Prime Minister Narendra Modi walked the entire length of the area under the shamiana, about the size of half a football field, shaking hands with each one of more than 400 journalists gathered at the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) headquarters on Saturday. And, he patiently indulged several of them when they posed to click ‘selfies’ with him. The occasion was ‘Diwali Milan’, or a get-together of senior BJP leaders with mediapersons, including many top editors; and Modi suggested that his government’s days keeping the media at an arm’s length might be over.
The PM said he wanted to revive the “deep” ties with the media that he enjoyed during his stint as a BJP office bearer at the party’s 11, Ashoka Road headquarters. That was before he moved to Gujarat in September 2001. “I would arrange chairs here, waiting for you. Those were the days when we used to interact freely. My relations with you helped me in Gujarat as well,” Modi said.
The self-deprecation was partly an acknowledgment that in his 150-odd days at 7, Race Course Road, Modi had kept the media at bay. As prime minister, Modi has also discontinued practices like meeting leading editors or taking along journalists on his foreign visits.
That the current government was unlikely to be overly forthcoming with the media was made clear both by Modi’s ministerial colleagues and bureaucrats within days of taking over. In the months that followed, they were either inaccessible or too busy looking over their shoulders, lest they be hauled up for their excessive friendliness with the media.
Modi’s address at the get-together on Saturday promised ‘better days’ ahead. The PM hinted at moving beyond his uneasy equation with the media in the post-2002 Gujarat riots period. During his Lok Sabha election campaign, he had repeatedly called some in the media “news traders”. But, in his brief speech, Modi said he would try finding a way to increase his interaction with mediapersons. “I am looking for a way so that our old deep link becomes more pervasive,” Modi told the gathered media fraternity, adding how interacting with mediapersons at a personal level was beneficial in terms of information and points of view.
He lauded the media’s help in propagating his ‘Swachh Bharat’ campaign. “It was not possible for me alone as the PM to pick up the broom and spread the message. The media converted its pen into a broom… this is a service to the nation,” Modi said, elaborating on the need for cleanliness and preventive health care.
Earlier, party president Amit Shah said the festival of Diwali had been auspicious for the party, as it performed remarkably well in the Assembly elections in Haryana and Maharashtra. After the event, much of the BJP brass, led by Shah and External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj, sat down to have long informal chats with journalists over lunch. Others present at the event were Finance & Defence Minister Arun Jaitley, Home Minister Rajnath Singh, Information & Broadcasting Minister Prakash Javadekar, Petroleum Minister Dharmendra Pradhan, Power & Coal Minister Piyush Goyal and Science & Technology Minister Jitendra Singh, besides several others. “At BJP Diwali Milan with media persons, most were overwhelmed to see PM mingling, warmly exchanging pleasantries! Welcome goodbye to formalities,” tweeted BJP national vice-president and ideologue, Vinay Sahasrabuddhe.
A fortnight ago, a column by senior journalist Virendra Kapoor, considered close to top BJP leadership, had questioned Modi’s “tendency to play it solo” and inability to delegate decision-making. In his column published in several Hindi and regional language newspapers, Kapoor had also cautioned that blanking out “the entire media from official access could prove costly when the tide of popular opinion turns against him (Modi).”