PRIME MINISTER NARENDRA MODI and the larger Hindu-nationalist ecosystem often distinguish between two categories of journalists. The first is that of “news traders”—media persons who are sponsored by Modi’s opponents in Lutyens’ Delhi and are working for his downfall. The other is that of unbiased, “real” journalists. A noteworthy name in this latter category is Smita Prakash, the editor of Asian News International, India’s biggest television-news agency. In recent times, Smita has been hailed by the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party’s leaders and supporters as a beacon of hope for independent journalism.
Though she often likes to mention her three decades of experience, Smita only gained pre-eminence as an “independent journalist” following an interview with Modi in 2014, during his campaign for the general election that year. That interview went rather pleasantly for both Smita and Modi. A behind-the-scenes account that Smita wrote for a news website was mostly a list of things she was impressed with. She marvelled at how little instruction she had received from Modi and his men on how the interview was to be conducted, and even at the bare simplicity of his Gandhinagar house—“nothing on the walls, not even a carpet.” If he became prime minister, she speculated, “this man is going to turn 7 Race Course Road (the PM’s official residence) into a monastery at this rate!”
Modi did not have to face too many tough questions. Smita’s idea of impartiality sounded rather convenient for Modi. “I am holding fast to my desire to be as neutral as possible in the interview,” she wrote in the account. “My questions are beyond the riots of 2002, beyond Hindutva and beyond hate speeches.”
The few uncomfortable questions she asked were either framed weakly, or were not followed up on, allowing Modi to spin the issues any way he pleased. Modi followed the famous dictum by the former US secretary of defence Robert Mcnamara: “Never answer the question that is asked of you. Answer the question that you wish had been asked.”