The demand that the PM should hold press conferences is fine, but to pretend that these events actually yield anything useful is questionable most of the time.
Modi should do a presser, and he will find that it will show up the media’s toothless nature rather than his own shortcomings.
It speaks much for the quality of political discourse in India, and in the media, that the question of whether or not the Prime Minister holds a press conference becomes a big issue. And the question of who he talks to in media interviews results in the journalist concerned being accused of being “pliable.”
Thus, not only Rahul Gandhi, who used the above term to criticise ANI editor Smita Prakash’s recent interview of the Prime Minister, but all of Narendra Modi’s political critics, including churlish allies like the Shiv Sena, have made the lack of press conferences in Modi’s tenure as some kind of black mark.
While Rahul Gandhi taunted the PM with a tweet last month (“Btw it’s been 1,654 days since u became PM. Still no press conference?”), Shatrughan Sinha had this to say in his tweets: “Sir, we all saw your well-scripted, choreographed, well researched and rehearsed TV interview on Monday evening. With due respect to the anchor, wonder lady Smita Prakash, isn't it high time and the right time to enhance your image as an able and capable leader taking candid, extempore questions?”
Even Manmohan Singh, not known for holding too many pressers in his 10-year tenure, chimed in: “People say I was a silent Prime Minister. I think these volumes (his book 'Changing India') speak for themselves. I wasn't the PM who was afraid of talking to the press. I met the press regularly and on every foreign trip that I undertook. I had a press conference on return in the plane.”
First off, it is worth talking about the real value of press conferences in the Indian context, when party spokespersons, including their top bosses, do that regularly, almost daily. Most of these events start with some kind of statement being made, and questions being restricted to those issues the party wants to highlight. Additionally, the structure of pressers is such that no real aggressive and persistent questioning is possible. When 50-100 journos are assembled, each one gets to ask one question or two max, so where is the question of any deep inquisition or grilling of the person holding the presser? It is actually very easy for politicians to avoid difficult questions with a joke, a deflection, or a bland answer that means nothing. One-on-one interviews, even if stage-managed, offer more information.
Press conferences are not some kind of gold standard by which to judge PMs by. The demand that the PM should hold press conferences is fine, but to pretend that these events actually yield anything useful is questionable most of the time. They are merely information events.
Rahul Gandhi claims to find such conferences “fun”, but in which press conference was he ever grilled on the holes in his Rafale allegations, on his relationship with Ottavio Quattrocchi, on the AgustaWestland affair, or the more incriminating National Herald family caper?
Obviously, it is fun if pressers are full of uncritical journalists, who don’t think grilling the Gandhi scion is part of their job description. (Just check a sample of these short YouTube videos of Rahul Gandhi pressers here, here, here and here, and try and discover any grilling of the dynast by aggressive journos).
As for Manmohan Singh’s pressers on planes during foreign junkets, by their very nature these conferences are sometimes off-the-record, and when they are not, the journalists enjoying his hospitality ask only gentle questions. The reason is simple: when journos get a free junket and get to travel with the PM abroad, they have no interest in aggressively questioning him or getting on the wrong side of the PMO flunkies who control the interaction. By merely taking a free junket (I have been on two of them, and I know how it works), most journos are effectively muffled from raising uncomfortable questions. If you do, you don’t get called the next time. The real beef journos have with Modi is that he has stopped these junkets.
Also ask yourself: when did Sonia Gandhi ever subject herself to any serious questioning by any journalist, given that she was the real power behind the United Progressive Alliance? It is easier for Rahul Gandhi to claim he finds pressers “fun”, since he has never held office, and he is not accountable for anything.
Also ask yourself: which among these powerful state-level politicians - Mayawati, Mamata Banerjee, (the late) Jayalalithaa, Naveen Patnaik, K Chandrashekar Rao, Chandrababu Naidu, or Pinarayi Vijayan – has even been subjected to any serious questioning? Most of them hold pressers to make announcements, not to be grilled. P Chidambaram walked out of a CNBC TV18 Q&A merely for being asked about his budget numbers; Mamata Banerjee did the same in the midst of a TV interaction where someone from the audience asked a question she was not prepared for. Narendra Modi did so too in a Karan Thapar interview (read here, here).
The media has a job to do whether or not politicians talk to them, or talk to them selectively. The Prime Minister, for his part, is not obliged to hold press conferences, even if it may be good to do so. In this day of media-influenced politics, and where image matters more than reality, it is not surprising that top politicians – like corporate CEOs – think that their public profile depends on offering select access to journalists only when it serves their purpose. Most political interactions in the US – ie, before Donald Trump changed all the rules – have been well-choreographed, managed by professional PR people, and press conferences have yielded little by way of additional information.
None of this means Narendra Modi should avoid press conferences – he may find that he can handle them easily. The point is to call out the phony nature of the accusation that not holding them is some kind of character flaw in the Prime Minister.
Narendra Modi should do a presser, and he will find that it will show up the media’s toothless nature rather than his own shortcomings.