No talks or tweets: Ministers, babus told to stay mum?

Last Updated: Fri, Jun 06, 2014 05:25 hrs

New Delhi: Newly appointed ministers, many overjoyed at getting the charge of important portfolios, have fallen silent after those initial gushy bytes of last week.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi, it appears, has told his cabinet colleagues to be cautious and that government spokespersons should do the talking in a uniform voice, rather than stray and out-of-turn remarks from ministers and bureaucrats.

The warning bell is also to prevent any 'sting' operation, such as the one that had resulted, some years earlier when the Bharatiya Janata Party was in power, of party leader Bangaru Laxman getting caught on a spycam taking cash as a bribe to influence a defence deal.

Information leakage from the corridors of power is another thing the new regime wants to guard against.

There have hardly been any briefings from ministers. Interviews have been promised but not given; tweets are few, except those from the PM. And, mobile phones are not being permitted inside ministers' offices. These look like how the PM wants the government to function and, perhaps, control.

Yet, a senior government official, who did not want to be named, said: "There are no such instructions". However, those in the know say 'Such instructions from the top', which some call 'gag orders', are never given in writing.

While ministers are getting down to work, away from too many cameras and byte soldiers, bureaucrats have been told to do the same, too. For instance, finance minister Arun Jaitley is learnt to be unhappy at media reports giving details of his meeting with officials in the first two days in office.

In some reports, he was quoted out of context, sources said. Jaitley had to write to his officers not to quote him or share his views while talking to the press.

His ministry is not the only place where firewalls have come up. In the food ministry, ministers and officials have been told to maintain some distance from the media. Instructions have gone out that until the Presidential Address is over, no exclusive interviews should be given, a source said. "We have all been told to wait for the Address (on Monday) to understand the priorities of this government," a senior official said.

The telecom ministry, where new minister Ravi Shankar Prasad had given an assurance to foreign investors on preventing retrospective taxation the day he took charge, is also not talking much these days. In fact, the department of telecom office at Sanchar Bhawan, where the spectrum allocation scam had surfaced some few years earlier, has restricted entry for visitors. Even meetings with prior appointments are getting screened.

Waiting for a response to an interview request with ministers who seemed eager to talk on day one is a common story across government buildings. Even people such as environment and information & broadcasting minister Prakash Javadekar are going slow while airing views. On the world environment day, Javadekar refused to talk to the media on the sidelines. Yet, only a few days earlier, he had made statements on news likely to be allowed on private FM radio, raising many hopes.

Commerce and industry minister Nirmala Sitharaman, a BJP face and voice on TV shows till recently, has gone quiet after noting the government would stick to the party manifesto on everything, including opposing foreign direct investment in multibrand retailing. Her officers have been told to follow the same line, it is learnt. Among others, V K Singh, the controversial former army chief and now minister of state for northeast development and external affairs, has been asked not to talk on defence matters.

Nitin Gadkari, the minister for road transport, highways and shipping, addressed the media on Thursday to talk about a proposed umbrella law for road safety. That was a one-off press conference, right after the death of a fellow minister, Gopinath Munde, in a road collision.

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