Prime Minister Narendra Modi with BJP President Amit Shah during a press conference at the party headquarter in New Delhi. (Source: PTI)

The Press Conference That Wasn't: Modi Stays Mum in Rare Event

(Bloomberg) -- Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi held what was supposed to be a press conference on Friday, his first in India after five years in power.

However, Indian journalists who showed up to ask questions to the leader of the world’s largest democracy found he wasn’t exactly answering them.

Instead, after giving some brief remarks, Modi sat silently as the powerful president of his Bharatiya Janata Party, Amit Shah, fielded questions from reporters -- even when they asked the questions directly to Modi.

At the moment, there’s quite a bit to talk about in India. The country is in the middle of the biggest election in history, with nearly 900 million voters eligible to cast ballots. Modi’s government has extolled its welfare programs and foreign policy record on the campaign trail, while the opposition Congress party and others have accused the government of presiding over a weak economy and rising social tensions. It’s been incredibly divisive, with insults flying around freely and numerous controversies, including one involving a BJP candidate who praised the assassin of Mahatma Gandhi.

In the past, Modi has been criticized by the opposition and critics for not holding a single real press conference in five years. He has preferred to speak to the nation via a state-broadcast radio show, interviews to select TV channels and newspapers and, in one case, an hour-long conversation with Bollywood star Akshay Kumar. Modi has occasionally appeared alongside world leaders at press briefings, but rarely took any questions -- like he did at one event in 2015 with Prime Minister David Cameron on a visit to the United Kingdom.

At one point during the press conference on Friday, a reporter asked Modi a question. “Party chief is supreme,” the prime minister replied, before letting Shah answer the question.

Later, another reporter asked Modi about corruption allegations relating to an arms deal, which the government has repeatedly denied. “It’s not necessary the prime minister answers every question,” Shah said. “The question is baseless.”

Throughout Shah’s replies, Modi rested his head on his hand in various positions. Images of the glum-looking leader quickly made the rounds on Twitter, with one representative of the opposition Congress party suggesting a caption contest.

©2019 Bloomberg L.P.

Watch Modi and Shah’s press conference here: