It is best for India if Modi travels more and more

Sanu Nair
Sanu NairNov 17, 2015 | 12:53

It is best for India if Modi travels more and more

Enough snide remarks and jokes have been shared on social media at the expense of Prime Minister Narendra Modi's travel schedule. But now his critics may finally have a reason to stop complaining about it.

Although we, his countrymen, may not yet know how his aggressive sales pitches during his international trips have actually helped the economy, but the one thing we have recently learnt is that Modi is more likely to speak on issues he conveniently puts aside while in India.


Watching Modi shift uncomfortably while answering tough questions posed by an unimpressed British media during a joint press conference with his British counterpart David Cameron became pretty evident from the very first question hurled at him by BBC correspondent Justin Rowlatt: "India is becoming an increasingly intolerant place. Why?"

Neither the questions stopped, nor did the tone mellow down. Modi had finally encountered independent media.

Many of his supporters took to Twitter and Facebook to say that questioning a visiting prime minister on domestic issues is insulting and is an unwarranted attempt to interfere in India's domestic policies. But this embarrassment could have possibly been avoided if Modi had chosen to be a little more approachable to his own country's media and talk about issues which the world has now started taking notice of. Even as the topics make headlines in India, the prime minister is let off easily by never being asked the right questions.

The aggressive barrage of questions wasn't an aberration. Foreign media has been far less generous to Modi and his government recently than its counterpart in India. For instance, Modi's maiden visit to US as a prime minister in September 2014 had largely received a mute response from the American media. However, when he returned a year later media was far less impressed. Questions were being asked on the credibility of his proclaimed successes. In an article by Wall Street Journal titled "India's Modi at One Year: 'Euphoria Phase' Is Over, Challenges Loom", the writer was scathing in his attack by calling Modi's flagship project, Make in India, "so far mostly hype".


The New York Times labelled most of his ambitious projects as mere hypothesis. "From abroad, India is now seen as a bright spot, expected to pass China this year to become the world's fastest-growing large economy. But at home, job growth remains sluggish."

Most of the critique, till recently, was on the economic front. But sensing the iron grip control that his office has on mainstream media in India, foreign press pushed the boundary by getting into the uncharted territory of asking Modi whether he is even capable of keeping India together.

Ever since he won a decisive mandate in the summer of 2014, his critics have been pointing out how he has shut media away from his office in South Block. Except one polite interview to national daily Hindustan Times, Modi has kept himself away from media interviews and thereby saved himself from defending various questionable decisions of his government, including cuts in health expenditure, to answering why no action has been taken against motor mouth, hate-spewing comments of his cabinet colleagues. Indeed, a stark difference from 18 months ago when he was seen in studios of almost every news organisation worth its salt while campaigning for the general elections.


People who understand his working style say that he prefers direct communication with his electorates and therefore doesn't see the need to convey his messages via an intermediary - that is, the media. They say he doesn't trust the media on how they may dilute or twist his messages meant for the public. Therefore, he created his own medium to reach out to the masses, case in example his weekly radio show "Mann Ki Baat".

But such one-way communication due to perceived lack of trust can become a major hindrance for a leader of his stature in a democracy. Avoiding media maybe one way of not answering uncomfortable questions, but the longer he continues to dodge a dialogue where he might have to bring answers or prove his claims, it will only strengthen his reputation as an authoritarian leader. People who draw a comparison with his predecessor Manmohan Singh and claim that how the latter was largely silent on issues forget that he used to travel to other countries with a large contingency of journalists from India with whom he used to speak on various issues during those long flights. But this custom was conveniently stopped by the new PMO citing cost-cutting exercises.

But is Modi alone to be blamed? Does self-censorship of Indian media also have a role to play in the building of this perception about Modi? At a time when foreign media was questioning about rising intolerance in India, Indian media was busy toeing the official "mutual economic benefit" theme of Modi's visit to the UK.

All the televised questions of Indian journalists centred around the economic prospects of the partnership rather than asking Modi or more importantly David Cameron whether anti-minority sentiments in India can impact on how the UK looks at India as a trusted, long-term partner.

It is important that Indian media understands that blocking coverage of protests or by not asking the large Sikh and Punjabi diaspora in UK on their thoughts of growing unrest in election-bound Punjab is a big disservice not just to the profession of journalism but also to India.

Problem arises when journalists confuse their government's image with their country's pride. Or maybe, Prime Minister's Office has cracked the perfect recipe to distract the attention of the visiting Indian journalists during such foreign trips. The often seen pattern of coverage reveals that Indian media gets bedazzled by one big event, be it Wembley Stadium in London or Madison Square Garden in New York or even Sydney's Allphones Arena, and somewhere between all these glittering events, many serious issues find it almost impossible to find takers among the Indian journalists. A nation where journalists take it upon themselves to play publicists for their government and leave the space vacant for publicists to don the hat of journalists is a definite recipe for disaster. As they say, a freedom given up is never easy to regain.

Looking at how his last press conference went, it may be no surprise that over-enthusiastic senior babus in the external affairs ministry and PMO may even nix the idea of press conferences from his future visits. But given that Modi is unlikely to change his approach towards Indian media in the foreseeable future, we may end up relying a lot more on foreign press to seek answers from our prime minister on our behalf.

Last updated: June 04, 2016 | 11:45
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