Manmohan and the media: Three in ten

Last Updated: Fri, Jan 03, 2014 01:32 hrs

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is due to address the media today, for only his third such press conference in 10 years.

While it is true that the prime minister has also spoken to the media on board Air India One while returning from various visits abroad, such briefings are usually short and his remarks have frequently focused on matters arising from the just-concluded trip.

"Normal" press conferences with an open agenda have been few and far between. Dr Singh spoke once in February 2006 and another time in May 2010. In the period since that last interaction, his government has been buffeted by a series of scandals, and now, with a few months to go, appears to be more of a lame duck than ever. The question that should be asked is: is there a link between these two facts?

The United Progressive Alliance's inability to communicate its intent clearly and the rarity of the prime minister's own interaction with the media have led to a sense that the UPA is arrogant and detached from day-to-day reality.

This, in turn, has meant that it frequently winds up having to play defensive on a developing story, rather than shaping it. For a government struggling to maintain its numbers in Parliament, this can cause a governance crisis; endless distractions are the price of aloofness. True, some ministers of the UPA have been willing to speak to the media much more often and a group of such has been deputed to have regular press conferences.

But there is no substitute for the man at the top speaking out about his government's plans often and firmly. Dr Singh's reticence has not only hurt his government's agenda but also dented his public image.

In the absence of clearly laid out patterns of communication from the top leadership, the UPA has instead relied on second-rung spokespersons from the Congress party to make its case in television studios - something that has rebounded to its discredit, especially given the persistent impression that the party and its government do not always see eye to eye.

Indeed, the entire government's system of communication needs to be given an overhaul. In the recent stand-off with the United States over the arrest of India's deputy consul general in New York, Devyani Khobragade, for visa fraud, the contrast was striking. Members of the Indian government spoke often off the record, frequently making statements that would be laughed out of court if said in public and on the record.

The US State Department, meanwhile, had long briefings on the subject almost daily, with transcripts put up online. Mature governments take the time to talk to their people.

The prime minister or the UPA leadership could legitimately argue that he is answerable not to the press but to Parliament. However, the problem is that, unlike, say, the United Kingdom, from which India gets its political system, the prime minister here does not stand up in front of Parliament and take questions on a regular schedule.

Were he to do that, then it is unlikely that he would be accused of being uncommunicative. In the absence of this mechanism, there is no alternative to having press conferences on a regular schedule, perhaps one every three months.

Had Dr Singh done so, instead of three in a decade, his government would have been able to present its case more effectively.

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