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Modi-fying Media : Just for elections or beyond?

By Shreeshan Venkatesh

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With the shadows of the 2002 communal violence looming large, vying for a position at the head of the government would have seemed inconceivable for Modi. Yet, today in the run-up to the General Elections 2014, Narendra Modi stands at the cusp of achieving his prime ministerial ambitions.

Modi’s rise to a position of this prominence can be traced back to his PR machinery, APCO Worldwide hired in 2007. The PR agency which is famously known for its pro-arms stance and clientele that features numerous dictatorships and pro-war groups. Since 2007, Modi’s public image has been reworked to gradually replace the “communal leader” with a “development visionary” which is largely responsible for the position of tremendous strength that he is enjoying today.

This agency has done a stellar job in this respect with a systematic saturation of every available media platform with images of a strong leader devoted solely to the agenda of development and growth.  Modi’s strategic use of communication technology and social media has been phenomenal and unparalleled across the political spectrum. The pioneering use of 3-D technology has reinforced the larger-than-life image of a decisive and forward looking leader in Narendra Modi.

Garbed under this PR hoopla, the fact remains that Modi’s interaction with the media has been a one-way discourse. Modi has constantly shown reluctance to engage with adversarial journalism and critique. The image of a sweaty and perturbed Modi aborting his interview with Karan Thapar at the mere mention of the riots immediately comes to mind.

Another instance was the staunch refusal to answer Rajdeep Sardesai during his 2012 Gujarat Assembly Election campaign, choosing instead irrelevant deflections and silence in response to pointed questions.

However, one could argue that the extensive use of social media has mitigated Modi’s need for conventional publicity platforms that often require taking barbs and answering uncomfortable questions.

Over the years Modi’s confidence in this strategy and the wariness of journalists has grown stronger. The Gujarat CM has become increasingly choosy of the interviews he does and appearances he makes.

An example of this is the last minute decision to pull out of a live Facebook discussion to be conducted by Madhu Trehan’s Newslaundry, and Facebook in conjunction with NDTV. Newslaundry revealed later, that not only did Modi’s office seek to control various aspects of the show including representation, but also had problems with NDTV’s association with the show. A member of the BJP’s communications cell clarified that Barkha Dutt’s perceived “hostility” towards Modi, and her unpopularity amongst the BJP supporters was the main reason for Modi’s withdrawal from the program.

More recently, Modi finally consented to an interview in Aap Ki adaalat, on April 12 with Rajat Sharma of India TV. However, even this was not bereft of controversy. India TV’s editorial director, Qamar Waheed Naqvi, resigned claiming that the proceedings of the show were “fixed” in keeping with the channel’s alleged pro-Modi slant. The much-hyped six-part interview series with Madhu Kishwar on NewsX was apparently less an interview and more a monologue describing the various achievements of the Gujarat CM. There were no pointed questions or challenging googlies, only simple passive full-tosses begging to be hit out of the stadium and the BJP leader happily complied.

At this point though, it is interesting to note that the seemingly hostile attitude of Modi towards our news media is a relatively recent development.

In his book, Aapatkal me Gujarat, Modi devotes considerable space to the significance of a free press and detriments of censorship for a democracy. It is ironic then that the same man would not hesitate to walk out of interviews to avoid uncomfortable questions directed at him.

It can be argued that Modi’s propensity to control media content or reluctance to engage with adversarial journalists is just an election strategy of Modi’s PR-heavy campaign. This strategy can be justified considering the significance of these elections. Undoubtedly this is a make or break election for the BJP, and even more so for Narendra Modi.

We can safely say that there never was, and there never would be a more realistic chance for BJP to storm into power with Modi at the helm. Even a small mistake might prove costly, especially given the spread of our popular media. The recent Rahul Gandhi interview with Arnab Goswami is a living example of a media “plan” gone horribly wrong. The Gandhi scion and Congress’ leading man overnight became an object of ridicule with RaGa jokes abundantly galore on the internet.

However, what if Modi’s propensity to control media content or reluctance to engage with adversarial journalists is NOT just an election strategy?

Modi’s need for control is in-line with the typical strong leader image and is even extended by the intolerance to criticism displayed by the swarms of social media foot soldiers fighting the BJP’s online war.

In the backdrop of murky politico-corporate connections, corporate cross-ownership of media houses and glaring instances of “paid news”, the threat posed by politics and corporate motives is a multi-headed hydra slowly devouring traditional news media and BJP is by no means the only political player conspiring in the feast.

However, Modi’s pro-industry stance and his cosy association with India’s corporate would only further obfuscate the equation between the media and a centre of political power. In this light, the writing on the wall seems to be clear for journalism and news media in the country. When it comes to Modi, “It’s my way or the highway”.

While Modi stands on the cusp of history, Indian journalism awaits on the brink of a different kind.

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