NDA II, tech-savvy, yet arm's length

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No government in the last 30 years has had the kind of single-party status that the current one has. It is transparent with its social media presence, its outreach approach and photo-op readiness, and yet can afford not to be.

The Narendra Modi government has been celebrating its two-year anniversary for more than a couple of months now, presenting report cards, holding public meetings and releasing theme songs to mark the occasion. Commentators and policy wonks have also been busy assessing the performance of the government, some not in the laudatory terms that the government may have liked, but the column inches have been prolific and proliferating at a great rate. As a reporter, I have been — as is said in tactical terms — at the frontlines of covering this government. My 12 years covering the BJP (they lost the 2004 polls just as I started covering the party; not my fault, of course) was expected to give me access and information — two things much sought after by reporters.

The coverage of this administration started off, propitiously enough, with a big swearing-in ceremony, lots of news and great photo-ops, and then, with a thud, the press posse was offloaded from the Prime Minister’s aircraft on his foreign trips. Contrary to what a lot of people think, news organisations paid for the hotel stay and other expenses of their correspondents, and the only freebie this travel had involved was a free ride, and more importantly, some amount of access to officials in the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) and the privilege of an on-board press conference by the Prime Minister. But, since it was the Prime Minister’s choice nothing much was said, and that’s how things lie at the moment. The tone had been pretty much set for the rest of the two years — arms-length distance and a “why do you need to know basis” operation.

And yet, the two years have been newsy and laid out a steep learning curve even for the most cynical of hacks. Here are some of these insights on covering Mr Modi.

It’s on Twitter, stupid!
Right off the bat, this was a government and a Prime Minister who needed you to be social media–savvy in a hurry. Most of the big announcements were to be made there and woe betide the reporter who didn’t have at least a “stalker” account — an anonymous account where you stalk newsmakers, and don’t post much yourself. You also learnt, very early on, that you were being stalked yourself.

The easy, chatty familiarity that Twitter or Facebook accords you is a deception, you are not in a drawing room chatting with like-minded friends. You tweeted one opinionated post, and you got a deluge of 140-character shredding. It taught me to be circumspect (I am sure my mother is thanking the trolls for this somewhere in heaven) and also to be thick-skinned (to the utter despair of my siblings who used to love to get a rise out of me by ribbing on everything). I got quite used to being called ‘pressitute’, ‘sickular’, ‘hag’. And because I covered some positive aspects of the government too, I got called ‘bhakt’ and an ‘upstanding member of the Durga Vahini' (one of affiliate organisations of the RSS). The ‘praise’ was even-handed, and I have learnt to take it as a compliment to my even-handed reporting.

What, you are not an outsider?

Covering the Central government is a very Delhi thing. Ask anyone. The government offices, the networking hub of restaurants in Khan Market and the two press clubs — the Press Club of India and the Indian Women’s Press Corps — form the triangle within which rumour, news, facts and factoids used to circulate. They were — as it were — the church, state and army of the news business. The Prime Minister’s avowed distaste for “Lutyenswalas”, however, has meant that we have had to look westward (within India, not hemispherically) for news sources. A smattering of Gujarati is an asset and a stomach for Gujarati food a desired fringe skill. That Khan Market is trying to pass off the Parsi cuisine–peddling SodaBottleOpenerWala as a quasi-Gujarati joint does not bode well for the market’s power-broking chops.

If Franklin Delano Roosevelt distrusted the “beltway (the Interstate 495 that surrounds Washington DC and is used as a metaphor for the politico-federal government-lobbyists establishment), and spoke directly to the people through his fireside chats, so did Prime Minister Modi with his once-a-month radio broadcast Mann Ki Baat. Phone conversations are not to be trusted, and if you haven’t downloaded the app that records these conversations, then you deserve what’s coming to you, a rejoinder to what you thought was a source-based story.

One Nation, One Party’s Majority

The biggest challenge of covering the Modi government has been, however, the fact that it is the first government in nearly three decades to enjoy a full majority in the Lok Sabha. At least two generations of political reporters haven’t seen what that looks like; I certainly haven’t. Thus it was that a day after a delegation of MPs and NGO activists petitioned the Prime Minister asking for trustees on boards of NGOs and spouses of bureaucrats to be allowed some leeway in not disclosing their assets under the Lokpal Bill, the amendment was hurriedly cleared in the Lok Sabha, without going through the Union Cabinet. A little-used section of the Rules of Transaction of Business, Section 12, was cited; it allowed the Prime Minister to push through such an amendment without consulting the Union Cabinet. For someone who saw lengthy bouts of give-and-take between the first UPA government and its powerful allies, over clearing the Patents Act, as part of India’s commitments to the World Trade Organisation negotiations, the novelty of this unilateral action was staggering. The Transaction of Business rule-book had never been more popular than on that day.

Cabinet reshuffles, exercises that, for the last three decades, balanced powerful allies and their interests and had to be okayed by various regional satraps who may create whatever mayhem they so desired, turned out to be a ruthless affair under this administration. The one in July was a masterly redrawing of the contours of government, the various subtexts of that exercise are still being parsed.

There would be a daily “standby” in newsrooms for announcements like that of the appointment of a governor for the Reserve Bank of India. Dates were announced every week, but it happened when it was thought to be time and no sooner.

It taught me, finally, that ideological fraternisation notwithstanding, the Modi government — or NDA 2.0 — was not, in any way, NDA 1.0 of Atal Behari Vajpayee, who, with an alliance of 22 parties to co-ordinate with, was necessarily more collegial in his approach.

In the mandate that it has got, it has to be compared to single-party governments of the past. The manner of decision-making and the very few people in the charmed circle of decision-making ensure that it is so.

What I learnt as a reporter is that the stylesheet for this government was to be unearthed from another era — never mind the tech-savvyness that has replaced the socialist somnolence of those regimes — that ended sometime in 1989. All in all, tt’s been quite an education, Mr Prime Minister.

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