Modi government: Hold daily press briefings or face self-inflicted wounds

Social media is not about fools with tools
Modi government: Hold daily press briefings or face self-inflicted wounds
Modi government: Hold daily press briefings or face self-inflicted wounds

When people in India are killed because they eat something or die because they have nothing to eat, the government has to respond equally swiftly and sternly but very differently. The situation in Jammu and Kashmir is as serious as the acute water crisis facing India but the official response to both has to be radically different. That is not happening because the government does not have any machinery to sift, select, delete and debate. The denial mode cannot be a constant.

In our democracy where language and illiteracy are also key issues, the room for cacophony, auto-goals and needless controversy is vast. The failure to strictly delineate responses to political, economic, social and strategic stories from one another (even if they are interconnected) has meant that the Prime Minister’s direct intervention is sought for everything from street-corner fights to insurgency. 

A good two years into power, the Narendra Modi government has not put in place a responsive and responsible communication shop. The results are there for all to see. I have written about the need to speak to Indians and not at them. I have also written about the importance of cutting loose from Delhi’s quicksand of the largely politico-media landscape to build a narrative that listens to India with humility, elegance and devotion. Indians deserve empathy, not sympathy and patronising. No Indian government has held daily media briefings (not party briefings) till date. It is high time that practice is built. Journalists must have an official place to take their questions to without being at the mercy of an opaque system that speaks in vested leaks and squirts. Governments are free to leak information to their favourite scribes, but a nation cannot be built on leaks. 

Policy development is not a whim. It is serious business and the media has a role to play in it. This piece seeks to make a case for daily briefings by the government on issues of national importance, information sharing and deep briefings on what the government deems important, why, for whom, where budgets will come from etc. There needs to be a crack team which is unafraid, on the ball and ambitious to tell stories with facts and figures - stories that capture the ‘dailyness’ of running a country India’s size. This team must be young, ambitious, not looking for placements and promotions and do their job with diligence and move on. It must understand the potential of social media as a determinant of national discussions. Crass nepotism must come nowhere near this team. 

I am talking of the importance of basic reporting – the scoops can wait. Returning to active journalism in 2013 after a gap, I was to discover the extent of the damage. If I managed to get through to people’s offices, the first question would be “which channel”? The second would be information on how busy the ministers and parliamentarians were and after 6 pm would only be available for televisions programmes. 

At that time, I also had Delhi’s favourite option – do you know who I am – but that is the worst part of access journalism. Besides how relevant is that when I want to know New Delhi’s position on trade barriers or India’s water crisis. I don’t want to speak to a minister. I want to be briefed in person, not via television channels. A nation’s progress cannot be told by theatrics in a television studio or through event management. The G-37 channel swimmers are remarkably uninformed and ill mannered. Their one-point programme – to stay afloat – does not speak for me and I suspect neither for millions of Indians.

There is another problem - social media is being seen as a nuisance. Not all of it is. I recently read a piece which said policymakers must not take the social media too seriously. The suggestion is laughable. A section of people across India’s political spectrum think people on social media are fools with tools. To them I have this to say – this tool has changed the way people are thinking, acting and reacting. It will get better and stronger, the challenges will come fast and furious and they will blow people and prejudices out of water. The questions will be monstrously well informed, ambitious and irreverent. The Neanderthals in India’s political parties who hold on to ingratiating press releases are clueless about the power of this tool.

The only arm of the government that has figured it out is the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA). They are quick, sharp, helpful and appropriately witty uniting all the elements of a healthy conversation with the media. The other arms of the government, its agencies, twitter handles of ministers and opposition leaders, public relations agencies that promote government programmes are largely personality driven. 

Between posting pictures of themselves opening and closing ceremonies, laying the foundation stone of bridges and buildings, attending book launch functions and each other’s events, the information output is as irrelevant as it is massive. There are also people around governments and opposition parties pretending to be independent but in reality are deeply uncritical of their respective politics. They pass of their opinions as privileged insights or researched information. Indians are not stupid - they can tell managed critique from a real one. Event management companies telling us how India is making, moving, walking, talking must calm down. A country is not an event. 

So what do I want to know about on a regular basis? As an editor, I want to know about food inflation, infrastructure, employment, trade, arms control, health, water, sanitation and education – stuff that goes into getting an economy to move. The media may have erred, but it is disingenuous to say journalists are not interested in anything that is not sensational. The responsibility for generating interest also lies with the government and its various agencies.  That means responding to media queries seriously and not shrugging them off saying the minister is busy and the spokesman will be on television in ten hours. Social media has different deadlines. 

 If keeping up with the “Patras” – as the government’s spokesperson Sambit Patra’s studio hopping is unkindly called – is difficult, there is no dearth of people from other political parties who show up every evening to play amateur volleyball on India’s television screens.

Greasy press releases, garrulous conversations on television and self-promoting twitter accounts is not information. How long will it take for that penny to drop?

Note: The views expressed here are the personal opinions of the author.

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