Prime Minister Narendra Modi‘s trip to the United States was marred by news reporting that was excessively fawning. Coverage was, in fact, reminiscent of the bad old days of state-controlled media, when the nightly news bulletin on Doordarshan was little more than a paean of praise to Rajiv Gandhi or Indira Gandhi. In fact, the saturation coverage was so disproportionate to the actual scope or achievements of the prime minister’s visit that it was embarrassing.
It is true that Mr Modi’s United States trip was, above all, an extended rally for the Indian-American community that has been among his strongest backers. Naturally, there was a festive atmosphere that is unusual for a foreign trip – one that was all the stronger because the United States had famously denied Mr Modi a visa after 2005. But Indian news reports from New York in particular – filed mainly for television news – seemed to be part of the celebration, not descriptions of it. It is true that Indian news has a tradition of seizing on, and magnifying, any suggestion that the country’s profile abroad is rising. This is not exactly a comforting phenomenon, as it reflects and enhances a nationwide self-esteem crisis. But Mr Modi’s trip saw new ground being broken; days of over-the-top graphics and breathless voice-overs could have led some hapless viewers to believe that Mr Modi’s United States trip had been a roaring success even before he had actually landed there. Humiliating comparisons could be drawn to the United States press, where coverage of the visit was restrained, and correctly focused on its importance to the Indian-American community. All coverage also pointed out that that community was not a monolith, and Mr Modi had loud detractors within it as well. Late-night TV comedy discovered Mr Modi as well, and its light-hearted coverage of the occasional gaffe – such as Mr Modi inexplicably using a line from the movie Star Wars to conclude a speech – further showed up the immaturity of Indian coverage.
Mr Modi has begun a new tradition since taking office. Journalists no longer travel with him on Air India One. This is part of a larger attempt to keep the media as distant as possible. Only a few journalists from state-controlled agencies went along with the prime minister. Others went there themselves. But the cost of the tickets was wasted when they wound up sounding like state-controlled media themselves.