A Second-hand Show

Written by  //  June 29, 2011  //  National Politics  //  2 Comments

Kumar Ketkar thought the Prime Minister was ‘amazingly relaxed’ and ‘extraordinarily confident’. Alok Mehta said that he was ‘not a puppet’. We will have to wait till the papers tomorrow morning to read about the impression that the three remaining editors, selected by the Prime Minister for his press conference today, had of Dr. Singh and his responses. But the question that is uppermost on my mind, as I hear second-hand accounts of views of the Prime Minister on the most contentious issues of the day, expressed publicly for the first time, and read a poorly transcribed report of his initial comments and the Q&A session, pasted inconspicuously on the PMO website, is: Why was this strange method of speaking to the nation through five newspaper editors chosen? Surely, if it were regular questions of government policy, a spokesperson in the PMO could have done the job; if it were something more urgent which necessitated a personal intervention by the Prime Minister, would a more directly accessible medium not have been preferable? By choosing neither, and instead adopting this curious halfway house approach, the Prime Minister today, despite the candour of his answers and forthrightness in taking on diverse questions, has only reinforced the Opposition’s diatribe of a weak Prime Minister, irrespective of what Ketkar may have said. As a result, the attention of the country, instead of being centred on judging the effectiveness of governmental action in dealing with existing problems, is firmly focused on the personal charisma or lack thereof of the Prime Minister, a pointless discussion that has been repeated ad nauseum such that today it only matters only to the BJP.

Confusion Prevails

This is not the first time that the Prime Minister has chosen a press conference to clear the air on issues where his silence had become conspicuous. In February this year, following a spate of scandals, the Prime Minister held a televised conference with senior television editors, where he came clean on corruption scandals, price rise, Telengana and a number of similar thorny issues. He came across as frank and forthright though questions lingered regarding the content of what he said and specifically whether he could have personally done more to prevent or at any rate take action against the corrupt. Contrast that with today’s interaction—a few editors were handpicked by the PMO; the interaction was not televised; the transcript does not read like a verbatim transcript and news items across the electronic media are abuzz with the PM’s demeanour rather than the content of what he said. By choosing this curious medium, the PM has asked more questions than he answered: Why was he reluctant to face the nation? If he was so confident, as media reports of the interaction would have us believe, then why not let the people, including the Opposition see it? Do his own media managers not have confidence in his public speaking ability? In this time of crisis, is the PM hesitant on taking a leadership role and addressing the nation?

A plausible, albeit Machiavellian justification for the press conference could be that this is a deliberate ploy by the government strategists to keep Manmohan Singh, the man, rather than Manmohan Singh as the Prime Minister of an UPA government in the spotlight. Anyhow, being a political lightweight on his way out, makes him an ideal candidate to take the blame for, and consequently have to justify, the government’s bungling of several issues. This way, the fact that the government has not really tackled the issues themselves, ranging from the Lokpal Bill to black money abroad, becomes secondary to the purported weakness of the PM, a point that the BJP is particularly happy to debate.

If this is the underlying strategy, I believe it is a political masterstroke. The electronic media, as if running to a script, have carried stories on how the PM is not a lame-duck PM and how he has confidently and self-assuredly fielded questions on his domestic and foreign policies. Little has been reported or discussed about the content of what he actually said. For example, on the Lokpal Bill, the PM controversially said that he supported the inclusion of his own office under the ambit of the Lokpal but would go along with members of his Cabinet who said it would create instability; on FDI in retail, he clearly and purposively said a beginning would have to be made and fears expressed by small traders would have to be challenged head on; on the 2G scam that despite personally deeming an auction as the appropriate means of allocating spectrum and misgivings about the proposed system, he went on Raja’s assurance of utmost transparency and a similar TRAI recommendation. These are issues vital to the governance of the country, where either the PMO has bungled, as in the 2G controversy or the Lokpal drama, or where the government has not clearly a charted a discernible policy course, as on the question of FDI in retail. However, these have been lost in a media frenzy to uncover how the PM came across in his interaction and whether he was feeling confident and self-assured. We might as well be next asking what he had for lunch and what diet he is on. I wouldn’t be surprised if that is the direction in which our media questioning is headed.

Whether intended or not (and I don’t personally believe this was a deliberate strategy by the government to steer the debate elsewhere), it is unfortunate that in the aftermath of the press conference, we are left discussing the manner and method of the PM’s speech and responses rather than their content. While in terms of the former, the PM has undoubtedly come across as weak and unsure, despite (or perhaps because of) his bravado behind closed doors in front of five selected editors, in terms of the latter, I can only hope that a meaningful discussion of governmental action (and inaction) ensues after the initial hullabaloo over the form of the conference subsides.

Halfway across the World

Meanwhile, in Washington, another head of state, facing similar crises at home and abroad, also chose to speak to his people today. Like Dr. Singh, President Obama chose a press conference as his preferred medium. He made opening remarks on the economy, fired a few pointed salvos at the Republicans and then fielded questions from a select group of journalists. All of this was available on live television to the American public. By keeping the interaction simple and the medium traditional, President Obama ensured that the talking points were about the most appropriate means to cut deficits and his views on gay marriage, issues that are at the heart of electoral politics in USA today. History will judge whether the press conference served its ends or not and how the American people react. However by keeping his method simple, and his matter direct, President Obama left no one in any doubt as to what the talking points in the country should be. Now Dr. Singh is no President Obama. Neither does he have the oratory, nor the panache, nor for that matter the age. But what he does have in liberal doses, like President Obama, is the sincerity of a man steering a country through tough times. It is time that he let that sincerity show without hiding behind the counter-productive shrouds of handpicked editors and their ambivalent sound bytes.

About the Author

Arghya is currently doing the doctorate in law at the University of Oxford. Dithering between academia and litigation for a future career but sanguine in Oxford with his current researcher status.

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2 Comments on "A Second-hand Show"

  1. Dhirendra July 2, 2011 at 7:54 am ·

    Anna Hazare, Kiran Bedi etc do not represent people of India but it seems that the 5 editors picked by PMO surely represent people of India. It is a great relief to find that the country has ultimately found a way to detect as to who represents public. This event can serve as a great lesson for psychologists, strategists, negotiation session plannerrs. Had he invited large number of journalists no body would feel obliged but inviting just 5 and that too as first five makes one feel none less than Neils Armstrong. The strategy surely paid off. The 5 were defending PM more whelemently than the PM would have defended himself. No one questioned the criteria of selection nor as to what was wrong with TV cameras? I want to knows ond fact- Were the journalists asked to remove their shoes?

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