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Sunday, February 23, 2020

Fifth column: Narendra Modi’s media problem

Mr Modi does not like journalists... But it is time to get over it, or the Prime Minister could find himself friendless and alone at a time when he needs friends in the media, not sycophants.

Written by Tavleen Singh | Updated: February 18, 2018 8:51:52 am
PM Narendra Modi meets with the journalists from the various media groups at the ‘Diwali Milan’ in New Delhi. (Source: Express Photo)

The day after we discovered that another famous businessman had defaulted on loans worth thousands of crore rupees from public sector banks, the Prime Minister spent the morning talking to schoolchildren. It is possible that this was planned earlier, but it still seemed bizarre because this latest bank robbery is too serious for the Prime Minister’s office to ignore. Others have spoken on behalf of the government but this is not good enough. The magic of those early euphoric months of Narendra Modi’s tenure has faded so it is more important than ever for the Prime Minister to realise that the media can no longer be ignored.

Mr Modi does not like journalists. They have been unjust to him from the moment he became chief minister of Gujarat. This unjustness became more than evident in 2002 when they portrayed the communal violence in Gujarat as if it was the first time that such violence had happened since 1947.

This could well be because their research was poor and their sense of history weak, but it was unjust. They then compounded the injustice by blaming him personally for organising the awful violence. So countries that had never denied visas to other chief ministers who presided over similar violence, or a prime minister who publicly justified a pogrom, were able to deny Modi a visa. But it is time to get over it, or the Prime Minister could find himself friendless and alone at a time when he needs friends in the media, not sycophants.

If there is one thing Mr Modi does not lack, it is the ability to communicate. So his refusal to hold one press conference is incomprehensible. The Nirav Modi scandal is a good opportunity to have one or to at least set up a media cell in the Prime Minister’s office that can deal with this kind of bad news. No PMO in recent memory has been as sealed from media intrusion as this one. Inevitably then media circles are awash with stories that cannot be verified. Stories of pressure on editors and TV anchors, stories of sackings and retribution for those who dare speak. There are too many stories for the Prime Minister to continue treating the media with contempt.

What Mr Modi appears not to have noticed is that if he were more accessible it would work to his personal benefit. Instead of avoiding journalists, he could use them to explain why, for instance, it is time to seriously consider privatising public sector banks. It is simply unimaginable that Nirav Modi could have got away with manipulating officials in private banks the way he did in those owned by the State.

narendra modi PM Modi seems to believe that he does not need to meet the media regularly because he has succeeded in dragooning certain TV channels and newspapers into toeing his line, but this is so transparent as to be useless.

There are other urgent reforms needed in political and administrative matters, and if the Prime Minister has not shown the courage to make them, it could be because he fears the hostility of the media. There is undoubtedly a degree of hostility but part of the reason for it is the disdain with which Modi has treated the media.

He seems to believe that he does not need to meet the media regularly because he has succeeded in dragooning certain TV channels and newspapers into toeing his line, but this is so transparent as to be useless. This is especially true in troubled times, and the Nirav Modi saga could be the beginning of very troubled times. When that student asked the Prime Minister last week whether he was nervous about the ‘examination’ he faced in 2019 he laughed off the question. “If I was your teacher,” he said, “I would guide you towards a career in journalism because only journalists can ask such convoluted questions.”

It could be time to face some real questions Prime Minister before it is too late, because in the questions will come hints of what is happening in the real world. I offer you a small hint as someone who remains a well-wisher. For the first time in the past four years political circles in Delhi are beginning to buzz with the possibilities of what could happen if the BJP gets less than 200 seats in 2019. There is so much speculation about what could happen, so many scenarios being drawn up and dissected that it is beginning to seem as if there is no chance of a second term for Mr Modi.

The Nirav Modi scandal could not have come at a worse time, and since he and his family are not in India, it is conceivable that the investigation will end up going nowhere. This is not good at all when farmers across India are forced to commit suicide because of being unable to pay back loans. This will inevitably become a huge issue when elections next come around, so this could be an ‘examination’ that the Prime Minister should start becoming nervous about.

Follow Tavleen Singh on Twitter @ tavleen_singh

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