Indian PM Narendra Modi is yet to address a single question at a news conference after more than six years in power, even in the middle of a worldwide pandemic.
Another year has passed, and what an incredible year it was. Words may not do justice to how tumultuous and revolutionary the year 2020 was. Even though certain elements of our world have experienced paradigm transformations, others have not. Of course, one of these constants has been Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s aversion to news conferences, which borders on intentional neglect and disinterest.
In democratic nations, press conferences provide an essential layer of openness and accessibility, since the public implicitly expects journalists to hold leaders responsible or, at the very least, to obtain answers to questions that the public cannot directly ask. They offer a rare opportunity to press leaders to defend and clarify their decisions outside of the seemingly impenetrable bureaucratic barriers. Press conferences, on the other hand, provide leaders with an opportunity to step outside of their echo chambers.
Although legislative discussions allow for such reflection, the hyper-polarity that characterizes these debates frequently leads to even well-stated comments being disregarded out of hand just because they were made by the opposition, with the merits of their arguments being entirely ignored.
PM Modi, on the other hand, has only participated in one news conference since taking office in 2014. I use the term ‘participated’ loosely because he didn’t answer a single question, instead deferring to former party president Amit Shah, who has now been appointed Minister of Home Affairs.
In actuality, India Today reported in January 2020 that it had submitted a Right to Information (RTI) request with the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO), requesting the number of news conferences held by the PM thus far, as well as the dates and locations of each one. The PMO, on the other hand, stated that it does not have this information “on file.”
Modi has done his fair share of interviews, notably in the run-up to the 2019 general election, when he participated in 10 print media and four television interviews throughout 20 days. However, a closer examination of these interviews, most of which have been republished on the PM’s website, reveals that they were highly sanitized, choreographed, and planned exercises that eliminated any chance of candor.
Despite all of Modi’s predecessor’s failings and scandals, Dr. Manmohan Singh was considerably more available to the journalists, although Modi mockingly referred to him as Maun (silent) Mohan Singh. “People say I was a quiet prime minister,” Singh writes in his book Changing India. “[…] I was not the PM who shied away from speaking to the press. I met the press regularly, and after every overseas trip, I had a news conference.”
It’s troubling that this pattern has persisted despite a pandemic that has infected at least 30 million Indians and nearly 500,000 people have died.
In reality, India continues to record upwards of 20,000 new instances every day, highlighting the critical necessity for leaders to hold regular news conferences. Modi has given numerous national addresses, but none of them have allowed for questions.
Modi’s lack of participation in press conferences is unsurprising in a country that ranks among the top five most dangerous countries for journalists and where press freedoms have plummeted in recent years. According to Reporters Without Borders’ 2020 World Press Freedom Index, India is now ranked 142nd out of 180 nations, down from 133rd in 2016.
Even though India’s leader avoids questioning at all costs, the populace has been conditioned to accept this new disturbing paradigm as a normal part of a healthy democratic country. Modi has skillfully co-opted the Indian populace into a system where his words are taken at face value and his lack of transparency and accessibility is misinterpreted for power and assertiveness by refusing to hold a single news conference for over six years.
In reality, according to a Pew Research survey published in 2017, 55% of Indians support a system “in which a strong leader may make decisions without interference from parliament or the judiciary.”
The prevalence or surge in these beliefs, combined with the fact that 85 percent of Indians ‘trust’ their government, has resulted in a situation in which Modi has essentially been given a free pass to remove pillar after pillar of the checks and balances in place to hold him accountable to the public. This creates a hazardous precedent for future Indian leaders, who will not likely wonder why they are being required to meet a norm that their predecessors did not, thus eroding the increasingly brittle foundations of Indian democracy.