New Delhi: The Narendra Modi government has found a peculiar way to talk about its work in handling the Covid-19 pandemic and the migrant workers crisis, and its achievements in the first year of its second term — interviews of Union ministers, but by spokespersons of the ruling BJP itself.
The move comes as both the crises continue to dominate headlines and the government struggles to take its message to the public.
The Modi regime will complete the first year of its second term on 30 May.
Over the last week, the party has got its spokespersons Nalin Kohli, Sambit Patra, G.V.L. Narsimha Rao and Sudhanshu Trivedi to interview Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman, Railways and Commerce Minister Piyush Goyal, Health Minister Harsh Vardhan, and IT and Law Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad, respectively.
Of these ministers, the first three are in the frontline of the government’s Covid-19 and migrant crisis response.
More such interviews are in the works, according to sources in the party.
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The BJP is widely promoting this new format of interviews through social media platforms YouTube, Facebook and Twitter, hoping to reach out to every household.
The government had received flak last year when, in a similar move, it got actor Akshay Kumar to interview Prime Minister Narendra Modi ahead of the Lok Sabha elections.
To celebrate the government’s anniversary on a large scale, the BJP has also reportedly planned to hold 750 virtual rallies and 1,000 virtual press conferences, keeping social distancing guidelines in mind.
‘New experiment to convey our views’
Speaking to ThePrint, BJP leaders said the idea behind the “new experiment” is to take the government’s message without the inter-mediation of print and electronic media.
“During Covid-19 and lockdown, political parties got a chance to connect with people through video conferencing. We could convey our ideas through social media platforms without using the print and electronic media,” said a BJP general secretary, who didn’t want to be named.
“BJP has always looked for new ways to communicate using new technology. So we started this new experiment of using our social media platforms apart from the conventional print and electronic media to air our chain of interviews. Even if some media organisation wants this content, they can use it,” he said, adding that PM Modi has stressed since 2014 that ministers and BJP MPs should make use of social media.
The BJP general secretary also highlighted that Congress leader Rahul Gandhi “has been regularly doing video conferences to tell people his viewpoint”, referring to his interviews with economists and experts this month.
“So, we are also using our spokesperson to interview our ministers and convey our views,” said the leader.
Senior BJP vice-president Prabhat Jha said, “Our party has begun a new experiment. This is BJP’s internal matter. The spokespersons are asking questions to the ministers so that the ordinary workers can learn from this and understand the party’s view point.”
BJP’s national media co-incharge Sanjay Mayukh said, “We want to inform the party workers as well as the general public about the steps taken by the Central government during the corona crisis and also about the work done by the government in the last one year. That is why we have introduced this interview series.”
Mayukh said the party is conducting these interviews on its social media platforms according to the instructions of national president J.P. Nadda.
“Party spokespersons remain connected with the media through daily participation in debates. They are also very much aware about topics and issues related to common public. That is why the spokespersons are asking questions,” he said.
Mayukh said the party wanted to use “our own mediums” and not through any media organisation to “present information about work done by the Modi government at the Centre”.
He said the party has a large social media base and lakhs of workers and common people are connected with it. “We are communicating the government’s work through this. Unlike conventional media, we have no constraints of space or how many words to put. So we are using this. We are also enlightening our workers through this,” he added.
What the interviews are like
In the ongoing series, the first interview was conducted with IT and Law Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad on 20 May. The other three interviews were conducted thereafter.
These interviews are usually an hour long, and conducted in a friendly measure, without sharp rebuttals or counter questions. So far, no new revelations have come through these interviews. Further, most questions asked were in a similar vein as those already asked by print and electronic media.
Sources in the BJP said the party keeps a close watch on the interviews to ascertain how many people are watching and what their response is. It has also instructed the spokespersons to only ask questions that are directly related to the lives of common people.
A unique feature of the inter-party interviews is that the interviewer is often found criticising the opposition. While interviewing Health Minister Harsh Vardhan, G.V.L. Narasimha Rao was seen criticising the opposition.
Sambit Patra, who interviewed Commerce and Railways Minister Piyush Goyal, could be seen reciting poetry.
Speaking to ThePrint, Patra said, “The Union ministers are regularly appearing for interviews with the TV channels and newspapers. They are also addressing press conferences. Now, they are also coming on the social media platforms for sharing information about their works.”
Nalin Kohli, who was a TV journalist before joining the BJP, said, “I was instructed by the party to interview the finance minister. It was an entirely new experience for me too.”
He added, “Normally, we are used to answering questions posed by someone else. But this time I had to ask questions and that too to the finance minister herself. To prepare for this, I watched some old interviews of the finance minister. I had prepared my set of questions while keeping relevant topics in mind.”
‘Do interviews with migrant workers, farmers’
Taking a dig at the BJP’s new campaign, Congress spokesperson Gaurav Vallabh said, “If the ministers are so fond of giving interviews, they should opt for such interviews with migrant labourers, farmers, unemployed youth, small shopkeepers and troubled common citizens.”
He added, sarcastically, “I do not know why BJP is so eager to threaten the livelihood of journalists during such a recession? In fact, BJP’s biggest spokespersons, much more loyal than its own spokespersons, are sitting in various TV channels’ studios. Will these people put an end to their livelihood too? If the spokespersons start to turn into journalists, then what are the journalists supposed to do?”
BJP trying to ‘rebuild its image’
According to Manjesh Rana, a researcher at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, the inability of the Modi government to manage the migrant crisis has embarrassed the party.
“In view of this, the party has started to rebuild its image. It has started these interviews so that it can produce content for the media. The entire exercise revolves around the Atmanirbhar economic package, Shramik trains and the steps taken by the government.”
The party’s strategy will be to communicate that the government has looked to provide relief through this package, he said. “BJP is always on the lookout for the next opportunity to turn anything into a campaign. This is why it has started these interviews,” he added.
Of all the political parties in India, BJP is the only one to use social media in a strategic and powerful way, Centre for Media Studies director P.N. Vasanti told ThePrint.
“The party’s large teams work 24×7 to disseminate information. Due to Covid-19 and the lockdown, print media has suffered losses and there is less interest in electronic media. Social media’s craze has increased. BJP is making use of this,” she said.
“Compared to traditional media, social media doesn’t need any expertise. Managing it is easier. It also impacts people very easily and quickly. It’s also seen these days that trending topics on social media make their way to newspapers TV channels. Other media resources have limitations of space that social media doesn’t,” she added.
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