Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi delivers a speech during a session of the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum (SPIEF), Russia, June 2, 2017. Photo: S/Valery Sharifulin/TASS/Host Photo Agency/Pool TPX

Labeling India as the “world’s largest democracy” is more a colloquialism than a strict reality.

Indeed, the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU) considers India’s a “flawed democracy”—on par with the US. And, though the country’s right-wing prime minister, Narendra Modi, has passed important reforms to help unlock economic growth and tackle corruption in what’s set to become the world’s most populous nation by 2022, his rule has also overseen a deterioration in the South Asian nation’s political culture and civil liberties, according to the EIU.

Backed by his Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) since its electoral victory in 2014, Modi’s government has cracked down on critics and marginalized minorities. The fourth estate — the media — has been a big casualty. India currently ranks 136th out of 180 nations in Reporters Without Borders‘ World Press Freedom Index — that’s below war-torn Afghanistan. Hardly evocative of a flourishing democracy.

Over 50 journalists have been attacked since January 2016, while impartiality in the media industry is blighted by close ties with business elites and politicians. “Journalists are increasingly the targets of online smear campaigns by the most radical nationalists, who vilify them and even threaten physical reprisals,” says Reporters Without Borders.

Meanwhile, major national issues, such as the heightened tensions in Kashmir, university campus protests, the beef ban, and relations with Muslims and lower castes, have either been underreported (unless by foreign outlets) or framed largely in favor of the BJP’s hardline stance. And, recently, the troubled state of Indian journalism was underscored by a widely condemned government raid on leading TV channel NDTV.

While government interference and a fear of criticizing the state both play a role in weakening the journalism community, the BJP has also restricted information flow and interviews with the media. And it means that Modi — like his US counterpart Donald Trump — has been able to drive and direct media coverage using his “strongman” image and, of course, his Twitter account.

Modi’s strategy is to always bypass what he deems the unreliable and excessively critical eye of traditional media

With his 30 million followers, the Indian prime minister is ranked the seventh most influential, and third most followed, world leader on the social media platform. He was the original social media populist. Meanwhile, the Narendra Modi app sends messages about government schemes direct to people’s phones.

Modi’s strategy is to always tbypass what he deems the unreliable and excessively critical eye of traditional media, to use direct “social media” democracy to promote his policies and messages. “If someone wants to know Modi through the eyes of the media, then he would be confused about which Modi is the real one,” he said in Hindi, during a 2016 interview. Modi doesn’t do press conferences, he doesn’t take media on his foreign visits, nor does he have a communications officer. Any TV appearances are usually simple staged affairs.

Modi makes a point of doing his own marketing. The charming and charismatic populist has cultivated a powerful political persona — as the cult-like crowds he drew on visits to the US and UK can attest. And so, armed with his social media footprint, populist policies, and straitjacketing of the nation’s freedom of speech, the BJP is able to dictate and saturate news cycles with Modi’s brand and the party’s agenda. 

By amplifying pro-government channels, and marginalizing critics, the BJP can then bombard Indian citizens with its propaganda — across newspapers, television, advertisements, books and, of course, the internet media. India is awash with Modi’s slogans, tweets and imagery. That’s how he has captured the nation’s political narrative. He’s mastered messaging, advertising and connecting.

And so, despite the country having over 80,000 print publications and around 400 news channels, independent, balanced and impartial discourse remains challenging. Modi knows the sheer power of the media and has subverted, and avoided, the scrutinizing eye of such a critical democratic institution in order to gain political capital for his own raft of policy reforms.

And so, even if Modi can deliver economic growth to India, genuine development will only be a facade — undermined by an illiberal democracy underneath.

Tej Parikh

Tej Parikh is a global public policy analyst and journalist. He was previously an associate editor and reporter for The Cambodia Daily in Phnom Penh. He tweets @tejparikh90.

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