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.

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