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Narendra Modi’s Decade Without Press Conferences

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Narendra Modi’s Decade Without Press Conferences

In the ten years he has been India’s prime minister Modi has faced only one press conference – in 2019, when he let his colleague Amit Shah answer all the questions.

Narendra Modi’s Decade Without Press Conferences

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi during an interview with Russian television, in New Delhi, India, December 14, 2015

Credit: Depositphotos

On May 23, Mamata Banerjee, the chief minister of the eastern Indian state of West Bengal, dared Prime Minister Narendra Modi to choose the time and venue for a press conference, which she too would attend.

“Prepare a dais. Come with your teleprompter, as you can’t speak without it. I won’t have anything and I shall be alone. You may bring 10 officers along,” said Banerjee at an election rally. “Journalists will freely ask their questions. You’ll give your answers, I’ll give mine.”

Modi has not faced a single press conference during his 10 years at the helm as India’s prime minister, pointed out Banerjee, who heads the Trinamool Congress (TMC), one of India’s opposition parties.

Modi did face a press conference – only one – at the end of the 2019 Lok Sabha election campaign, five days before the results. However, he only addressed the media briefly and then diverted all questions to Amit Shah, his closest confidante who was then the president of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Shah is currently India’s home minister.

During that 2019 press conference, Modi argued that being a disciplined soldier of the party, he could not have answered any question when the party president himself was present.

When one journalist sought to place a supplementary question to Modi in response to one of Shah’s replies, Shah cut him short saying he had already received the answer and the prime minister need not respond to queries on everything.

Modi’s apparent dislike for press conferences has emerged as one of the distinguishable traits of his brand of authoritarian populism, in which one-way communication – delivering the message directly to the people – has been the key.

Modi prefers giving one-to-one interviews to journalists allegedly known for their pro-government coverage. This year, he has given several dozen such interviews to national TV news channels, major English and Hindi dailies, as well as newspapers and channels in other regional languages – 64 interviews as of May 24 and more after that.

The opposition calls these interviews “scripted,” alleging that the questions and answers are pre-decided. Journalists interviewing him rarely ask supplementary questions based on Modi’s answers and never probe his arguments.

During these interviews, he has made various claims. In one, Modi said he is convinced that his birth was not biological. “God has sent me. This energy could not be from my biological body, but was bestowed upon me by God… whenever I do anything, I believe God is guiding me,” he said.

In another, Modi said that God sent him on a mission and that whatever he has been doing “is inspired by a divine power.” In another, he laid down a 1,000-year vision.

Recently, during one of his interviews, Modi was asked why he does not address press conferences. Modi gave an elaborate response.

“Most of the time, the media has been used [by those in power]. This has become a culture now. They think you don’t need to do anything, just control the media and tell them what you want to say and it will spread around the country. I don’t want to follow that path. I want to work hard. I want to reach the poor people’s doorsteps,” he said.

“I have introduced a new work culture. If the media believes the new culture is right, it may present it that way or may choose not to,” Modi said, adding that he is answerable to the Parliament.

He highlighted how the media is no longer the only channel of mass communication and direct communication with the people is possible without involving the media.

Modi argued that earlier, the media used to be faceless, but now journalists are identified with views they have aired. “Earlier, people did not bother about the person behind the analysis or the ideology of the analyst. But times have changed,” he said.

One may argue that his answers did not clearly explain what barred him from facing a press conference.

One of his favorite communication formats is his monthly radio talk, Mann Ki Baat, in which he speaks for roughly 30 minutes on a variety of issues and responds to letters the readers have sent.

According to French political scientist Christophe Jaffrelot who specializes in India, Modi does not accept interactions or press conferences “because his discourse describes an India that does not exist.”

Jaffrelot argued that Modi has created a world of fantasy, painting rosy pictures and creating myths, which are susceptible to probing. There are issues like Chinese aggression and unemployment that Modi may not like to be asked about, Jaffrelot said. “This is why it has to be a ‘one-way traffic’ for Modi.”

Many political observers see Modi’s media policy as his shield against probing questions. He does not like media scrutiny or pressure, as some of his past interactions with journalists reflect.

In 2007, Modi, then the chief minister of Gujarat, famously walked out of a BBC interview with Karan Thapar, an ace television journalist known for his aggressive interview style, just in the fourth minute into the interview, after facing repeated questions on the anti-Muslim violence in Gujarat in 2002.

Modi was the chief minister during the Gujarat violence. His role as an administrator was widely questioned and then-Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee of the BJP had advised him to perform Raj Dharma or impartial governance.

The 2023 BBC documentary on the Gujarat violence that the Modi government banned includes parts of a 2002 interview with Modi. In it, asked if he thought he could have done anything differently, Modi said, “Yes, one thing [in which] I was weak and could have done better how to handle the media.”

Ruchir Sharma’s 2019 book, “Democracy on the Road,” describes a 2007 interaction between Modi and some senior journalists, including Prannoy Roy, Sekhar Gupta, M.K. Venu, Chitra Padmanabhan, and Senthil Chengalvarayan. The grilling, especially on the 2002 Gujarat violence, made Modi upset and angry. He left without dining.

“Looking back, I suspect this encounter and others like it helped explain why Modi and his party became increasingly hostile to the press,” Sharma wrote.

There remains little doubt that since arriving at the helm of affairs in the national capital, Modi has implemented all that he learned about “handling the media.”