Information flow

Modi bars ministers, bureaucrats from talking to journalists

Gag order follows the model used in Gujarat. As a result, Modi's Twitter account has become the most important source of information for journalists.

One of the facts that went largely unremarked about Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s meeting with senior bureaucrats on Wednesday was that he instructed them to keep away from media.

Modi has also reportedly asked his cabinet colleagues to refrain from speaking to the journalists and instead letting official government spokespersons do the talking on their behalf.

These instructions may well be the first serious step to turn New Delhi into Gandhinagar, where during Modi’s three terms as chief minister, members of his cabinet would not speak to the press unless they had obtained permission from him. Even the customary press briefings after the state cabinet meetings – which in other states are addressed by ministers – are either not held at all in Gujarat or are addressed by spokesmen of the state government.

Already in Delhi, senior bureaucrats have been avoiding journalists, just as they do in Gandhinagar. So have union ministers – even those who till recently appeared so eager to talk to journalists.

The change in the behaviour of ministers like Arun Jaitley, Ravi Shankar Prasad, Prakash Javadekar and Nirmala Sitharaman is glaring. Jaitley, who till recently used to be surrounded by journalists, appears busy guarding against any leaks from his ministry. According to Business Standard, the Finance Minister has written to his subordinates asking them not to quote him or share his views while talking to the press.

To many, the silence of Commerce and Industry Minister Nirmala Sitharaman – the Bharatiya Janata Party’s TV face so far – is no less baffling, especially as it came in the aftermath of her statement that the government would oppose Foreign Direct Investment in retail. Telecommunication Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad and Information and Broadcasting Minister Prakash Javadekar have also gone mum.

One news source that is fast acquiring a monopoly over the dissemination of the government news – apart from the Press Information Bureau, which is churning out press statements at an unprecedented pace – is the Prime Minister himself. But, as he has shown in Gujarat, press conferences are not his preferred means of making statements. Instead, he appears to be more comfortable with his Twitter handle. Modi’s tweets, in fact, are fast becoming the main source of news for the mediapersons in Delhi.

Political observers, both inside and outside the Sangh Parivar, agree that this is a step towards developing a single-window system for the flow of information. One of the reasons being suggested for this attempt to cut the government off from the media is the growing fear of a possible sting operation – on the lines of one carried out by Tehelka that jolted the Atal Behari Vajpayee government over a decade ago – to investigate the new ruling dispensation.

Such is this fear that one of the ministers in Modi government, Minister of State for Agriculture Sanjiv Baliyan, has put up a notice outside his office asking visitors to not bring a mobile phone or even a pen inside his cabin.

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