Prime Minister Narendra Modi is known as a brilliant communicator even to his avowed critics since the BJP’s historic victory under his leadership in the 2014 Lok Sabha election. Indeed, when an influential section of the party, until 2013 known to be close to LK Advani — referred to pejoratively as “Club 160” — could not be relied upon, Modi outsourced the job of his publicity to sundry youth groups for the election, and they did a marvelous job of building a promising public perception about the challenger. Not only was the convenient route of commenting on social media from the comfort of one’s home or office used but these young people also formed coordination groups in the field to help make all rallies successful and then ensured that the turnout at rallies translated to votes. Post-victory, however, Modi and his government faced the challenge of a hostile media, the most prominent journalists in which were peeved at their disenfranchisement. Gone were the days when the prime minister’s entourage would comprise 150-odd hangers-on at taxpayers’ expense. Press conferences became a thing of the past for the chief executive in the government, as he was haunted by the memory of bad press for 2002 where a Gujarati media house had reportedly asked the BJP for an annual package of advertisement as a price for its softer projection of the deadly riots. Allegedly, the blackmailer was not entertained and that was the beginning of vilification of the persona of Modi; other newspapers, BJP leaders say, merely translated the content of the Gujarati newspaper, or a bunch of scribes wrote premeditated reports quoting one another. By 2014, Modi had, therefore, hit upon the idea of an alternative avenue of information dissemination. That was the social media, earlier known as networking sites. For the past four years, the nation has witnessed a counter-narrative wherein all journalists have been painted as “presstitutes” by a broad brush that irresponsible, often anonymous and untraceable, Twitter and Facebook warriors wield. When all parties joined the game, it only meant that there would be no separating of the wheat from the chaff. If one set of journalists was attacked by the supporters of the government, the other set was attacked by fans of the opposition. Modi’s alternative news medium reduced to a views medium, with mere challenges thrown at reports rather than substitutes for original information offered. That’s falling far short of a proper perception administration.
In some time, the BJP perhaps realised that the ‘alternative’ was not working out. So, they formed a media management team, largely comprising former, veteran journalists who had recently joined the party. However, the committee soon turned listless without a proper command structure and instruction from either the prime minister or party president Amit Shah to all workers of the party, many of whom fancy their chances of being BJP spokespersons on television. The redoubtable MJ Akbar, arguably never interested in the job of controlling or guiding a disciplined team of spokespersons — let alone admonishing those who appeared on channels unauthorised — was subsequently moved to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Those who were left behind in the fledgling team themselves became the party’s faces in the media, forgetting their initial brief that they were supposed to manage the media backstage. Such perception management involves public relations exercises by which the party would develop such relationships with the media that any journalist would be circumspect, if not awkward, while deliberately filing negative stories. Of course, this effort cannot always bear the desired fruits — as the better media managers under the Atal Bihari Vajpayee regime had realised. However, outrages can certainly be mitigated. In the absence of this department in the ruling party, the media went bonkers, attributing everything any fringe group did to Modi, the BJP or the larger Sangh Parivar. Somewhere, Modi figured out there should be a better apparatus of reaching out to journalists. He called a meeting with a select group, but that was another mistake of the kind he had committed with his social media supporters. Those who were not invited to the meet grew ever more hostile. Those who were, got split into two groups: editors and reporters who were offered different sitting arrangements at the venue! Finally, however, the mistake was corrected last year when the entire fourth estate was told the prime minister would address them on 11 Ashoka Road. Journalists that day went back home without complaining of discrimination, but the fact that four years have passed without the prime minister facing their questions in an open press conference still pinches many.
The nature of friendly media houses has helped marginally. While the INC and the left have identified a few channels as inimical to their interests, their own unauthorised spokespersons at least provide the national audience with the perception of a debate every night. In the print medium, one agency continues to rule the roost whereas the RSS’s own agency, established in 1948, still struggles to make a mark owing to its poor human resource management, poorer quality of content and lack of humility to accept its mistakes and make necessary course corrections. Google, Yahoo, Bing, etc throw up news results from the same media houses repeatedly, whatever be the user’s query, thanks partly to a technicality called search engine optimisation and partly to opaque sponsorships in which start-ups cannot compete with established media houses. Then, sociology plays a part: every time an old citizen dies, newspapers lose a customer; every time a future citizen is born, websites get a new customer. In the recent past, therefore, while long-form essays on the web have created a niche in the market, the decline in the interest to read newspapers implies that only detailed views rather than detailed news would be widely followed.
Certainly, as Modi used to say in defence of his “Gujarat model” during the 2013-14 campaign, a product sells primarily for its substance and secondarily for the marketing techniques employed. That substance is a mixed bag. Financial newspapers and their sites cannot be blamed for an anti-government bias; they reported every act of reform — incremental or radical — that the Modi dispensation executed. But general newspapers have wider subscription bases. If imputing motives to Modi and his team for the bellicosity of lumpen elements was propaganda, the media must be allowed its chuckles for the utterly unscientific assertions some of the ministers of BJP’s Union and State government make. Finally, even the thorough professionals in the media no longer smell of roses, but their alternative remains elusive. As illusory as the overall Sangh Parivar’s, including the current government’s, perception management!