsuccessfully.
Nonetheless, what I asked were must-ask questions for any journalist to a government whose abrupt decision has acutely distressed the citizenry en masse.
These are challenging times for the media. The pitch is the same and so are the players, but the goalposts have changed.
Nowadays, you don't really hear tough questions.
During the winter session of Parliament, I realised how I miffed minister Ravi Shankar Prasad by asking whether he knew of five ways of doing cashless payments.
In the present climate of polarisation, journalists carry the burden of being judged and stamped for the questions they ask.
So, minister Prasad, pretty rudely, told me he would never grant me an interview ever.
Clearly, those in power and positions of influence are trying to cut the reporters to size.
Earlier, we carried a lot of weight. We were they eyes and ears of the news gathering system. Now we live in an era of social media where news is breaking on Twitter and Facebook.
The powerful assume they need no one on the ground to be asking questions. They think their message can be delivered directly to the newsroom.
Recently, a reporter told me a senior leader of a political party had called her editor-in-chief to complain she hadn't run his interview.
Reporters aren't postal staff, who pick up letters and drop them to addresses without any ifs and buts. Are they?
These days, press conferences have become the biggest PR exercises for all political parties because tough questions have become rare.
A case in point is a press conference that I happened to cover - of BSP chief Mayawati, at her party office on New Delhi's Gurdwara Rakab Ganj Road.
After a near 45-minute address, she threw the house open for so-called questions. It appeared to be a departure from her earlier practice of not taking questions. I was excited and enthusiastically raised my hand. She nodded in response.
"Behenji, the PM and Amit Shah say that it's the BSP that has suffered the most due to demonetisation," I asked, noticing a change in her expressions. "Even the UP CM has said it," I continued.
But before I could complete my question, she cut me short. "It seems that she has been sleeping during the press conference. Your question is over," the BSP leader retorted.
And that was the end of it. She was not interested in my questions. Later, a journalist covering the BSP for a long time told me that Behenji sensed where my question could have led the news conference. She just won't allow anything that would make her uncomfortable, the reporter said.
I feel the political class is increasingly becoming intolerant. Painting and tainting is becoming a norm.
"Either you are with us or you are with them (against us)." That appears to be the new phenomenon.
In the past too questioning ministers on their own power trip was not easy, but then journalists were not compartmentalised as Sanghi or Congressi.
The changing role of the media can be understood by the press conferences then PM Manmohan Singh held, three of them during his ten years in office.
The last being in 2014 when a journalist asked him about the perception that UPA chairperson Sonia Gandhi was stronger than the PM. A senior fellow journalist, Neeraj Gupta asked him whether it was true that the government was run by 10 Janpath and all decisions were approved and stamped there, instead of 7 RCR.
These were the questions that dominated the public discourse then. PM Singh's answers to them made headlines.
His response was measured and calm. He didn't look agitated or angry. He admitted graciously enough that Sonia Gandhi was a guiding force, and left it to history to judge him.
The present PM has yet to hold a news conference.
But prime minister Modi has time on his hands. Before we leave it to history, let's do a reality check and ask if we'll ever get an opportunity to play our part boldly as the fourth pillar of democracy.