Modi playing it cool with the press

During his trip to the United States last month, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi chose to ignore the large posse of journalists from the country's hyperactive media who had followed him.

He restricted his entourage to nine representatives from state-owned television and radio stations, and a news agency, leaving the three dozen others from private media houses to make their own way to the US.

And despite thronging each of his events during the five-day trip, they were not obliged with a single direct soundbite.

Instead, Mr Modi preferred to voice his thoughts on social media, leaving the Fourth Estate to turn to government press releases and official briefings for information.

The few times he did face Indian journalists was during joint pressers in the presence of their US counterparts.

"The Prime Minister has a different style of functioning," Mr Sachidananda Murthy, resident editor of The Week magazine said, calling his method a 'we-will-convey-when-we-decide' style.

"It's a challenge, but we have to get information through other means," he said.

Since coming to power in this year's general election, Mr Modi has been setting his own rules of engagement with the mainstream media, much to the chagrin of journalists who are used to politicians courting them.

While former prime minister Manmohan Singh was often criticised for remaining aloof - he addressed only three press conferences during his 10 years in office - he did not completely block out journalists, having his media adviser and officials regularly reach out to them instead.

But Mr Modi has no such representatives in place, except for a public relations officer who has on more than one occasion said he was not authorised to speak to them.

Ministers and bureaucrats have been cautioned against reaching out to journos, although party leaders deny any clampdown on information.

Rumblings have now come out into the open with the Editors Guild of India, a journalists' body, complaining about the restricted media access in a statement, and urging the Prime Minister to "engage more actively" with them.

Some believe Mr Modi, who acquired a reputation for controlling the flow of information during his three terms as chief minister of Gujarat state, is redefining how politicians reach out to the public.

He is an active user of Twitter and Facebook, regularly commenting on those forums, providing fodder for news to the nation's more than 400 news channels and 12,000 regional and national language newspapers.

He has now turned to the airwaves to reach out to the remotest corners of the nation.

"Mr Modi is working on the assumption that a national politician, already with a high profile, does not need the old-style media organisations," said Professor Robin Bannerman Jeffrey at the Institute of South Asian Studies.

But critics say he is simply discouraging debate.

"He wants to have direct contact with people but he also doesn't want to have a serious debate," said political observer Ghanshyam Shah.

"This could be detrimental. Democracy is not only about talking to people directly but also having a debate."

This article was first published on Oct 9, 2014.
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