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Backstory: Modi's Interviews Have Become More Artful (and More Plentiful) This Election Season

A fortnightly column from The Wire's ombudsperson.
Five editors of the TV9 group interviewing Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Photo: Screengrab from TV9 video

An intriguing question that has emerged in this election season is why Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been so accommodating towards interview requests from mainstream media. Or are these multiple interactions, coming in thick and fast, being stage-managed? The Modi website records 51 such exchanges between May 1 and May 24; besides the 13 others conducted in April. Since nothing the prime minister does is without deliberation, we can only surmise that such saturation coverage via the microphone serves his political purposes.

Modi understood very early the importance of media access for gaining political prominence on the national stage and the first evidence of this was the ‘Ru-Ba-Ru’ interview that Rajeev Shukla conducted in the late 1990s at Modi’s hostel at 11, Ashoka Road, the BJP’s then headquarters.

In a book on the media that I wrote (Media’s Shifting Terrain, 2019), I tried to trace the pattern of the interviews of those early days. After the Gujarat pogrom of 2002, Modi adopted a consciously belligerent tone. Two instances can be cited: first his exchange with Prabhu Chowla on ‘Seedi  Baat’. When accused of being responsible for killing 1,100 innocents, he flatly denied the figure but did not offer a number for the death toll himself.  Later, after a successful election, he took on Shekhar Gupta in his ‘Walk the Talk’. When asked about the death toll, he came up with the line “insaan, insaan hi hote hain (that a human life is a human life; it’s sad when anyone gets killed)”, but he immediately proceeded to accuse his interlocutor of having an agenda while completely denying that the Gujarat police had killed more Muslims than Hindus during the violence.

The denial of any responsibility for those deaths became the trope. When asked by Reuters in 2013 about the 2002 incidents, he responded: “Someone else is driving a car and we’re sitting behind, even then if a puppy comes under the wheel, will it be painful or not?”

He slowly began to draw a firm line between media houses he considered sympathetic to him and the other “pseudo-secular” ones. He kept his most combative manner for the latter. The famous interview with Karan Thapar in the CNN-IBN’s ‘The Devil’s Advocate’, proved to be a tipping point. He later marked 2007 as the year when he stopped engaging with the media on the riots. Instead, he began to provide access only to those media houses he considered sympathetic. His public relations team was instructed to identify and work with “friendly” journalists.

This became easier to do as the media themselves underwent enormous transformations and channels became captive to political power. Today all those media houses that had once grilled him in their interviews have come to be owned by large corporations with which Modi has developed strong bonds of mutual benefit. Interviews, consequently, become expressions, not of adversarial or even questioning journalism, but of patronage networks.

During the 2024 election campaign, it is intriguing to note the buttons he chooses to press in order to showcase himself.

There is now a spike in the Ma-and-Bhagwan quotient, the God-has-chosen-me-for-a-purpose theme.  I didn’t know that a channel called New Indian existed, but there was its founder-editor Rohan Dua successfully bringing out the inner deity in the PM by asking the softest questions in the most dulcet of tones. He wanted to know whether the prime minister was a Shiv bhakt, which provided the right opening to expand on. The PM spoke about how from the age of 13 onwards he put his body to test with abstinence “such as staying away from salt or sleeping in the cold”.

But it was to Rubika Liaqat that he gave a quote that has since continued to be viral: “Until my mother was alive, I used to think I was born biologically. After her demise, when I look at my experiences, I am convinced that I was sent by god. This strength is not from my body. It has been given to me by god. That’s why god also gave me the ability, strength, pure heartedness, and also the inspiration to do this. I’m nothing but an instrument that god has sent”

This desire to project himself as a spiritual being segues well with the politically fungible belief widespread among a section of voters that Modi is divine. So the prompts by anchors to get him talking of his divinity are also about assiduously cultivating that image.

The “mother prompt” is similarly noteworthy and surfaces from time to time as when Navika Kumar observed sympathetically that the “eco-system” is promoting fake narratives about him. She then continued, “After all, you may be a prime minister but you are a human being too, a son…” The PM tears up at this juncture, as if on cue, and recalls not just his mother but crores of mothers in this country of 140 billion who have showered their love and blessings on him. The Woman Voter, remember!

Go a little deeper and almost every theme flogged in these interviews has its focus firmly on the larger political picture. Even the backtracking on his hate speech against Muslims is dictated by a host of factors, including the Pasmanda  Muslim vote, as the gaze shifts eastwards (also see ‘Modi Claims He Never Said Muslims Were ‘Infiltrators’ or ‘Had More Children’. This is Not True’, May 15).

