By Chitranshu Tewari:
Two days after BJP’s debacle in Bihar, Modi did what he does best- board an Air India for a foreign visit to enthral thousands of people from the Indian diaspora abroad and capture mainstream media’s attention back home. This serves both Modi and BJP conveniently. While the BJP leadership faced questions about the loss and the vitriolic campaign that ensued it in Bihar back home, visuals of Modi enthralling a 60,000 plus audience of expatriates at Wembley Stadium made the TRP driven mainstream media of India drop the questions of bickering within the BJP ranks and the accountability of Modi-Shah duo for Bihar loss to focus on Modi’s UK visit. Unlike the Indian media which has mostly gotten accustomed to Modi’s one way communications strategy (18 months into the new government, Modi hasn’t held a presser himself or given an interview to an Indian media house), British media took no time to pose direct, sharp questions at Modi during his visit this time.
Away from home, the last thing Modi wanted to address was the growing intolerance in India and the 2002 Gujarat Riots. However, hours after he landed in London, at a joint press conference with his British PM David Cameron on Nov. 12, here’s the first question that a BBC journalist asked him – “Prime Minister Modi, India is becoming an increasingly intolerant place. Why?” For someone who, barring one token remark that accused opposition of ‘communalising India‘, has maintained stoic silence on such matters, Modi was facing the brunt of questions in public for the first time. Though Modi responded to the question by referring to Gandhi and Buddha, and their ideologies of non-violence and how every incident of violence matters to his government, one couldn’t help but notice how he ducked the question about the 2002 riots when asked about how his record as Chief Minister of Gujarat during the riots made him underserving to be given the “respect that would normally be accorded to the leader of the world’s largest democracy”. Though Cameron deftly tried to defend Modi, stating the huge mandate won by him in elections last year, these were direct, tough questions: questions we haven’t seen our Prime Minister respond to or even entertain, back in India. After all, the last time such questions were put to Modi, he chose to walk out from the interview. Remember the infamous Karan Thapar interview? No wonder Indian journalists were envious of British Journalists:
When will @PMOIndia have an open press conference in India like the one in London?
— Sagarika Ghose (@sagarikaghose) November 12, 2015
In the run up to Modi’s ascent from Gandhi Nagar to Race Course, a considerable effort and PR strategy was spun off to position Modi as a ‘Vikas Purush’, away from his image of a ‘Hindu Hriday Samrat’ and someone under whose watch the 2002 riots took place. But it is increasingly getting obvious that not everything can be buried with a PR exercise and an image makeover. In London, as Modi made speeches, one after another, hundreds from the civil society took to the streets to protest against Modi’s past, his governments attack on civil liberties and his silence on the increasing communal tension in India. British media, again, hasn’t been behind to remind Modi about his past and hold him accountable. While Telegraph dubbed the red carpet being rolled out to Modi as “Pomp and ceremony for an ex-pariah”, a column in The Times read that you hold your nose before shaking the PM’s hand. It seems David Cameron’s defense of Modi on human rights didn’t go down well with media, calling Modi ‘Former Persona Non Grata‘. Not to forget the series of articles in Guardian by the likes of Arundhati Roy and Pankaj Mishra who described Modi as ‘the divisive manipulator who charmed the world’:
— Bodhisattva Sen Roy (@insenroy) November 13, 2015
British media certainly didn’t hold back any punches. The message was clear. David Cameron, the British PM, was neglecting Modi’s role and accountability in muzzling dissent and civil liberties in India for trade and finance deals. Though many may argue how British media’s scathing criticism and sneering remarks reflect their own scornful attitude- some remarks on Modi’s humble beginnings were clearly quite spiteful, it is certain that Modi remains a polarizing figure even after becoming the Prime Minister. If anything, as a healthy, evolving democracy, we need such narratives- narratives that don’t buy into the PR hype or give in to one-way communications and don’t let leaders get away without facing questions. I hope the Indian media can take a cue from British media’s extensive coverage of Modi’s UK visit, so can Modi. Because he has to be answerable to the public at one point or the other, he can’t escape such difficult questions all the time