It’s not just that it has been rare for Narendra Modi to directly field live questions from the press throughout a near decade in power. If Mr. Modi does end up responding to questions along with President Biden at a news conference in Washington on Thursday, it may well be the first time since he was first elected as India’s prime minister in 2014.
Even when foreign dignitaries visit, Mr. Modi has made a habit of walking onto the podium with those officials and then walking away after giving a statement to the news media. Answering questions live has been left to others.
From the start of his time in office, Mr. Modi and his staff have been fastidious about controlling his message, and trying to control the media, in general. Though he loves speeches at public events, and has leaned into his monthly radio show as a way to deliver messages to the nation, any exposure to unscripted events has been a no-go.
Mr. Modi’s aides insist that social media, which his party’s vast communications apparatus has mastered, has made news conferences redundant. And other arms of the government do engage with reporters.
Mr. Modi’s shying away from media engagement goes back to his time as chief minister of Gujarat decades ago. Under his watch, the state broke into widespread riots in 2002, and Mr. Modi was accused of looking away — or even enabling — Hindu mobs who went on deadly rampages in Muslim neighborhoods.
Mr. Modi had long rejected any wrongdoing. But he has also publicly said that his biggest failure during that time was that he could not control the media — something he has assiduously pursued since then.
Dangling incentives of government advertising and applying the pressure tactics of tax raids and arrests, he has bent large sections of India’s media, particularly broadcast media, to his will to such an extent that most outlets confine themselves to doling out his official line.
Perhaps the closest he has come to participating in a formal news conference was on the day of his re-election in 2019, where he appeared on the podium for one. But even then, he only made an opening statement. Who answered the actual questions? His right-hand man, Amit Shah, who is now India’s powerful home minister.
Mujib Mashal is The Times’s bureau chief for South Asia. Born in Kabul, he wrote for magazines including The Atlantic, Harper’s and Time before joining The Times. @MujMash
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