Time to open up, Mr Modi

Lance Price is an author and political commentator. He is a former BBC journalist and later adviser to Tony Blair. He has published four books including Where Power Lies and The Modi Effect: Inside Narendra Modi’s Campaign to Transform India
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Any democratically elected leader should make himself available to the media on a regular basis. So should Modi, for his own sake
Now that the BJP has passed its first anniversary in power, it is time to try to assess what kind of Prime Minister Narendra Modi is shaping up to be. There are two kinds of judgement to be made. The first is on the substance of what his government has been able to achieve and the second is on his style of governance. The two are, of course, inter-related. Modi likes to portray himself as a strong leader with the determination to deliver change. I hope to make the case (and where better than in Open magazine) that he should also be a more open leader if he wants to succeed.

As I don’t live in India, I am hesitant to pontificate from afar. Others, who have been able to watch his performance more closely than me, have provided many useful insights on his first 12 months at the helm. Since he became Prime Minister, however, I made half a dozen visits to India and have met Modi on no fewer than five occasions. In the course of the interviews for my book, The Modi Effect, he revealed a great deal about his thoughts on what makes a good leader and how he likes to operate. So how does he measure up against his own ambitions? And how does he rank alongside some of the other leaders I have observed at close quarters in Britain?

Modi often claims to be a ‘conviction politician’. While talking to him and many of his advisers, two names from my own country came up by way of comparison. They were Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair, two of the most controversial British prime ministers of recent decades, but both people of very strong convictions.

It has been suggested that Narendra Modi is India’s Thatcher, and there are some striking parallels. Like him, she was born into humble circumstances compared to most political leaders. She saw her opportunity and grabbed the leadership of her party, the Conservatives, even though many grandees thought she would be too controversial and divisive. She led from the front and expected others to follow her dictates and she was impatient to make big changes to her country once she became prime minister.

Modi told me that a good leader does not have to please everyone. Thatcher certainly never tried to do that. “However,” he said, “you must have the belief in your own convictions. People will disagree, but as a leader you must first yourself have the conviction that your intentions are right and only then can you truly convince other people. You have to light a lamp to drive darkness away. It is only through power of conviction that lamps get lit and light spreads.” Those words could indeed have been spoken by Margaret Thatcher.

Tony Blair, too, was a conviction politician. Although he led the left-of-centre Labour Party, he admired her steely determination and tried to emulate it. Both were also very pro-business as prime ministers. They created the conditions for businesses to prosper and for some, though by no means all, people to get very rich indeed. And they were both accused in their time of giving too many favours to their business backers and of turning a blind eye to what we now call ‘crony capitalism’.

Much has been made of Narendra Modi’s own pro-business credentials. He is unlikely to lose the support of the industrialists and billionaires who backed his election, despite the complaints from some that the pace of economic reform has been too slow. They need him as badly as he needs them. He is surely right to believe that encouraging investment, whether from home- grown businesses or by attracting foreign money to the country, is the only way to make the most of India’s potential for growth and to generate the much-needed employment and new tax revenues that go with it. The economic challenges faced by the country are still huge, but his relationship with big business creates political challenges too.

The first challenge is reputational. The second goes to the heart of who he is in government to serve. The impression that Modi is too cosy with his rich supporters is politically damaging and he should act to deal with it. For my book, I interviewed the respected former head of the Election Commission, SY Quraishi. “There is no free lunch,” he told me. Referring to the ‘crony capitalism’ allegations, he said, “These guys fund the election and they run the country. Now, obviously, businessmen running the country as a business is not what democracy should be, so that, of course, raises a concern.” When I put this to the Prime Minister, he insisted the BJP had funded its campaign from many sources, including millions of ordinary Indians, and had paid for all the corporate aeroplanes and helicopters they had used.

The problem is one of transparency and this is the first example of where I believe Modi needs to be much more open with the public. All parties should be prepared to publish the details of who their big donors are, and the BJP in government should take the lead. Otherwise the suspicion of sweetheart deals of one kind or another will always remain. It is to Modi’s credit that so far his time in office has been free of the scandals and corruption that so damaged the reputation of the previous Government. His own reputation would be enhanced still further if he were willing to make strides in ending the secrecy about party funding.

