Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Photo: Reuters

During his five-year tenure as prime minister of India, Narendra Modi has never addressed an open press conference, or even engaged with a select group of journalists. He has instead relied on directly reaching out to people through social media. His reign has marked a hostile, antagonistic flare-up between the treasury benches and the media without a thaw or pause.

Ever since the day in 2007 when he walked out of a television interview with Karan Thapar, one of India’s leading TV interviewers, Modi let an inner view rigidify that the media, especially the national English-language media based in Delhi, were viscerally antagonistic to him. It seems that he thought that since the media would always be unfair to him, he was not answerable to them.

Within minutes of the interview being recorded for CNN-IBN, in which Thapar began his questions with phrases like “members of the Muslim community call you a mass murderer on your face,” “you are like a modern-day Nero,” and “justice has not been done in Modi’s Gujarat,” Modi walked out. Before leaving he said, “I thought we were friends. But your continued hostility towards me tells me it is best to let you continue your tirade.”

In the run-up to the general election of 2014, he called such journalists “news traders.” Modi and several of his Bharatiya Janata Party’s senior leaders, besides millions of his diehard followers, are convinced that if most, if not all, journalists, certainly those dubbed “Lutyens media,” have been co-opted into echoing the Congress party narrative and are brazenly corrupt.

“Keep your anti-Modi narrative going, Rajdeep.” he told Rajdeep Sardesai, a prominent TV journalist, in an interview long before he became prime minister. When Sardesai mentioned the phrase “merchant of death” (Maut ka saudagar), an invective hurled at Modi first by Congress leader Sonia Gandhi, Modi retorted with barely masked disgust, “For years, your only job has been to abuse Modi. I am told journalists like you are rewarded with a membership to Rajya Sabha [India’s upper house of Parliament] or a Padma Shri [one of the highest civilian awards].”

Those were among the last instances of when Modi, as the chief minister of Gujarat, tried to mend fences with the English or Delhi media. The relationship between the two went sour after the fateful Gujarat riots of 2002.

Bypassing the media

Since he never trusted the media, Modi focused on developing an alternative space to reach out to the people directly. By 2013, he had built one of the most impressive social-media presences. He chose to address and interact with people directly online. Meanwhile, the traditional media passively gazed and reported from a show millions had already seen or had perhaps even directly participated in, and thus reduced their importance.

Like most leaders in the right-wing Hindutva space, Modi had always been distrustful of the media because it was dominated by “decadent liberals” and “leftists.” At best, he viewed it not as the fourth pillar of democracy but as a necessary evil. Once social media helped circumvent traditional media, the necessity was gone from Modi’s necessary evil – and it remained only as “evil” for him.

With Modi sweeping the elections in 2014 and becoming the first Indian politician to win a complete majority in 30 years, most other Indian leaders and political parties, believing social media were the panacea, jumped on to the bandwagon. They joined Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, besides creating their own websites and Instagram and LinkedIn accounts, among others. With social media becoming a crucial part of the armory of rich politicians, along came professional account managers. And trolls.

Trolls and politics

By strategy or accident, these five years have marked, simultaneously, both the decline of the Indian media, firmly defenestrated from their heyday no longer perceived as an important connection between leaders and the public, and the rise of paid trolls. Instead of politicians using post-interview off-the-record discussions with journalists to sense the pulse of the people, they moved to data scientists and social-media handlers, with their trending hashtags, paid followers, fake likes, and rigged trends. Journalists and media houses were relegated from any pretense of significance and started to reduce the focus on ground reporting or questioning the powerful. They instead shifted to diatribes and demagoguery disguised as “debates” at prime time.

Between the triumphant march of the rampaging trolls on social media and plain rhetorical sermonizing on TV, marked by harangues and soapbox oratory from anchors and preachy editorials from armchair experts peddling rehashes of their narratives, India became more divided than ever before.

It was not a communal divide – it was not merely a Hindu-Muslim divide, or between those who differed on policy matters relating to education, health care, environment or taxes; it was a divide based on the oldest political trick of them all – possibly asked for the first time by Cleon in the Assembly of Athens – whose side are you on?

Journalists and common people came to be identified and were tagged, derisively, based on whether they were right-wing supporters of Modi and his Hindutva (Hindu nationalism), or were anti-Modi. The liberals tagged Modi’s followers as Bhakts (or blind followers and worshippers). They were also insulted as sanghis, relating the Modi followers to the BJP’s parent organization Rashtriya Swayamseva Sangh and “saffronistas,” referring to the saffron color the BJP hinges on. In turn, anti-Modi persons were called the following: “Sickularists,” a twist on the word secular; “Prestitutes,” a juxtaposition of press and prostitutes; “Libtards,” meaning liberal retards; and so on.

Then came the designation “anti-national.” Once the BJP and Modi brought nationalism to the center through a posse of issues, underlying which was the principle of “you can’t question me or you are an ‘anti-national.’”

It reached a point where, in a total collapse of professional courtesies and personal respect, media began abusing each other, calling for boycotting, even banning, of each other’s media outlets solely based on whether they (blindly) supported Modi or (completely) opposed him. Years ago, the media tried to get Modi, but here he was, the survivor, who got to the media instead. Today, one section of the media has lost credibility, and ironically, the other has lost its audience and advertising revenues.

The only media interactions Modi has had since his term began have been a few exclusive interviews granted to obsequious scribes. Rather than ask the prime minister questions, they provided prompts for him to continue to pontificate as in his public speeches on such occasions as completing three or four years of his term.

Prime Minister Modi did not even address the media after a terror attack in Kashmir’s Pulwama took the lives of more than 40 police personnel and shook the nation. It is most unlikely that he will actually have a presser before India goes to polls on April 11. And if Modi gets a second term in office, it may be five more years of him dodging the media.

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