There was a time when Prime Minister Narendra Modi didn't allow his ministers or bureaucrats to talk to the media. There was a time when he himself kept away from the press, preferring to communicate to the world through his Twitter account instead. Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party would even have a team scanning through newspapers to make sure loose-lipped leaders were not leaking information somewhere.
All that now seems like a lifetime ago.
In terms of media access to top leaders in India, the last week seems unprecedented. As its two-year anniversary approached on May 26, the Modi government unleashed a media blitzkrieg, unveiling a new song, buying jacket ads across newspapers and sending its ministers out into the world.
Every newspaper, every television channel, even some websites seemed to have carried at least one interview with a minister, if not more. The prime minister himself gave a rare interview to the Wall Street Journal in addition to a not-so-rare speech at an event in Saharanpur, Uttar Pradesh.
And all of it culminated in a gala five-hour show on Saturday evening – not Sunday because then it would have clashed with the Indian Premier League final. Everyone from Bollywood celebrities to industrialists were trotted out to praise Modi and his achievements.
India Shining is back.
Ab ki baar
From a political messaging point of view, Modi's team has always been interesting to watch. The election campaign in the run-up to 2014 was a truly impressive feat, mixing positive and negative advertising, flooding the media with mentions and pictures of Modi and constant rallies that got live coverage across television channels.
The Ab ki baar Modi Sarkar campaign perfectly captured everything the BJP wanted to sell about its presidential-style prime ministerial candidate. Having an already popular three-term chief minister from Gujarat helped, but the campaign helped burnish his image and deftly positioned Modi as everything that Manmohan Singh and the United Progressive Alliance government were not.
On paper, the party spent Rs 714 crore – $100 million – during the election campaign. That's Rs 200 crore more than the Congress did. As a consequence, Modi was everywhere.
The results, 283 seats and the first parliamentary majority since 1984, were undoubtedly impressive.
But on taking charge, the Modi government decided it wouldn't even talk to the press. The BJP's daily briefings were stopped. Ministers were warned not to leak anything. A case of files being leaked from a ministry early into the new government's tenure gave Modi an excuse to order tighter security at all ministerial offices – reducing access for journalists.
News was posted on Twitter first, then on the Press Information Bureau website, and occasionally even made it to NarendraModi.com before formally being pushed out. The Prime Minister's Office became a clearinghouse for messages.
The stated intent was to run Delhi like Modi had managed Gujarat: Control information tightly, prevent leaks and cut down on the use of the media to fight internal battles, a byproduct of letting journalists spend lots of time having off-record conversations with ministers and party leaders. This didn't always work out so well, with the lack of information occasionally allowing rumours to spread easily.
Meanwhile, the Modi myth-making project also ran into trouble. While his Independence Day speech conveyed the humble pradhan sevak-not-pradhan mantri image of a prime minister willing to talk about toilets from the top of the Red Fort, Modi's extravagant foreign visits started to become a punchline.
The singular Modi coverage, in fact, became a liability. Although he travelled about as often as Manmohan Singh did, the massive amount of air time dedicated to every one of his foreign trips – spurred on by huge speeches to the Indian diaspora in places like Madison Square Garden and Wembley – led to quips about Modi spending more time abroad than in India.
All of this culminated in last year's Republic Day event. With US President Barack Obama visiting, Modi pulled out an expensive suit monogrammed with his own name. The result: Opposition charges of a suit-boot government not bothered about ordinary people. The charge stuck and Modi's image was dented even further by his party's losses in Delhi and Bihar, though the prime minister himself remained popular.
Flashback to 2004. When the BJP headed by Atal Bihari Vajpayee went to the polls that year, it was also tremendously popular. Yet the party's India Shining campaign that sought to sell the government's achievements through glitz and public relations is generally considered a massive political misstep.
Conventional wisdom in Delhi suggests that India Shining was aimed at the middle class and ended up alienating the much larger, much more likely to vote constituency of India's poor people.
The Modi government seems to have learnt something else from that campaign. Instead of concluding that it was pitching to the wrong audience, the conclusion appears to be that it was badly timed: If only the National Democratic Alliance hadn't waited till the final year to tout its achievements, the people might have been more convinced.
So it has set about convincing people from year two. What, after all, is the broader political message gained from having ministers give scores of interviews to just about every media outlet?
Carpet bombingIf it had only been a few ministers leading the charge, such as just having Finance Minister Arun Jaitley speak or Parliamentary Affairs Minister Venkaiah Naidu talk, there might have been uncomfortable questions about the economy or the BJP's floor management. Having all the ministers speak somehow creates a much more consistent overall impression: The Modi government is working hard and it has achieved a lot.
Few will read individual interviews with ministers, so even if the answers in each one are unconvincing, the headlines – and there were hundreds over the past week – all tout the achievements of the Modi government. This is a full-court press, carpet bombing the press with one-liners about how there haven't been any charges of corruption under Modi (even though there have) and that much has been achieved.
The government isn't done yet. Over the next few weeks, its minister troop into Uttar Pradesh, the big electoral prize that goes to the polls next year, and repeat these claims. It helps that the BJP just pulled off a major victory in Assam, and a decent showing in other states that voted this month – celebrations after a loss would have looked incongruous.
The glow of an electoral victory can obscure other defects and indeed, the BJP and Modi now seem to have got over their 2015 stumble. A good monsoon, as has been forecast, and an economic recovery will only make things better. The election of 2019 is a far way off, and Uttar Pradesh could still change everything for the BJP. But for now, the Modi Shining project is back on track.