Monday, February 01, 2016

How Narendra Modi honed his media "management" skills during his almost 13 years of rule in Gujarat

By RK Misra*
Humankind craves freedom, power demands servility.
The tussle between the two creates mental fissures and physical fragmentation. When creeping intolerance and crawling ambition intrude to usurp free mind spaces, the media, which seeks to protect the right to project the wrong, is a sitting duck target.
It, nevertheless, has its own defence mechanism, evolved over ages of dealing with both subtle and crass attacks on its own turf. Sometimes it works, sometimes it does not but the battle continues.
This is most glaringly manifested in the changes that have taken place in news coverage and governmental access to the media in the country’s capital, New Delhi. Narendra Modi’s advent on the scene as Prime Minister has marked a surgical departure in the manner of government news coverage.
In the past whenever governments changed at the Centre, including the BJP-led NDA government headed by Atal Bihari Vajpayee, there were at best some recalibrations: If the BJP came to power, veterans of the beat were moved to centre-stage while the specialists covering the outgoing party were shifted to the sidelines.
Modi, however, has ensured a tectonic shift. Now it is not media, which is deciding how the government is to be covered. It is Modi who has laid the ground rules as to how it (media) shall cover the government.
The capital’s bloated population of know-alls who possessed the legendary reputation of worming their way into the most stubborn woodworks now find themselves reduced to peripheral players with access to news sources within the government severely restricted. The invisible line carefully etched by Prime Minister Modi is holding firm, keeping the ‘creepy crawlies’ out. Like it or not, that’s how most in the political power structure look at journalists – an avoidable nuisance.
Modi’s concentration of power in his own hands has ensured steamroller domination of governance by the Prime Minister’s Office. This has been further reinforced by the appointment of his old team of tried and tested officers from Gujarat in a variety of key positions in various ministries, Directorate of Revenue Intelligence (DRI), Intelligence, CBI, even SPG .By last count there are around 40 officers – serving or retired – from Gujarat doing duty at the Centre. Modi’s control thus is complete.
In fact, immediately after he took over as the Prime Minister, there was a complete ban on mediapersons’ access to the PMO, leading to panic buttons being pressed in newspapers and TV channels. Correspondents covering the Chief Ministers Office (CMO) in Gujarat were moved to Delhi and even media managements from down South of India began scouring for scribes in Gujarat to cover the PMO and related power corridors in Delhi. Even today it is not uncommon to find the editorial top brass of national dailies in Delhi pestering, even bullying their Gujarat reporters for getting confirmation of Delhi-based stories which they themselves are unable to secure.
Matter-of-factly, Modi has succeeded much more in taming the media in Delhi than he did in Gujarat. Reporters marked out for their anti-government news coverage automatically find themselves left out in the cold both down the line and up the ladder. Those who are obliging are the ones who are doled out ‘news’ with religious regularity to enable them to score over their rivals. The era of ‘breaking’ scandals, is by enlarge over now. 
Official circulars have gone out that those within the system found ‘leaking’ to the media will face swift retribution and action under anti-secrecy laws even sedition charges! The example made out of some websites and journalists therein with charges of industrial espionage also put paid to curb the courage of many others.
Modi honed his media ‘management’ skills during his almost 13 years of rule in Gujarat. In Modi rule the emasculation of the Secretariat as a beat was complete and total. In fact, the ’beat’ had been replaced by the ‘brief’. The time-tested precedence was that the chief minister briefed the secretariat reporters after the weekly cabinet meetings on Wednesdays in his chamber. It was a friendly get together where the seniors exchanged views and pleasantries after the meeting over a cup of tea.
Modi first shifted venue to the conference hall and subsequently receded into ivory towers doing away with the practice. The weekly conference turned infrequent and the two cabinet ministers, Jaynarayan Vyas and Saurabh Patel, appointed official spokespersons of the cabinet only parroted what they were told to. No more no less.
An underlying feeling of fear ruled. Ministers would not speak, neither would bureaucrats unless mandated by Modi. Gujarat was all along an informal set up even in formal matters, as far as the media was concerned. Senior ministers and senior bureaucrats would refer to the chief minister by first name or at best ‘CMsaab’.
During Modi rule it was ‘honourable chief minister’ all the way, sometimes ten times in the course of a ten minute conversation .In the rare event that they parted with information, time and again it was rubbed in ’please do not quote me’. Everything was attributable only to the CM.
Pictures only of the CM in all publicity material, advertisements, even brochures, the ministers only accompanying, smaller portraits ran thereafter. Ministers never walked alongside their chief unless asked to, always two steps behind.
During the 2002 communal riots that followed the Godhra train carnage, Modi had found considerable support from the vernacular media, while the English media found itself labeled as the villain of the piece. Soon after, the Gujarati papers also fell out of favour.
With the 2002 Vidhan Sabha elections in mind, Modi embarked on his statewide ‘Gaurav yatra’ with a one-point agenda of establishing a direct rapport with the majority community. The strategy paid off and he won the state assembly elections single-handed and with a steamroller majority.
The victory was crucial in framing his future media strategy. He realized that the best way was to reach out straight to the masses, by-passing the established media. The state, for all of thirteen years as chief minister, projected only one face across all the medias nationwide, whipped and creamed with generous dollops of full-page advertisements and TV commercials nationwide.
Delhi now is just an immensely improved and vastly resourceful replay of Gujarat. The powerful tools of mass reach at his beck and call are being sharpened –Doordarshan, All India Radio, and a plethora of websites. All the criticism against the misuse of the official media by the previous government is best forgotten for those who hurled invectives-now in power-are much more straight faced and direct in doing so. But trust Modi to transform all and every to deliver precisely what he wants. Like in Gujarat so in Delhi, only one name towers over all.
Gujarat was the crucible of Modi’s media experiments. It is over to countrywide replication and fine-tuning now. A word of caution though: In solo performances when the show falls flat (Delhi, Bihar) you have no one but the sound recordist to blame. Not just yet though with bigger battles ahead. The fall guy, you know who. History is replete with instances!
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*Senior Gandhinagar-based journalist. Blog: http://wordsmithsandnewsplumbers.blogspot.in/

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