It’s not just that it was rare for Narendra Modi to answer live press questions directly during nearly a decade in power. If Mr Modi ends up answering questions alongside President Biden at a press conference in Washington on Thursday, it could be the first time since he was elected prime minister of India in 2014.
Even when foreign dignitaries visit, Mr. Modi has made a habit of walking to the podium with those officials and then walking away after making a statement to the media. Answering questions live was left to others.
Since the beginning of his tenure, Mr. Modi and his staff have been meticulous in vetting his message and trying to control the media, in general. Although he enjoys speaking at public events and has leaned on his monthly radio show as a way to convey messages to the nation, any exposure to unscheduled events has been banned.
Modi’s aides insist that social media, which his party’s vast communications apparatus has mastered, has made press conferences redundant. And other branches of government interact with journalists.
Modi’s departure from media engagement dates back to his time as prime minister of Gujarat decades ago. Under his watch, the state erupted in widespread riots in 2002, and Mr Modi has been accused of looking away – or even allowing – Hindu mobs who rampaged to death in Muslim neighbourhoods.
Mr Modi had long rejected any wrongdoing. But he has also publicly stated that his greatest failure during that time was not being able to control the media, which he has pursued assiduously ever since.
By slanting government advertising incentives and applying the pressure tactics of tax raids and arrests, he has bent large sections of the Indian media, especially broadcast television, to his will to such an extent that most media outlets simply distribute its official line.
Perhaps the closest he’s come to attending a formal press conference was on the day of his re-election in 2019, where he appeared on the podium for one. But even then, he only made an opening statement. Who answered the real questions? His right-hand man, Amit Shah, who is now India’s powerful Home Secretary.