If elections were to held in the social media, Narendra Modi would almost certainly be ‘crowned’ prime minister. Modi has more than 17 lakh followers on twitter, more than any other politician of national significance (Shashi Tharoor has marginally more, but he is nowhere close to being a national leader yet). The vast tribe of Internet Hindus and a well-oiled PR machine have ensured Modi’s status on any web platforms is unchallenged. Even a belated attempt by his critics to target him as “Feku” hasn’t had any real impact on his soaring popularity in a right-wing dominated web discourse.
The mainstream media, by contrast, has always had a more uneven relationship with the Gujarat chief minister. Modi’s acolytes would like to suggest that the mainstream media has always been anti-Modi and has hounded the BJP’s rising star with a ferocity that no other politician in this country has had to confront. Modi as victim of an English language media ‘conspiracy’ is a narrative that has been played out for over a decade now by the chief minister and his supporters, a narrative that aims to position Modi as a one-man army standing up to the might of the media. The truth, as it often is, happens to be far more complex.
In the 1990s, when Modi was a general secretary of the BJP, those who tracked the party will remember the pracharak-turned-politician as an artful communicator who always had time for journalists. Over endless cups of chai, Modi would speak candidly about contemporary politics and was ever-willing to share his personal experiences. He was, in many ways, even then, a made for television politician: firm and articulate, always smartly turned out.
One incident in the late 1990s stands out. We were doing a late night show and about an hour before it started, a BJP guest dropped out. I recall ringing up Mr Modi and asking if he would step in. He knew he was a last-minute replacement, but that didn’t stop him from hiring a taxi and coming to the studio, well-prepared and yes, immaculately dressed. Much water has flowed under the Sabarmati since then, but Modi’s love for the camera pre-dates his political rise.
The year 2002 changed Modi’s equations with journalists and, in particular, the Delhi-based ‘national’ media. The Gujarat riots were the country’s first encounter with communal violence in the age of 24 x 7 television. The graphic images of the violence stayed in the mind long after the embers had been doused. Modi as the man in charge during the riots became the natural target of the media frenzy at the time. As someone who covered both the 1992-93 riots in Mumbai and then the Gujarat riots, my experience has left me convinced that no riot can take place without a mix of state incompetence and complicity. Mumbai under the Congress rule was just as terrible as Gujarat: the difference was we didn’t have the camera lens in 1992 to bring the horrors into every drawing room. The image of Modi as Nero while his state burnt stuck: it would have been no different had anyone else been chief minister.
Modi, though, took the criticism personally, believing it was part of an orchestrated campaign by an English-speaking, pseudo-secular media. By raising the war cry of Gujarati asmita (self-respect), he transformed the riot reporting into a virtual confrontation between him as ‘protector’ of Gujarati ‘pride’ on one side and the ‘villainous’ anglicised media on the other. The result was a long period of combative behaviour, marked by walk outs from interviews, scorn and ridicule of journalists, and, in some instances, even the threat of intimidation by his groupies. Gone it seemed was the Mr Nice Guy of the 1990s to be replaced by a leader intolerant of any form of hard questioning.
That adversarial period lasted primarily between 2002 and 2007 as the quest for justice for the riot victims kept the Gujarat story on the front pages. In the last five years though, there has been another twist in the tale. The tears of the riot scarred are now, at best, an annual ritual, replaced by the shining lights of Vibrant Gujarat. Modi still makes the headlines, but more often than not for his development agenda. If the Gujarat growth story was shadowed by riots at one time, today the media has done an almost 360 degree turn. Now, it’s the Modi mantra of good governance that blurs all else. CAG reports questioning the government’s claims and raising valid concerns over cronyism in resource allocation barely get a mention. If the Gujarat story was once told through the prism of riots, it is now told through the eyes of corporate India. A section of the media has got so carried away that they appear almost as propagandists for a chief minister who is seen to do no wrong.
Journalism cannot be public relations nor can it be character assassination. Now, as Modi is poised for his next big leap, it is time for the media to maybe reset its moral compass: is to possible to analyse the Modi phenomenon by moving beyond the extremes of glorification or vilification? Can the media find a middle ground where Modi can be assessed in a neutral, dispassionate manner without facing the charge of bias or being a cheerleader? Or is Modi such a polarising figure that even the media has been divided into camps? My own personal experience suggests that it won’t be easy to avoid being bracketed as pro- or anti-Modi. But yet, we must make the effort. Because journalism in its purest form must remain the pursuit of truth shorn of ideological agendas. Modi has become a test case for the media’s ability to rise above the surround sound, unmindful of the rabid fan clubs or the equally shrill activists.
Rajdeep Sardesai is editor-in-chief, IBN 18 network
The views expressed by the author are personal