Yet, whatever the theme, there is something distinct about these Modi interviews in this searing summer of 2024. Taken together they present the picture of man desperate to reclaim the heart, mind and imagination of the Indian voter which he senses is slipping away. This is what Prashant Kishor pointed out in that interview with The Wire which got talked about mostly for the way his prediction on the Himachal verdict went so badly wrong.  Well, what he did get right was to point out that even Modi’s diehard supporters will agree that his personal appeal has declined.

One of the metrics he cited to substantiate this was the number of hits his interviews were getting. That much derided 2019 interview that Akshay Kumar had conducted with the PM, which veered towards a discussion on favourite mangoes, has received 75 million hits to date.

None of the interviews of this season has come anywhere close, even if we were to account for the hits that may have come in during the intervening years. Whether it was Aaj Tak’s top honchos with their furious nodding; Navika Kumar and Sushant Sinha’s interview for Times Now;  Arnab Goswami’s interaction, sold as the ‘Nation’s Most Watched Interview of 2024’ on Republic TV; or CNBC-TV18’s Rubika’s famed encounter on the Ganga, not one had a Mango Moment. This, no matter how they were spliced and diced; no matter how many promotions were made on them; no matter how many times they were shown on prime time.

The cornucopia of conversations that the prime minister has gifted us this summer may have been prompted by the realisation that the manifest decline in popularity has to be stemmed at all costs.


Media unfreedoms in poll time

The  Free Speech Collective has come up with an incisive report on the ‘18th Lok Sabha Elections and Free Speech In India’ (May 1, 2024). According to its data, from January 2024 onward, “India has witnessed, there have been at least 134 instances of free speech violations in the country.”

An excerpt from the Report:  “Earlier, there were attacks on gatherings of students and citizens who organised film screenings of the documentary ‘Ram ke Naam’ on the occasion of the consecration of the Ram temple in Ayodhya in January.

“The screening of the documentary was cited as one of the reasons for the two-year suspension and debarring of Ph.D scholar Ramadas KS, from all campuses of the Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS) on April 18. The general secretary of the Progressive Students Forum (PSF), Ramadas was punished for ostensibly “anti national” activities, such as participating in a protest march against the Central government’s education policies in January 2024.

“Furthermore, the prestigious social science institute, which saw its autonomy being steadily whittled down with more government control over funding, issued a circular that a range of activities including “protest, screening, online viewing, seminars, workshops, meetings affiliated to politicians or in solidarity with any public figure, etc., will be strictly prohibited within campus till the conclusion of election.”

“Absurdly, the circular cited the Model Code of Conduct of the Election Commission of India (ECI) which is applicable to political parties and candidates for the general elections, not students…

“With the hotting up of election coverage, the first casualties were Marathi news channel
‘Lokshahi Marathi’, Caravan newsmagazine and the popular Hindi YouTube video channel Bolta Hindustan. On February 13, 2024, Caravan magazine received an order issued by the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting (MIB) ordering a takedown of their article ‘Screams from the Army Post: The Indian Army’s torture and murder of civilians in a restive Jammu’ within 24 hours. The magazine has challenged the order.

“On April 4, 2024, the Hindi new channel Bolta Hindustan founder editor Haseen Rehmani, learnt of a notice blocking the channel issued by the MIB via an email from YouTube. The notice was ‘confidential’ and there was no reason ascribed for the blocking.

“At around the same time, National Dastak, another popular Hindi YouTube news channel that was devoted to covering issues of marginalised sections of society, also got a notice for blocking its channel. Any least two other channels were targeted financially, with the social media platform downgrading their status as demonetised, thereby robbing them of a chance to earn any advertising revenue.

“Earlier, the MIB had notified the Press Information Bureau (PIB) for the controversial fact check unit which had been challenged in the Bombay High Court and went to the Supreme 5 A Free Speech Collective Report, May 1, 2024 Court after a split verdict. However, the apex court stayed the notification stating that serious constitutional questions were raised by petitioners who had challenged the notification.”

Since this Report came out there have been more instances of intimidation and assault on journalists. The beating up of journalist Raghav Trivedi for asking questions from participants during an Amit Shah rally in Raebareli created widespread outrage. But there has been some heartening news too: senior journalists Prabir Purkayastha, Gautam Navlakha and Aasif Sultan, held under UAPA, have been released.


Drop the case against Julian Assange now!

“Drop this case now!” Stella Assange’s words, pronounced after a London court ruled that Julian Assange is entitled to a fresh appeal against being extradited to the US, resounded widely because his battle against extradition to the US concerns us all. What, after all, was the crime of the founder-editor of Wikileaks, which could get him a 175-year sentence in US courts? The ‘crime’ of journalism, the ‘crime’ of enabling people’s right to information, the ‘crime’ of exposing US war crimes.

