One trait shared by United States President Donald Trump and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi is their disdain for the media. Both balk at the idea of journalists scrutinising their policies and actions, largely because they believe it is the media’s duty to endorse the national interest – of which they claim to be the most exemplary votaries. Yet, unlike Modi, Trump does not shy away from convening press conferences (even though he often uses the occasion to lash out at journalists).

Trump demonstrated his belligerent style most recently at a press conference on November 7 following US midterm elections. Enraged at CNN reporter Jim Acosta’s persistent questioning, Trump called him a “rude, terrible person” and described his TV channel as the “enemy of the people” that, the US president claimed, purveys fake news.

Trump has never attempted to conceal his contempt for the media. During the midterm campaign, to chants of “CNN sucks”, he had blamed the media for its “unfair coverage, deep hostility and negative attacks” that “only serve to drive people apart and to undermine healthy debate”. His putdown of Acosta was yet another instance of Trump being himself.

By contrast, Modi’s disregard for the media is a perception derived from his reluctance to engage with it. Since he swept to power in May 2014, he has not held a single press conference. He discontinued the practice of taking journalists on his trips abroad (occasions during which previous prime ministers chatted more freely with the media). Modi’s interviews to television channels have been marred by accusations that the questions had been vetted by his office beforehand.

Unlike Trump, who is indifferent to whether he comes across as ignorant or intelligent, Modi is anxious about being caught off guard. He does not want to appear as a man who cannot provide credible responses. For him, therefore, the next best alternative to granting interviews after vetted questions is to provide answers by email, as was the case with two national dailies and a news agency in August. Faced with this option, the French newspaper Le Monde in 2015 turned down an offer of an interview with Modi.

A White House staff member reaches for CNN reporter Jim Acosta's microphone as he questions President Donald Trump. (Credit: Jonathan Ernst / Reuters)
A White House staff member reaches for CNN reporter Jim Acosta's microphone as he questions President Donald Trump. (Credit: Jonathan Ernst / Reuters)

Control, not confrontation

If Modi is not under pressure to submit to the media and its questions, it is because he can compel media-owners to dance to his tune. Journalists have resigned or had their television shows discontinued because the Modi regime is reported to have expressed its displeasure to the owners of the media outlets where they worked. Media-owners live with fear that defiance could invite raids from government agencies and court cases. With media-owners so willing to play ball, it makes greater sense for the regime to use the media to construct a positive narrative about it instead of fielding Modi to engage in acrimonious Trumpian exchanges with journalists.

Trump believes he has much to gain from his confrontationist style. When he retweeted a video of his supporters shouting “CNN sucks” at a rally in Florida in July, the journalist Greg Sargent wrote in The Washington Post that the American president’s style of politics is based on “nonstop and very deliberate efforts to provoke as much rage and division as he can, in as many quarters as he can”.

There is intense debate in the United States about whether Trump is provoking rage and division or merely aggravating tendencies that predate his entry into the White House. Nevertheless, because the American political system revolves around the president’s personality, it is essential for Trump to embody the rage of his supporters if he is to retain their confidence. Trump and his supporters are fused through bonds of rage and aggression. Supporters chanting “CNN sucks” bear close resemblance to Trump accusing the channel of being the enemy of the people.

It is not that Modi, despite his tendency to remain silent amidst raging controversy, has shied away from trying to sharpen social fault lines, particularly in the weeks just before every state election. Unlike Trump, though, he does not have to stoke rage all the time. That is because in the Indian system, Prime Minister Modi, unlike Trump, does not have to lead the unseemly charge in order to get re-elected. That is a party effort. As a consequence, the everyday rude behaviour towards the media has also been subcontracted to spokespersons and leaders low in the Bharatiya Janata Party’s pecking order.

Staying aloof

Thus, it is both the structure of the media and the political system that enables Modi to stay aloof from journalists. Because the media’s depiction of him is controlled and there is no possibility of him being stumped by an awkward question, Modi has been able to construct an aura of infallibility around himself.

He has been afforded the privilege of portraying himself as a statesman, one who has solutions for India’s myriad problems, who works relentlessly day and night. As proof of his hard work, he furnishes statistics on Twitter and in speeches to promote his achievements in the span of less than five years. If he were to offer these claims at a press conference, telecast live, they would come under scrutiny. In reality, Modi’s aloofness from journalists is an attempt to camouflage his fear of his carefully constructed persona coming apart.

Regardless of whether Indian journalists are as pugnacious as their American counterparts, it is hard to imagine a Modi press conference without questions about the controversial Rafale fighter jet deal, the bitter squabbles in the Central Bureau of Investigation, whether he favours the resistance to the Supreme Court’s order allowing women of all ages entry to the Sabarimala temple in Kerala, his thoughts on the Sangh’s chorus on bringing in a law to construct a Ram temple in Ayodhya, and the estimated count of “urban Naxals”. He could even be asked a question or two on the 2002 Gujarat riots and demonetisation.

Why Trump tactics won’t work for Modi

Another reason that prevents Modi from imitating Trump’s style of handling the media is the nature of India’s social structure. The United States is a predominantly middle-class nation; its political realm is split between Republicans and Democrats. United States citizens are either Trump supporters or Trump opponents. Trump’s combative style endears him to his base. The rest will not support him anyway. India’s social diversity does not lend itself to such a neat binary. A large part of India’s political landscape is swathed in greyness that arises from the complexities of class, caste, religion and language.

Though many Hindutva footsoldiers would love to see Modi behave as brusquely with the secular-liberal media as Trump did in the November 7 press conference, such conduct would alienate those occupying the middle ground. In this sense, Trump can be what he is. But Modi, in his interactions with the media, cannot give a free play to his personality.