Why has Narendra Modi not held a single press conference since becoming Prime Minister? Sugata Bose, Harvard historian and Trinamul Congress MP, brought this up at Sunday’s panel discussion on “Independent Media is a Figment of our Imagination” at Kolkata’s Bengal Club. “Our current Prime Minister could do something simple to aid the independence of the media: he could decide to give his first press conference in four-and-a-half years”, urged Mr Bose.
“And conversely, I would tell the members of the media: ‘Why are you afraid of a person who is afraid to face you?’” The missing interaction between politician and public is a gap at the heart of our democracy. “The personal is the political”, said E.M. Forster, who wrote A Passage to India, and visited India three times. But there’s no uniform pattern. Attending a rally where the charismatic C.N. Annadurai, taking time off from DMK politics in what was then Madras, addressed Singapore Indians, the legendary Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore’s founding leader and first Prime Minister, was entranced by the crowd’s delirium and the knowledge that 40 million Tamils in India were similarly captivated. Lee didn’t understand a word of the chaste Tamil used but he saw Anna “had cast his spell over both Sparta and Athens”.
It was the same with Jawaharlal Nehru. “Thousands flocked to hear him, not understanding what he said but because to be in his presence was to be blessed”, Lee claimed. Language matters. Lee recalled an occasion when after speaking in English for half an hour in the Malaysian Parliament (Singapore was then in the Malay federation), he switched to Malay. The atmosphere, which had been desultory until then, at once became electric. “I think if they could have cheered, they would have”, said Eddie Barker, Singapore’s future law and development minister, who was in the chamber. Lee never forgot that. Hindi, English, Tamil or Tagalog reach only some people, he would say, but Charles de Gaulle and Winston Churchill galvanised their nations in times of crisis because they spoke in the people’s tongue.
So does Mr Modi. He is a flamboyant and dramatic folk performer with the knack of transforming a political speech into live theatre. His crucial silences, facial expressions, flailing arms, body gestures and sweeping gaze are all admirably managed to produce the maximum effect. Indira Gandhi is believed to have taken speech therapy lessons. There’s the famous story of someone in the crowd saying cheekily: “She doesn’t speak. She squeaks!” — when the young Indira had made her first public speech in London. She was mortified into ensuring that the insult was never repeated.
Such a heavy veil of secrecy surrounds the Prime Minister’s personal life that there is no means of knowing whether he, too, has been professionally trained in the thespian arts. But it stands to reason that a man who is so conscious of his appearance and obviously takes so much trouble choosing waistcoats, shawls, sandals and headgear (cap or turban), will leave no detail to chance. It was said that Churchill’s most casual lines in the House of Commons were meticulously rehearsed before his wife. Mr Modi’s speeches may be equally carefully manicured.
That might also explain why he shies away from the cut and thrust of impromptu question-and-answer encounters. Mr Bose recounted that he tried very hard one day in the Lok Sabha to persuade Mr Modi, who was present, to reply to some point he had raised. But to no avail. The Prime Minister left Sushma Swaraj to tackle the question. Springing to Mr Modi’s defence, Babul Supriyo, singer-turned-BJP MP and also a panellist, insisted that there was no reason for the Prime Minister to bestir himself when he has able and articulate lieutenants like Ms Swaraj. Others might infer that while he has mastered the technique of mesmerising crowds with magnificent performances, he still lacks mastery over the major political and economic issues of the day to deal with questions with some confidence.
Another aspect of the present dispensation I find disturbing has more to do with the media. Newspapers — TV wasn’t such an active player in those days — tore Mrs Indira Gandhi to shreds, dissecting her meetings, her family life, mannerisms and even her attire. Older readers may recall the storm of scorn and criticism when she rode to Parliament in a Rashtrapati Bhavan buggy ostensibly to conserve petrol, and ostentatiously read files on the way. No such liberty is ever taken with Mr Modi, and that reticence is troubling. It suggests an absence of the “friction of freedom”, which was Ronald Reagan’s description of the not always smooth relationship between the press and the political establishment.
On the central question of media independence, I once attended a seminar in New Delhi where they had not only decided that media freedom had been killed but that Big Business was the killer. Presiding over the meeting was a journalist who had just served as India’s ambassador abroad. Other speakers included journalists nominated to the Rajya Sabha, and journalist members of high-powered committees and corporate boar-ds. These are not decorations; they are handsomely lucrative positions that combine money with power. The government alone bestows such honours. It has the deepest pockets in the country. It’s the fount of patronage. It’s the biggest advertiser. Big Business can’t compare with the government in influencing or silencing the media.
Despite these drawbacks, any media institution or individual performer is exactly as independent as it or he or she wants to be. Media independence is bartered or jeopardised usually only when a journalist or the institution he or she works for nurses other ambitions. But only when the Prime Minister subjects himself, howsoever belatedly, to the cut and thrust of a press conference would our democracy seem credible....