How India’s Television News Bought into Modi’s Spectacle during the Obama Visit

01 February, 2015

If there is one thing Prime Minister Narendra Modi deserves to be duly credited for, it should be his uncanny ability to spin the spectacular out of the mundane. This ability was on display at the pageant that he manufactured, aided and abetted by India’s media, for US President Barack Obama’s recently concluded visit to India.

For better or for worse, Modi has dragged conventionally ritualised and stuffy foreign policy engagements out of the elite corridors of the Raisina Road–Hyderabad House complex in New Delhi and into the public sphere. But, has this exhibition of power truly redefined the rules of high-table engagements and resulted in tangible achievements on the ground? Or is it just an extension of our Prime Minister’s continuing efforts to feed into his larger-than-life persona? On all of these, I am afraid the jury is out.

What is, however, incontestable is the relevance of this extravaganza in analysing Modi’s complex equation with the media—a clever albeit contradictory mix of cultivated insouciance and an overwhelming desire to both control and manipulate the message.

It begins right at the prime minister’s office (PMO) and extends to his government. Those covering the PMO complain that there is no point of contact in Modi’s office. There are no press handouts. The prime minister only uses his Twitter account and other social networking sites like Instagram for direct communication, where he has total control over the message. Whenever there is some information to be shared by Modi’ office, each of the beat reporters gets a message along with a link to the relevant information. When it comes to engagements at the level of foreign policy—whether here or outside the country—the message is tightly controlled by no less than the prime minister himself, along with hardcore Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) organisers like Ram Madhav and US-based organisations like the Overseas Friends of the BJP (OFBJP). Knowing fully well that these are "newsy" events for which the media has an appetite, access is carefully controlled through agencies like the Asian News International (ANI) and the government run Doordarshan.

It is the classic top-down approach: an effort to ensure that information flows only one way.

Modi’s media strategy—of which an acute news sense is an important part—made for pretty viewing during this visit. Sample this: the prime minister, eager as he was to orchestrate a series of performances to display his proximity to the American president, hugged Obama on two occasions during this visit. But it wasn’t this show of affection that caught the media’s attention; it was the suit that Modi was sporting during one such embrace. A dark bandhgala (a formal Indian suit) with pinstripes, which turned out to be embroidered with Modi’s full name. This was signature Modi design.

There was more to follow—from Modi and Obama’s famed Walk and Talk discussion over the nuclear deal to the jointly held Chai pe Charcha (conversation over tea), a thinly veiled reminder of Modi’s patented election campaign pitch, which reinforced both his humble origins and the extent of his rise as he now shared a cup with the most powerful leader in the world.

The choice to address the American president with his first name—with a laboured elucidation of its meaning in Swahili during Mann ki Baat—may have created the desired media charade, but it was not reciprocated by the recipient of this imposed affection. Some of the veteran PMO and MEA beat reporters I spoke to were quick to point out that Obama addressed Modi as “Mr Prime Minister” on nearly every occasion. To millions, though, who may have seen Modi on television or heard him on the radio, Modi had successfully created the illusion of kinship between the two leaders. The half an hour Mann Ki Baat radio broadcast with Obama, on the other hand, was a washout. A bored Obama was subjected to inanities about the US’s role in helping India fight obesity and diabetes, apart from empty rhetoric on the role of women and the girl child in society. Modi’s past as a tea seller was drilled into the conversation at every opportunity, while Obama ventured into his humble beginnings only once. The pattern of questioning, alternating between Obama and Modi, was predictable and evidently choreographed. Extremely uninspired and un-Obama-like answers ensued. The fact that some of these questions were reportedly planted by Akhil Bhartiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP) and RSS workers could perhaps be one of the contributing factors. With no camera to dramatise events, Modi was out of his element and the show sank without a trace, receiving only a token mention in the media mainly on account of its novelty.

However, television news did not disappoint, enthusiastically lapping up the sound bites and images that were thrown its way. Every network had succumbed to the same farce. Repetitive visuals, tickers proclaiming every so-called triumph, anchors who threw around similar hyperbole and a battery of experts along with regular flashes of “Breaking News”—Times Now’s truly exclusive caption “Exclusive Breaking News” appears to be catching on—lit up the screen. The high-table talks were squeezed, somewhat uneasily in the remaining space on the screen. But this was not the main problem.

What comes into question is the ability of television news to cover such events. Isn’t there a case for allowing alternate, divergent viewpoints on prime-time television? Or should we have the same set of experts on every occasion? Admittedly, foreign policy is a tricky realm. Across the world, the powerful and entrenched community of foreign-policy wonks, strategic-affairs and security experts comprise talking heads with firm ties to the bureaucracy, an array of think tanks and sundry corporate interests, a point cogently made by Noam Chomsky in his path-breaking work Manufacturing Consent. How long will the Indian television news viewer be subjected to the Gopalapuram Parthasarthys and Major General Bakshis of the world? Nobody is questioning their competence, but regardless of changes in the outside world, their views do not seem to change in the slightest. Yet, they are called upon to perform each time, regardless of whether the topic for discussion is Pakistan, China, Afghanistan or the US.

A classic example of this conundrum is the discussion that surrounded the breakthrough of the nuclear deal. No one, till date, appears to have any clarity on its precise nature, despite the number of diplomats who were fielding questions from the media soon after the Obama–Modi joint statement. Nobody attempted to unearth the reasons behind the reluctance of American businesses to invest in India despite their French and Russian counterparts having already done so. Equally conspicuous, was the absence of any questions around the financial and environmental efficacy of nuclear power in the post-Fukushima context—where even Germany has decided to phase out its seventeen nuclear power plants by the year 2022, and Switzerland by 2034. Not one network thought it fit to include local voices from Jaitapur in Maharashtra, where locals are opposing the very establishment of a nuclear power plant on several grounds. Allowing and fostering the free play of diverse opinions is the foremost obligation of any country’s media, and not the promotion of jingoism masquerading as national interest. Reporters were of course mere footnotes that paled in comparison to celebrated talking heads and studio anchors. A majority of the field reportage centred on the fascinating security arrangements for the visit, the route that the Obama was to take and the destinations at which he would halt—issues that gripped all of our television networks. The one chance a reporter from ABP News had to ask Obama and Modi questions at the joint press conference was spent in congratulating both of them for “taking the relationship forward.” He can hardly be blamed. Most foreign desks in news networks have been disbanded in the last few years, resulting in a crop of reporters who are expected to develop an expertise on a number of such sidelined beats.

At his last engagement in Siri Fort in Delhi, Obama’s statement that “India will succeed so long as it is not splintered along lines of religious faith,” was an emphatic indicator of the limits that are set on any leader’s attempts to control the message, no matter how powerful.

Sandeep Bhushan was a television journalist for twenty years. He is currently an independent media researcher.