Deafening silence: Modi policy is not to answer for 2002
Narendra Modi rarely grants interviews and he absolutely refuses to speak about the 2002 riots. Still, the media gives him top headline without fail. What's the secret of his PR success? Aakar Patel finds out.india Updated: Oct 29, 2012 12:40 IST
The most unique thing about Narendra Modi's style of functioning is his contempt for the media.
This contempt shows in three ways. The first is that he almost never allows himself to be interviewed. When he does, he demands beforehand that the questioning be limited to some subjects. If it goes towards something he does not like (the riots), he will end the interview. He does this either by walking out, as he did once with Karan Thapar, or he does this by remaining silent. This he did in an interview by Rajdeep Sardesai in October.
A fourth and lesser used approach is to be deliberately rude and nasty with the interviewer, making personal accusations to try and discredit him. He also tried this with Sardesai, insinuating that he was trying to land a Rajya Sabha nomination.
Sardesai ignored this provocation and soldiered on, producing dramatic television and showing his professionalism.
Modi developed this style very early on. He became chief minister in October 2001. Within four months, the violence in Gujarat happened and from that day to this, he has been asked difficult (and justified) questions about his performance.
After he decided to stop giving interviews he realised that by itself this did not mean that media would not cover him. If he said interesting things in public, that was also news and it would be flashed.
And so he went over the media's head to reach his audience. He would only use the media for public gatherings and press releases. No more one-on-one interviews (business publications excepted) and no more questions on the riots.
And so, though Modi needs the national media because he loves publicity, he is not dependent on it. He has assumed that it will be hostile to him. He has also decided that it is irrelevant. If he has something to say, he will say it and because it is interesting--or outrageous--it will be picked up by the media and he will reach his audience anyway.
With this strategy he managed the national media. It worked because Modi is an interesting speaker from an interesting state. The media was always keen to publicise his remarks.
Locally, he was attacked by Gujarat's largest newspaper, Gujarat Samachar. The criticism was not about the riots, but his style of management. Modi responded by putting out a special one-day newspaper that answered Gujarat Samachar's charges and was delivered free to all homes that got that paper. This may not have proved particularly effective, but it shows what level of detail Modi is driven by.
He has retained with himself Gujarat's information and broadcasting ministry. I suspect, I could be wrong, that one reason for this is because it gives him clout over which publications receive government advertising and can be kept in line in that fashion.
It also gives him absolute control over who else is interviewed by press, especially foreign press, and Modi hates to share the limelight.
By and large it must be conceded that the strategy has worked for Modi, at least within Gujarat. Outside it, because the press is hostile to him and his view on the issue that agitates them is not provided, he still has the image of someone who has done well for the state economically, but keeps avoiding the tough question about his management of communal violence.
(Aakar Patel is a writer and columnist. The views expressed are personal.)