What PM Modi should learn from President Trump: Engage with media even if it's hostile to you

PM Modi can learn from President Trump how to handle media and not avoid holding press conferences that would be open to all journalists.

That there is no love lost between US President Donald Trump and a powerful section of American media, led by New York Times and Washington Post, is among the worst kept secrets of the world. Both sides, in fact, have little approbation left for each other and they don’t mind indulging in verbal skirmishes in full public glare, even on foreign soil. The mutual incredulity has reached so outrageous a height that it gives an impression as if the two sides just can’t stand each other.

On his recent visit to India, President Trump publicly rebuked CNN White House correspondent Jim Acosta during a press conference in New Delhi and went to the extent of saying that the CNN reporter should be “ashamed” of himself. President Trump chided Acosta’s CNN channel for an apology that it had to tender for a news report recently. The CNN reporter, on his part, refused to be browbeaten and replied disdainfully: “Mr. President, I think our record on delivering the truth is a lot better than yours sometimes.” Trump, however, repeatedly asserted how poorly CNN looked after that apology.

Right from the day Donald Trump was declared winner of last US presidential elections, an influential section of US society, largely consisting of left-liberals, repudiated the verdict and came out on the streets waving placards that read “Not My President”. It was nothing short of an insult to the democratic process of the country.

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The section of US media that was pitching for a Hillary Clinton victory was shell shocked and heartbroken after the results were out. Honestly speaking, they have not reconciled to the victory of Donald Trump till this date. One can easily notice how they miss no opportunity of deriding or even insulting Trump ignoring the fact that he is duly elected President of the United States.

Despite such brazen hostility, Donald Trump, to his credit, has never shied away from taking questions from the media. He loves to interact with the media, takes questions from hostile reporters in open press conferences and yes, doesn’t mind paying them back in the same coin. President Trump understands how important it is for a leader to engage with media for sending out right messages to the people of his country- those who praise him as well as those who are afraid of him.

Now contrast this with Prime Minister Narendra Modi. He is a great communicator and leaves his audience spellbound whenever he addresses a public gathering. However, he is not very fond of taking direct questions from reporters in a press conference.

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Well, his caginess is understandable. Like President Trump, PM Modi also faces a hostile media at home that is constantly on the lookout for an opportunity to tarnish his personal standing and public image. The left-liberal section of Indian media has been making acerbic attacks on PM Modi ever since the 2002 Gujarat riots. This section of Indian media, self-styled saviours of appeasement-centric version of secularism, holds Modi responsible for the communal clashes in Gujarat despite the fact that he was given a clean chit in this case by no less an authority than the Supreme Court of the country.

The deliberate vilification perhaps instilled a feeling inside Narendra Modi that an influential section of media is not even willing to stand neutral in this well-thought-of game of political mudslinging and has joined hands with his political opponents to portray him as a villain in the eyes and minds of the common man.

It seems that this realization convinced Modi to avoid holding open press conferences post Gujarat riots. And the distrust between the two sides has only widened with the passage of time. PM Modi does take questions from media persons but such interactions are mostly one-on-one.

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However, avoiding open press conferences has its own pitfalls. If you don’t present your side of the story to the reporters then you are giving them, especially the “hostile” section of media, a free hand for indulging in wild speculations that may lead to concocted, one-sided stories. Timely rebuttal of unfounded suppositions from the horse’s mouth definitely helps in winning the trust and confidence of the common man besides allaying their fear.

When President Trump was in India, communal riots flared up in Delhi. Despite that, he decided to address a press conference knowing fully well that he’ll be asked questions on these clashes and one wrong answer could change the newspapers’ headlines next morning spoiling the bonhomie between him and PM Modi that was at full display throughout his visit. He was indeed asked this question but he handled it smartly and the confidence at his face was palpable. President Trump surely knows how to tackle loaded questions and get better of a hostile reporter.

Should Narendra Modi follow Donald Trump as far as media interactions are concerned? The answer is a firm YES. If Trump has learned and mastered the tricks to handle a hostile reporter, there is no reason why PM Modi can’t do the same.

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In a democracy, media has the right to ask questions. Avoiding press conferences just because of a few “hostile” journalists is not advisable as it serves no purpose. It only offers a handle to your opponents to allege that the prime minister can’t face tough questions. President Trump would have faced similar imputations, had he not decided to take the bull by the horn.

PM Modi can handle the media equally well if not better than President Trump. In his second term, with 303 Lok Sabha MPs under his command, the prime minister should show it to the world that he will not be hectored by that section of the media that has been “hostile” to him for reasons that have failed to stand the scrutiny of either the judiciary or the hoi-polloi.

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