After almost in his two terms in government, and even in the middle of a worldwide epidemic, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has yet to address a single news conference question.
Words may not do credit to how tumultuous and dramatically revolutionary the year 2020 was. However, although certain elements of our world have experienced paradigm shifts, others have not. One of these constants has been Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s long-standing antipathy to news conferences, which borders on deliberate neglect and disinterest.
Press conferences provide an essential layer of openness and accessibility to democratic nations since the public implicitly trusts journalists to hold politicians responsible or, at the very least, to obtain answers to questions that the public cannot directly ask. They offer a one-of-a-kind opportunity to press leaders to defend and clarify their decisions outside of the impenetrable walls of bureaucracy. At the same time, press conferences allow leaders to move outside of their echo chambers.
Modi mockingly referred to his predecessor, Dr Manmohan Singh, as “Maun Mohan Singh,” but he has defeated Singh in his quest to erode the meta-institutional credibility of a free press.
Singh was a nominated prime minister, as opposed to Modi, who was elected. Singh, on the other hand, did not shy away from news conferences. He held at least two per year and spoke to the media on board his international flights frequently basis.
To the surprise and acclaim of right-wing trolls, Modi has abandoned the habit of bringing the media with him on his dizzying schedule of overseas travels — which nearly totals 40.
Unfortunately, Modi cited this as an example of the “luxurious lifestyle of the Lutyens-paid media,” as he frequently yelled at his fans. The truth, like with most of Modi’s assertions, is considerably different. The journalists that accompanied the prime minister were given a free ride on an Air India flight but had to pay for their lodging and other expenses.
The custom allowed the journalists to engage with top officials and ministries accompanying the prime minister, making the government response to the public — a fairly common practice in most democracies.
Modi has made no secret of his contempt for the media, giving carefully orchestrated talks to just two favourable networks. In one example, Modi donned the group’s colours, and the group ran full-page advertising announcing the beginning of their telecom venture. The interview, for what it was, was inadvertently funny, due to an overawed editor/anchor and Modi, who generously asked questions and launched into outbursts.
The “journalist” never interrupted him or asked a follow-up question. This was a classic example of the media’s implanted “Modi megaphones.”
Modi has guaranteed that his ministers are either antagonistic to the press, such as Minister of Women and Child Development Smriti Irani, who cultivates a social media constituency of trolls, or afraid of meeting with the press. Even ministers like defence minister Rajnath Singh, who previously had good ties with the media, have walled themselves off, possibly on orders from the Prime Minister’s Office heavies (PMO).
Furthermore, the previous practice of Press Information Bureau (PIB) accredited journalists having unrestricted access to ministries is in danger. Even if you have a PIB card, you must now declare who official you are meeting with. Following that, the official is exposed to aggressive questioning. As a result, most “sources” have dried up, and reporters are having unprecedented difficulty obtaining ordinary information.
While the government is happy, the public is impoverished because the government is employing intimidation to conceal facts that it does not want to be released. Consider the Right to Information Act (RTI). The Modi administration, which has effectively centralised all authority in the PMO, has the poorest track record in responding to RTI requests — there has been an 80c/o rise in RTI requests denied without explanation under this PMO.
This is a Prime Minister who feels he is beyond institutional criticism, whether from the media or citizens.
Modi has also ended the practice of the prime minister having a press advisor who served as a media point person. Before Modi, every prime leader, including Atal Behari Vajpayee, had a press advisor who was either a senior journalist or an official. The media is now at a loss as to whom to contact in the PMO.
When the media posed questions to Prime Minister Modi, he directed them to Amit Shah, who responded. PM Modi then stated that the BJP president addresses questions in his party, implying that he was present at the news conference as a BJP leader rather than the prime minister.
While the Prime Minister’s Office claims that it does not keep records of the prime minister’s media interactions, Narendra Modi’s website, www.narendramodi.in, has a distinct area where one can locate media interviews that he has done in the past. However, there is no mention of an open press conference on the list.
Even in the Central Hall of Parliament, where media formerly had access to members of parliament and ministers, a trusted Modi assistant has been stationed.
Those who were openly monitored and named now avoid journalists at all costs. “The same day I had a normal chat with a major print media editor, I received a call from a high-ranking party official asking what I had told him. “It was a bit embarrassing,” a senior minister remarked.
Modi favours a one-way conversation via his Twitter accounts, NAMO app, and radio monologue “Mann Ki Baat.” The issue is that no questions are tolerated or permitted in this one-sided presentation.
Surprisingly, Modi despises just the free press. Furthermore, a few cheerleader channels, dubbed “North Korean channels” by former BJP leader Arun Shourie, that devote all of their time to attacking and holding the opposition accountable, as well as propaganda websites that have sprouted up under Modi’s regime, are flourishing directly and indirectly funded by the BJP.
It is quite troubling that this pattern has been maintained amid a pandemic that has infected at least 10.3 million Indians and killed close to 150,000 people. In reality, India continues to record upwards of 20,000 new instances every day, underscoring the exceptional necessity for leaders to appear at infrequent news conferences. Although Modi has made numerous national speeches, these are not open to criticism.
Not only has this substantially hampered the press, and therefore the public, from challenging the decisions that led to this escalating crisis and the measures the government has implemented to halt the spread of the virus, but it is also significantly out of sync with what other leaders have done. Not only has this severely hampered the press, and thus the citizenry, from questioning the decisions that led to the escalation of the crisis, as well as the policies implemented by the government to halt the spread of the virus, but it is also significantly out of step with what other leaders of democratic nations have done during these uncertain and chaotic times.
The fact that Modi has never attended a news conference is unsurprising in a country that rates among the five deadliest for journalists and where press freedoms have plummeted in recent years. In the 2020 World Press Freedom Index, India now ranks 142nd out of 180 nations, down from 133rd in 2016.
According to a 2017 Pew Research Center poll, 55% of Indians prefer a system in which “a strong leader can make decisions without interference from parliament or the judiciary.” Coupled with the fact that 85 per cent of Indians ‘trust’ their government, the prevalence or surge in these beliefs has resulted in a situation in which Modi has been essentially given a free pass to get rid of pillar after pillar of the checks and balances in situ to carry him accountable to the general public.
This creates a hazardous precedent for future Indian presidents, who will no doubt wonder why they should be held to a standard that their predecessor did not, all of which helps to erode the already brittle foundations of Indian democracy.