Last week I met the Prime Minister to give him a copy of my new book and was surprised to find him unchanged. Media reports and political gossip had led me to believe that the ‘chaiwallah’ from Gujarat was so glamourised by his new job that he had become big-headed and bumptious. So it took me by surprise to find him exactly as he was when I last met him for a longish conversation in Gandhinagar more than two years ago. As then, we spoke without interruption from aides or cellphones, and as then, he listened carefully. It was a private conversation and not an interview, so I am not going to reveal details but mention this meeting only to make the point that the relentless demonisation of Narendra Modi is wrong. It began after the Gujarat violence in 2002 and now that he is Prime Minister, it harms India almost more than it harms him.
The demonisation halted briefly during the 2014 election campaign when voters made it clear that he was their choice, but began again almost immediately after he moved into 7, Race Course Road. It started, as far as I can remember, when a junior minister from Jammu restated the long held BJP position on Article 370. Hysterical headlines the next day shrieked that Modi was going to cause violence in the Kashmir Valley, and Kashmiri politicians shrieked louder about how they would die rather than allow their state’s special status to be changed. When Kashmir did not erupt, other reasons were found to charge him with ‘weakening India’s secular fibre’. I am not sure who invented the phrase, but I put it in quotation marks because it is used so often.
There have been no major communal riots in the past two years but every small incident has been blown up in the media into a huge atrocity. Two or three churches were attacked within months of Modi becoming Prime Minister, and we made it sound as if there was a general attack on the Christian faith. This made international headlines. Then came the murders of three rationalists, and this was made so big an issue that academics in fine American universities announced that dissent was being crushed in India. Then came the horrible murder of Mohammad Akhlaq, and this caused ‘secular’ writers to return literary awards on the grounds that secularism was being destroyed.
Hysteria in the media about ‘growing intolerance’ reached such a pitch that someone as loved and celebrated as Aamir Khan announced at the Ramnath Goenka Awards ceremony last year that his wife had for the first time talked of leaving India. Modi was personally held responsible for this ‘growing intolerance’ and somehow nobody noticed that he had shown unusual tolerance about being personally attacked on TV chat shows every night.
Now that Christians have discovered that they are as safe in India as they ever were and Muslims have found that they can refuse to say Bharat Mata ki jai and still live in India, it is the turn of the Dalits. Rohith Vemula’s suicide was a tragedy beyond words, but was he the first Dalit student in Hyderabad University to kill himself? How do we not even know the names of the others? And are Dalits really under threat because of the Modi government? You would think so if you believed what JNU student leaders are saying as they travel around Indian campuses making angry speeches about the crushing of free speech.
India is no more tolerant or intolerant than it has ever been. Christians, Muslims and Dalits are probably safer today than they have ever been, not because of a change in policy but because the media is more powerful than ever before. This power is something that the Prime Minister must pay more attention to. When the Godhra riots were made to sound like the worst communal violence since 1947, and when Modi was personally accused of orchestrating it, he resolved to stay far away from the media. This policy may have worked in Gujarat, but it is not working at the national level because the media is too powerful to be ignored. It is also capable of creating its own narrative and making people believe it. Every time I return to Delhi after a short absence, I discover a new storyline. The latest is that Modi has centralised power so totally in his hands that he has become a despot and that his ministers have no power.
If the Prime Minister wants to stop having his agenda for governance and development derailed, he must build better relations with the media. How he does this is his choice, but the White House model is a good one to emulate. The American President speaks on important issues and his spokesmen remain available for comment at all times.
(This article first appeared in the print edition under the headline ‘Fifth Column: Modi and the media’)