Two questions are before us. How was Narendra Modi covered? How did themedia get to know who Narendra Modi was? We as beat reporters covering Bharatiya Janata Party got to know Modi when he was a young acolyte in the BJP during LK Advani’s Rath Yatra. The first time we got to see the skills of Narendra Modi was during Dr Murli Manohar Joshi’s Ekta Yatra during 1991-92. He was the national organiser of Ekta Yatra. Of course this Yatra ended in a disaster. But there was unanimity that Modi was a great manager and this put Modi in the foreground of Indian politics -within and outside the party. He knew how to handle the media. He knew how to have reporters eating out of his hand.
During the Ekta Party days Modi had extensively prepared for the tour, and he ensured that there was a media cell with STD facilities, FAX machines and typewriters at every nightly halt so that the journalists could send out their news reports without any difficulty. He had known even in those early days of his career the need to manage the media and make friends with journalists to ensure good coverage.
I was on the BJP beat for dailies like The Economic Times. When the problem for the BJP began in Gujarat with a revolt against the leadership of Keshubhai Patel led by Shankar Singh Vaghela who took away a bunch of MLAs to Khajraho, we got to know that Modi was involved in some way. This little rebellion came to be known as the Kajuria-Hajuria incident. We realized at that time that Modi was acquiring a great deal of power and seemed to be a man in a hurry. But there was still no consolidated or for that matter informed opinion on him amongst journalists on the beat.
During the Agra Summit between India and Pakistan, Narendra Modi was already a General Secretary and Spokesperson of the BJP. He went to Gujarat as Chief Minister after the massive Earthquake in the state that adversely impacted on the BJP’s popularity. The then, incumbent Chief Minister Keshubhai did not know how to manage the relief, rehabilitation operations and the administration was unable to respond adequately to the calamity. In September 2001 when the BJP lost imporant by- elections the Party realized that there was need for a change of leadership in the state as otherwise it would not be able to come back to power. Modi went to Gujarat as CM. Again the national media failed to formulate a perception about the clearly important BJP leader. We did not know whether he would be able to do what he was tasked with to revive the fortunes of BJP in Gujarat. He was never part of any government or elected to any post. He had not even contested any panchayat elections. Somehow he floundered. He did not have any clear idea of how he was going to run the government and to revive the party’s fortune.
Once the Godhra incident in 2002 happened he realised that he must seize the opportunity. It was his moment of crowning glory. Whatever he did he allowed the situation to develop in a manner to politically benefit himself and the party. The media responded angrily, particularly the English media that was part of the secular tradition whether in Ahmedabad or Delhi. At this point Modi’s relations with the media touched an all time low, with the exception of a few journalists seen to be close to the Sangh parivar.The majority of the journalists became anti-Modi with only a few supporting Modi during those days. The chief minister would taunt his opponents as he did not feel the need to befriend journalists.
Let me point out that the RSS and its leaders did not know how to cultivate the media. The credit goes to second generation RSS leaders who learnt how to cultivate the media. It began with K N Govindacharya, Pramod Mahajan and Narendra Modi when the BJP made the transition from 2 to 85 MPs in Lok Sabha.
Prior to this leaders in the BJP would hardly interact with the media. For instance J P Mathur, Kishan Lal Sharma, K R Malkani and others were highly snobbish and looked upon journalists as a bunch of idiots, ignorant about the Sangh parivar, and asking stupid questions. In that mould Modi was amongst the early generation leaders in the BJP who were savvy about the importance of the media and developed a strategy to manage it.
I had done an article for The Pioneer daily a few years ago, when it was not as sympathetic to the BJP as it is now and was a liberal paper comparing Narendra Modi with Ariel Sharon of Israel. People were hostile to Narendra Modi. By and large leading national dailies like the Indian Expres and The Times of India were anti-Modi.
If a pie chart on the English media coverage of Narendra Modi was drawn it would be anti-Modi with a very small minority seen as supporting Modi. We must understand there was as much of consternation and revulsion against Modi and his brand of politics as it was against the Congress Post-1984 Anti-Sikh Riots. All right thinking journalists in 1984 opposed the Congress party. As the Middle Class Intelligentsia respectability came from opposing Modi and the manner in which the Gujarat riots were organized, and the way in which the state responded to the violence under his leadership.
Of late has the media softened toward Modi?
Narendra Modi has been successful in neutralizing his opponents partly through tactics and party because of the passing of time. This coincided with a truce called by big industry, business associations like CII and FICCI and other sections of society. By 2004 the situation began to ease for Modi as people started looking at other factors, such as governance and administration in Gujarat. The Growth’ and ‘Governance’ mantra became popular. Sections of society started looking at the Gujarat Riots as a matter of the past with even the community that was victimized wanting to bury the past and look ahead. Industry openly embraced Modi during 2007-08. This was also the time when reporters were instructed by their media owners not to continue the hostility towards Modi, and to recognize him as a multi-dimensional leader.
Modi is very astute when it comes to media management. He is the first among Indian politicians to start a personal website, a twitter account and Google Hang Out anchored by Bollywood actor Ajay Devgun. He used the social media far more than even journalists, and used twitter in particular to generate controversies by his timely observations.
The worst coverage of Narendra Modi is over. It can only get better. It can only improve. There are people like me who look at things from a wider perspective, and seek to examine the policies that have been initiated and implemented by his government in the state.
During my conversation with Modi I asked him several times whether he would reach out to Muslims. He kept on saying he will not change and that he is as inclusive as he always was. Modi told me: “Earlier I used to say 5 crore Gujaratis and now after 2011 Census I say 6 crore Gujarati. I want to embrace all the Gujaratis’ irrespective of caste, creed and religion”. According to him he is all inclusive. But according to us. his policies are not inclusive and he believes in exclusion.
Another important issue is the concept of the Gujarat Model of Development. I believe this to be a misnomer. There is no Gujarat Model that by implication can be replicated in other states. But the media remains sympathetic to the economic policies pursued by the Modi government in Gujarat, without making any attempt to understand exactly what this chief minister has contributed, or otherwise, to Gujarat’s development.
Many analysts point towards the exclusive nature of these development policies and how communities are being left out completely. For economic policies towork, Modi has to be inclusive and include dalits, tribals and Muslims in his programs and policies. Unless this happens the Gujarat Model will be little more than a newspaper headline.