Prime Minister Narendra Modi has taken a policy decision not to take journalists on board his special plane Air India One during his trips abroad – and he has his own reasons for that, whether one likes it or not.
On each of his two foreign trips thus far – to Bhutan and Brazil – Modi took just about four or five journalists, mainly from news agencies and state-controlled media like Doordarshan and All India Radio. All newspapers or news channels were kept out of his media delegation.
Modi has his own reasons for this, but we will come to that a little later. First, here is some relevant background.
Air India One has 34 business class seats for the media contingent. The norm that past prime ministers have adhered to is that all seats in the media compartment, except two, are filled up by journalists. The two remaining seats were routinely used by Special Protection Group (SPG) personnel.
The list of media personnel travelling with the PM on his foreign trips is prepared mainly by the PMO with help from the Ministry of External Affairs. The media contingent travels in the same plane as the PM. The big help that the government extends to the scribes is that it does not charge them air fare and Air India provides gratis tickets to the accompanying journalists.
The accompanying journalists are not taken abroad for the PM’s trips at the government’s expense. They have to pay for their own accommodation at the hotels selected by the MEA. The accompanying journalists cannot select their own hotels and the organizations they are working for have to shell out the lodging charges at the rates settled by the MEA. There is no scope for bargaining with the MEA-settled rates or the scribes reaching out to the designated hotels for negotiating prices.
The reason for this is that the government cannot allow a situation where a journalist, accompanying the Prime Minister, stays in a sub-standard hotel. Moreover, the hotel selected for the media contingent also houses a media center, fully equipped with enough number of computers and ISD phones, free of charge.
Technically speaking, the accompanying media has to pay for their food and drinks, though traditionally all previous prime ministers, cutting across the party lines, have ensured that the journalists get free food. Every evening during the entire length of the PM’s foreign trip the government makes sure that liquor flows freely for the tired journalists after a grueling day of work which normally extends to 12 or even 14 hours, entailing traveling to different venues of the PM’s engagement and attending briefings.
Atal Bihari Vajpayee used to space out his foreign trips in such a way that the accompanying journalists did not have to slog hard. But his successor Manmohan Singh was a workaholic and packed a 3- 4 day trip in just two days. Journalists travelling abroad with Manmohan Singh routinely worked for at least 14 hours a day.
The accompanying journalists are treated with lavish food and drinks during the air travels. But most important bonus for the media is that they get access to top officials accompanying the PM, an opportunity that they rarely get in New Delhi. These officials form a divergent mix – diplomats, bureaucrats and intelligence and security officials.
On board interactions with these officials not only generate a treasure trove of stories for the accompanying media but also provides them with a unique opportunity to forge personal bonding with them and such contacts come in handy for the future as well. The icing on the cake has been the PM’s customary on-board press conference on his return journey.
It is this part of the traditional media management by previous PMs during their trips abroad that Modi is uncomfortable with. All this has changed drastically in the past 50 days.
Modi himself gave his reasons for this at a book launch function at his official residence last month. It was a select gathering. The media reported Modi ‘s speech, his first from 7 RCR, wherein he said "If India has to compete with China, the focus should be on skill, scale and speed."
What has not been reported is an interesting conversation a senior journalist had with the Prime Minister when guests were being treated to high tea. A senior journalist walked up to Modi and asked him why he was not taking the media for his maiden foreign visit (to Bhutan) a week later and whether it was a one-off decision or a conscious policy decision. This journalist has travelled abroad with the prime ministers for scores of times.
The journalist must have been surprised to get an elaborate answer from the prime Minister. Modi not only confirmed that he had done away with the practice of taking full-strength contingent on his foreign trips. Modi said he had minutely studied the whole practice which was started by Lal Bahadur Shastri and continued by all his successors till himself.
The following is the gist of Modi’s reasons for keeping the media at bay during his foreign trips.
#1 It is a new age wherein journalists’ main requirement of news and information can be met instantaneously irrespective of where the journalists are located and they don’t have to necessarily travel with the PM for doing that.
#2 It was a flawed policy in any case as same journalists from the same big organizations were repeated over and over again. As for small newspapers, it was the proprietors who availed of such junkets.
#3 Selecting 30 journalists for PM’s trips abroad invariably displeased hundred others.
#4 If there is a major policy announcement, Modi will address a press conference at the Delhi airport after his return home.
However, it remains to be seen whether the Prime Minister takes media in full strength on his trip to the United States in September. After all, he has a point to prove back home when Barack Obama rolls out a red carpet to him.
- The writer is Firstpost Consulting Editor who tweets @Kishkindha.