Prime Minister Narendra Modi has delivered around five speeches in this coronavirus season, all centred around sharing his ‘mann ki baat‘, which is also the name of his radio show based on the same format —monologues. Not once, however, has he bothered to take questions, clarify doubts or make a conversation out of it.
What is new about this, one might ask. That has always been Narendra Modi’s style — preachy soliloquies, and no intent whatsoever to ensure a two-sided engagement. The difference, however, is that this is a crisis of unprecedented proportion. One, to which the world leaders across democracies are reacting by addressing their people, answering questions and allowing exchanges — from US President Donald Trump to United Kingdom’s Boris Johnson.
Narendra Modi, however, still resolutely refuses to answer questions — of his voters, of the media and even his party workers.
For a prime minister who is likening the coronavirus pandemic to a ‘war’ to merely reduce it to another opportunity to showcase his oratory prowess and preach is frankly condescending, narcissistic and undemocratic.
Learn from world leaders
Modi isn’t wrong. This is indeed a war-like situation — with the enemy being common and equally challenging for all. People are scared, worried and unsure.
What the best and worst of leaders in democracies across the globe need to do at this point is to allay their fears, clarify concerns and ensure the government is accessible.
US President Donald Trump reacted pathetically to the virus initially, mocking it and playing it down. And yet, since the gravity of the situation hit him, Trump has been holding briefings every single day with his Covid-19 taskforce, and taking questions from an aggressive media.
A pandemic is a time where masses look at leaders for clarity. Donald Trump and Boris Johnson had some of the most heated press conferences and parliament sessions as reporters and MPs shot questions on lapses, plans and impact. There were potshots taken at times by these leaders, but for most of it, answers offered clarity on what the governments are thinking. These leaders have paraded their entourage of top scientists and doctors in addressing the burning questions of their people. India, however, continues to be an exception.
Modi is busy asking people to come out on their balconies to clang plates and clap, or light candles and diyas. Because he knows his voters will lap it all up and in fact, love him even more for these histrionics.
There is something to be said about trying to bring hope to a despairing situation and rally people together through such entertainment, but this most certainly does not mean that the democratically elected Prime Minister of a country as diverse and complex as India should get away by never answering questions.
India, in fact, has done a reasonably commendable job of managing this unimaginable and unexpected calamity. But then again, this cannot mean Narendra Modi can show such disdain towards the media and his people that he refuses to take queries even once.
Modi’s trademark style-monologues
This, however, is hardly new. The Prime Minister, even in his last tenure, has always believed in merely putting his point across, conveniently and compulsively — through his monthly radio show, campaign speeches, his tweets and other social media messages as well as addresses to the nation.
His past interviews — mostly during election season or when he wanted to put a message across — have been painfully curated and carefully monitored.
So, when you suddenly want to demonetise currency, surprise everybody by addressing the nation at 8 pm, but don’t bother to answer any questions.
Modi has a known dislike for the media, particularly what he sees as the ‘Khan Market Gang’. Thus, in his six years as prime minister, Modi hasn’t bothered to hold a single press conference. The rare one he did, Amit Shah had to answer the questions.
Trump doesn’t like all of the media either, and makes that evident, but still engages with them. The point of politics is this — to engage with everyone irrespective of preference, and Modi certainly knows politics better than Trump.
This is an unparalleled crisis. It is a phase of historic significance. Modi needs to reorient himself. His voters may and perhaps will continue voting for him, but he needs to rise above being an electoral politician to being a leader who is unafraid to answer questions and upholding democracy.
As the cliche goes, exceptional circumstances call for exceptional measures. And given that Modi never believes in answering questions, let his exceptional measure at this point be to do that.
Views are personal.