The second challenge is more profound and harder to tackle. Here in Britain, Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair, like many Western leaders, failed to show that helping those at the top of the income scale also benefited those at the bottom. The inequality between rich and poor remained as huge as ever and there was little evidence to support the economic case that wealth will ‘trickle down’ from the top as a result of growth. If at the end of five years the rich in India have got even richer but there has been no real benefit for the poorest, then Modi will have failed. His rhetoric is powerful and compassionate when he talks of those, like himself, who are born with little or nothing. If he can harness the power of capital to begin to ‘End Poverty’, as Indira Gandhi once promised, then his legacy will be secured.

Here, as in so many areas, the pace of reform is important. Both Thatcher and Blair bitterly regretted not acting faster when they were first elected. The temptation for a new leader to find his or her feet and to adopt a gradualist approach to governance is strong. But better advice came from Arun Shourie who told me that Modi should follow the Buddha’s maxim and “Live every day like your hair is on fire.”

Thatcher and Blair were experts at communication, and Modi is also a supremely accomplished communicator. But those skills only get a politician so far. Good headlines are one thing, but it’s results that count.

It could be argued that in his first 12 months, Narendra Modi has been better at communicating the promise of change than actually delivering it. His supporters argue that a year is not long enough to make that kind of judgement. Some things take time, they say, and it is better to get it right than to rush ahead with legislation that has not been properly thought through.

Tackling black money was a case in point. It turned out to be much trickier in practice than ministers had thought. Parliament has now passed the Bill, but whether it will result in large sums of money returning to the country remains to be seen. Other big schemes, like new infrastructure projects and cleaning up the Ganges, will take many years to bear fruit. But some initiatives do risk appearing as if they were designed more to get good headlines than for any immediate impact they might achieve. Before long it will become clear whether, for example, Clean Up India or all those (for now mostly empty) bank accounts for the poor are good policy or merely good presentation.

Tony Blair, who I worked for, was accused of ‘government by headline’ and he later admitted that one of his mistakes was to take with him to Downing Street the techniques of spin and media management that had worked so well for him on the campaign trail. In The Modi Effect, I describe in detail how Narendra Modi managed to dominate the news so brilliantly during the election campaign. The part of me that is an ex- spin doctor couldn’t help but be impressed. He made sure that the issues that mattered to him were the ones everybody was discussing. And, just as importantly, he controlled his own image and didn’t allow either his political opponents or the media to define him in the eyes of voters.

One way he achieved this was by keeping journalists at arm’s length. And the much bigger part of me that is still a journalist found this extremely worrying. He gave very few interviews until right at the end of the campaign, and his message to the press was that they could report what he said in his speeches or on social media but they couldn’t ask him questions. Like Blair, he has taken the same technique with him from opposition into government. And, like Blair, he may come to regret it.

So I’m going to do something very unusual for a journalist. Everybody in the media loves an ‘exclusive’—that story or interview that is yours alone and that nobody else can match. Despite the way in which the word ‘exclusive’ is used so freely in newspapers and on TV, there are very few stories that really justify the tag. Nobody wants to give away their exclusive, but I would like to do just that.

Narendra Modi gave me exclusive access to him for The Modi Effect. When I was last in India, most of the journalists I met were deeply frustrated that the same access had not been granted to any of them. Modi seems to believe that the media, and certainly the English media, is intrinsically hostile to him. He has a phenomenal memory and gives the impression that he can remember every negative article or TV report and still bears a grudge against every journalist responsible for them. But no impartial observer of the election campaign could argue that Modi got a raw deal from the press.

So much as I welcomed the exclusive access I was granted, I would now happily give it up. Any democratically elected leader should make himself or herself available to the media on a regular basis. It is one of the essential checks and balances of a representative democracy that a free and independent media should be able to hold those in power to account. It is even more true when the parliamentary opposition is relatively weak. The questioning should be tough and the PM should be seen to answer the criticisms of his policies or risk looking autocratic and arrogant.

I believe Modi has a duty to open himself up to the media, but I also firmly believe it is in his own interest to do so.

Governments that have to account for the failings of their policies and explain why some are taking longer to work than was hoped are more likely to get those policies right than ones that shut themselves away from scrutiny. Both Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair saw it as part of their job to make themselves available to the media, both through interviews and news conferences. Modi should too.

The next time I visit India, I hope I won’t be asked again, “Why are you the only journalist he’s been prepared to talk to at length?”