In an interview with the BBC in 2002, Narendra Modi, the then Chief Minister of Gujarat, told the reporter that his one mistake was not "handling" the media better. In the years following 2002, Modi perfected the art of ‘handling’ the media using a wide spectrum of tactics. Ironically, BBC’s India offices were subjected to raids, in what many people believe to be retaliatory action for the news outlet’s two-part documentary exploring Narendra Modi’s equation with Muslims.
In India today, journalists and activists who punch holes in the carefully crafted narrative set around the Prime Minister’s image are often dubbed enemies of the state and accused of being collaborators of ‘anti-national’ plots by foreign governments. These and other such tactics were tried and perfected during Modi’s time in Gujarat, say journalists who worked in the state then. While there are many similarities, one stark difference was that the focus was on individual reporters as opposed to using state agencies to raid media organisations.
TNM spoke to over eight journalists, some of whom have retired, but no one was willing to be named in this report fearing repercussions.
After the 1995 Assembly elections in Gujarat, infighting broke out between two camps of the BJP. Chief Minister Keshubhai Patel and Shankersinh Vaghela each led a faction, and Modi was blamed for orchestrating the rebellion. As a compromise between the two groups, the high command agreed to ‘banish’ Modi from Gujarat. In November 1995, he was made the national secretary of the BJP and asked not to enter Gujarat. The ban was revoked in October 2001, when he was not only allowed back in the state, but appointed as the Chief Minister, replacing Keshubhai Patel, who was beleaguered by corruption charges and ill health.
During his time in Delhi, Modi continued to keep in touch with journalists in Gujarat and cultivated many of them. He later used the contacts to his advantage.
Those who worked in the state say that Modi was very accessible, cordial, and familiar with journalists before 2002. He used his contacts in the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) to learn about the background of journalists in great detail and accordingly appealed to them. “During this time he was not allowed to come to Gujarat. He used to come to the state in disguise and meet journalists regularly. He used to get in touch with local journalists and supply stories against people in the rival camp,” a journalist who was a senior editor with an English newspaper recalls. “I remember meeting him at least 20 times then. He would meet select journalists and offer them stories,” the journalist added.
Having established a connection, Modi would play host to reporters when they visited Delhi. At least three journalists TNM spoke to say that Modi took time out from his schedule to make logistical arrangements for those visiting. “There are instances where he would take journalists around in his scooter,” a former reporter says.
Stories of corruption in the BJP-led state government and about the government’s ‘mishandling’ of the 2001 Bhuj earthquake, were reported by many media houses. And Modi’s observations about the journalists came in handy when he was made Chief Minister in October 2001.
Even after Modi became the Chief Minister, he engaged with reporters regularly. But that changed slowly after the negative coverage of the 2002 communal riots.
“Modi kept a sharp focus on the media. He would finish reading all newspapers before 7 am and invariably call editors with feedback. Many times, he would even give tips directly, as the sitting CM,” says a former editor.
Another investigative journalist who worked with an English daily at the time narrated how it was a very volatile time for Christians in Gujarat before 2002. “Many laws were framed to target tribals converting to Christianity. So even in urban areas, people were hesitant to reveal their full names if they were Christians,” the journalist says.
The chain reaction to the riots continued for many months later, and its reportage started Modi’s animosity with the media, observers say.
The above-mentioned journalist says that their colleague – a Christian from outside of Gujarat – was regularly writing stories in the aftermath of the riots. But all the stories went with a byline of only the initials to hide their religion.
Another reporter who has quit journalism describes how the Intelligence Department would follow the family members of her colleagues as an intimidation tactic. In a few cases, the Police Department, particularly the CID Crime division, was used to intimidate ‘uncooperative’ journalists.
A senior journalist who has worked for over 30 years in Gujarat says that Modi had a good rapport with owners and editors of publications in the state and leveraged this. If a reporter complied with the government’s requests and wrote favourable stories, then a good word was put in for them with the editor by various BJP and Sangh leaders including Modi. Some were even helped to secure a promotion or a good hike. If the reporter wrote adversarial reports, the accuracy of the story notwithstanding, complaints would be made against them, and they would be asked to cover different beats or moved to remote bureaus as punishment. Hikes and promotions would be impacted, and in many cases, access to all government departments would be severed, making it difficult for the reporter to function.
The journalist in question had once broken a story about a scam involving senior government officers, and this caused an uproar in the state. The government ordered an inquiry, and the journalist was reportedly called to record their statement. When the journalist arrived at the police station, they were told not to give evidence found through the course of the probe and refuse to come on record so that the investigation could be scuttled.
Another veteran journalist who has relocated to another country recalls that with journalists whose mother tongue was Gujarati, Modi always used the hook that any negative story against him was anti-Gujarati propaganda. “He has personally told me many times that if a journalist who is not from Gujarat or is not a Hindu writes stories against him, he would not be so “hurt.” He started dubbing non-pliable English journalists as “convent” and even started planting stories against them in other newspapers," the journalist says.
“Those in good books were rewarded with perks like a state-sponsored Chardham Yatra; some others got paid upfront,” they add.
But the equations started to change drastically after the 2007 Gujarat Assembly elections.
After getting a mandate under his leadership the second time, those who were close to Modi say that he started nursing national ambitions. In accordance with this, he started changing his image. “Until 2007, he was popular as Hindu Hridaya Samrat. Then he changed course to development. He did this because he started nursing national ambitions. So he did away with all his friends. He completely cut contact with journalists from 2007,” a former editor says.
“He also became more brazen in issuing threats to journalists. He insulted journalists openly in programmes by calling them names to intimidate them,” the editor adds.
Recalling the threats unyielding journalists faced, a now-retired reporter says that state machinery was rampantly used against journalists and their families. “Gujarat is a prohibition state and the state machinery would just plant alcohol outside your house and threaten you with consequences. In a few other cases, CCTV cameras would be installed in the apartments of journalists to keep tabs on them. Domestic workers would be bribed to pass on information too,” the former reporter adds.