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A K Bhattacharya: Modi's utilitarian change in media engagement

A K Bhattacharya  |  New Delhi 

A K Bhattacharya

The big change that has taken place in Prime Minister Narendra Modi's governance style in the last few weeks is in the way he has shown signs of engaging with the media. Critics will always cite specific circumstances that are responsible for Mr Modi's modified stance. But that should not blind anyone to the fact that a change per se has taken place with significant implications for him as the prime minister and for the Union government that he leads.

Mr Modi's change in his approach to dealing with the media is most strikingly evident in the way he no longer looks at it as a one-way relationship. This is not how he had envisaged it to be in the early part of his prime ministership.

Why only the early part of his tenure as the prime minister? Till as late as the recent reverses his government suffered on account of its proposed changes in the land acquisition and rehabilitation law, Mr Modi seemed to have complete trust in his much-celebrated policy of one-way communication with the media. That was what he followed in Gujarat for well over 12 years as the state's longest serving chief minister. This meant dealing with the media largely through information hand-outs, without subjecting the government to questioning or scrutiny by the media through formal press conferences.

From the very start of his prime ministerial tenure, Mr Modi began following the same Gujarat model in New Delhi. Thus, formal press conferences by the ministers of the Modi government have been few and far between. And Mr Modi has not held even a single formal press conference as the prime minister in the last one year.

Twitter and Facebook messages became the preferred instruments for sharing with everybody what he wished to communicate - whether they be his views on policy issues or on the schemes of his government. The underlying message was that he preferred to communicate without giving any scope to any interlocutor or the media to question him or his statements. Such were the advantages of technology that apart from facilitating one-way communication, it led to the disintermediation of the traditional media. This also meant a certain degree of disempowerment of the media since communication happened, but without giving the media the opportunity to subject him or his government to as much scrutiny as would be ideal in any functioning democracy.

Embracing technology with great enthusiasm, Mr Modi also adopted other instruments of communication that allowed him to nurture a one-way relationship with the people. His programme on radio - Mann Ki Baat - was one such example. Yes, people who wished to get back to him with their views or suggestions could do so either through Twitter or Facebook or through emails, but that, surely, was not the same as his being questioned in a formal press conference. He did talk to a few publications, but these were again not comparable to a formal press conference where through the media he talks to the nation through a two-way exchange of views.

Things have changed in the last few weeks. Now, the prime minister has begun engaging with the media through different formats and at informal platforms. He is yet to hold a press conference, but has begun giving interviews to select publications. This is a change that should be welcome, even though his approach to the media is still far from what it ought to be for a prime minister of the world's most populous democracy.

What could have brought about this change in his approach to the media? One, he seems to have acknowledged the need for the media to understand him and his compulsions. Without an empathetic media, Mr Modi's political battle to bring about policy change will become even more formidable.

Two, a highly critical or even an adversarial media could still be managed, but that task becomes more difficult with serious political repercussions when the government realises that it is not likely to enjoy a clear majority in the Rajya Sabha for the next few years or, as some people believe, till the end of the current tenure of the government. If the government could be put on the mat by the Opposition parties on the land Bill or even the reformist law to introduce the goods and services tax regime, Mr Modi must have reasoned that his only other recourse would be to be better understood by the media and, thus, his constituency.

The Opposition parties and the Congress, in particular, have already gained considerable political capital by forcing the Modi government to refer several legislative Bills to parliamentary committees for a review. Mr Modi cannot now afford to be seen as an arrogant prime minister by trying to push through the stalled Bills through methods like a joint session of the two Houses. While he has now reconciled himself to the need for more consultation before getting his legislative agenda implemented, he also now recognises the need for the media to convey his changed approach to such issues. Similarly, if he does not want to be seen as a pro-corporate government doling out concessions to industry, he realises that he needs the media to convey his new message on his policies being pro-poor and pro-farmer as well.

Mr Modi did not really need the media in his long tenure as chief minister of Gujarat because he ran a government virtually without any opposition. In the first few months of his tenure as prime minister, Mr Modi had hoped to replicate the Gujarat model in New Delhi as far as dealing with the media was concerned. But a series of political reverses like the government's failure to get some crucial Bills passed by the Rajya Sabha has made him realise that he needs to fine-tune his approach to both the Opposition political parties and the media. Mr Modi has certainly tried reaching out to both these segments. But that change is driven by a purpose - a utilitarian need to achieve one's political goals. This is not yet a change of heart. Nor should it be misunderstood as such.

First Published: Tue, May 12 2015. 21:48 IST
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