In May 2019, the US Justice Department buttressed its case for extraditing him by coming up with 17 new charges, including violation of its Espionage Act through publication of classified military and diplomatic documents. In March this year, the court in the UK came up with an important provisional ruling: Assange could exercise the right of appeal against extradition if the US couldn’t guarantee that he would not be awarded the death penalty and that he would enjoy the First Amendment’s right to free speech like any US citizen. The authorities in the US failed to be unequivocal on the latter aspect, and in the words of Stella Assange, their assurance was like lipstick on a pig.

The latest court order has provided a breather, and the appeal process could carry on for a while. But the years spent in asylum and incarceration – seven years in the Ecuadorian embassy in London and five years in the high-security Belmarsh prison — have taken a huge toll on Assange’s health and well-being. The US would do well to give up on its nightmarish pursuit of Assange and do the right thing by dropping all charges and allowing him to pick up the threads of his shattered life.


Poor headline

Jaikumar Radhakrishnan responded to a headline used for an video interview: “I was disappointed by the title, ‘BJP Will Get 200-220 Seats, NDA Below 272; Dictators End Badly: Finance Minister’s Husband’ (May 16) used for the following video interview put out by The Wire.

I found it childish, cheap and revolting.

My response: I agree that the reference to the finance minister should not have made it to the headline, although its appearance in the introduction can be justified as providing necessary context. Interestingly, the interview drew over 2,817 responses on YouTube, and there was one from @Federer77, which was in line Radhakrishnan’s argument: “Do not address (him) as Finance Minister’s Husband. He got his own identity and he earned that respectfully!” But the one I found interesting was from an old hostel mate of Prabhakar, @ajayrath45 who mailed: “Parakala Prabhakar was my Hostel mate in JNU. We were on the same floor in Sutlej Hostel. He was a brilliant student and very friendly. His predictions will come 100 percent true.”


Bring peace back to Manipur

Dr P. Saravanamuttu and Sushil Pyakurel, bureau members of South Asians for Human Rights (SAHR), writes on the situation of Manipur: “SAHR reiterates its concern on the continuing unrest and disharmony in the State of Manipur one year after the violence broke out on 3 May. 2023. It also emphasises the complete lack of political will of the Government of India and the State Government of Manipur to resolve the issues among the Kuki-Zo and Meitei communities which has resulted in a total breakdown of communal harmony and the widening physical divide based on ethnicity between the two communities who lived as peaceful neighbours…

…During a fact-finding mission conducted by SAHR in November 2023 to investigate the missing persons owing to the eruption of violence on 3 May 2023, other related and murky issues were raised by different sections of Manipuri society. Among others, concerns were raised about the unchecked and extensive poppy cultivations in the state. Although there have been sporadic attempts to clamp down on the trade, the people felt these were not sincere attempts. Various allegations were made about the political implications of allowing the poppy trade to continue unchecked, including its use in funding elections. The other issue that is preventing a resolution of the ongoing impasse is the close ties of officials and political authorities with militant groups as well as patronising and providing impunity to right wing vigilante groups like the Arambai Tenggol by the state. The Fact Finding Mission clearly perceived that the political and administrative failures by the state are being conveniently by-passed. In addition there have not been any effective and meaningful measures to bring the alienated communities of Kuki-Zo and Meiteis, together by both the Central Government and the State Government of Manipur.

SAHR therefore strongly urges the Central Government and the State Government of Manipur to take effective and concrete action immediately with the consultation of the communities to bring peace to Manipur.


University highhandedness

Dr. Harpreet Kaur has sent us multiple mails on her person quandary. We publish it for a greater understanding of the real situation that exists in some of India’s private universities: “I have been struggling over the last three months to recover my compensation amount that I was forced to pay by the HR team of Lovely Professional University (LPU).  So I found it extremely pathetic, that yesterday (April 17), the assistant director of the LPU HR team informed me that the university was ready to pay me two months’ compensation only. This amounts to procedural harassment. It is my humble request to the educational authorities to please intervene in a timely manner so that institutions like LPU are no in a position to harass the teaching fraternity. LPU has taken four months’ salary and is now forcefully keeping  all my security money which is plain illegal.


End note: What they did not tell you in journalism school is the absolute need for interviewers to develop a strong spine.

View this snippet from India Cable. My favourite tweet on the interview: “Karan Thapar should interview Hema Malini. So when she Kent answer, she can promote Kent.”

Write to ombudsperson@thewire.in

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