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Answer the question

Not unlike Indira Gandhi, whom she admired, Margaret Thatcher was a shrewd politician. One of the talents both women possessed was a perceptive understanding of the popular mood. Karan Thapar writes.

columns Updated: Nov 20, 2011 12:37 IST

Not unlike Indira Gandhi, whom she admired, Margaret Thatcher was a shrewd politician. One of the talents both women possessed was a perceptive understanding of the popular mood. And they knew how to respond to it. Ironically, both fell when they lost this gift - Gandhi with her Emergency and Thatcher over her Poll Tax.

Of the two, Mrs Thatcher was better at handling the press. I vividly remember an occasion in the mid-80s when a young Cockney spark stopped her in her tracks with an innocent question.

"Tell me prime minister," he asked, "when do you agree to give an interview and when do you refuse?"

Mrs Thatcher, who was pouring beer into the young man's glass - a ritual which in those days concluded interviews at 10 Downing Street - gave him the full force of her attention. Clearly it was an enquiry she wanted to answer.

"When things have gone wrong, when my government has problems and when criticism is loud I give as many as I can," she began. "And do you know why? Because I need to reassure people that I'm responding to their concerns, that I care and, ultimately, that they can rely on me to put things right."

At this point the Iron Lady paused, knowing she had the young spark - and all the rest of us - riveted. She enjoyed the sense of control that this gave her.

"But when things are swimming along satisfactorily and all seems well, I refuse. And do you know why? Because chances are I'll put my foot in my mouth and create a problem for myself!"

Alas, our politicians do the exact opposite. When they're in trouble they clam up and their silence confirms or, even, fuels the sense of crisis. But when they're on a roll they start to crow and, before long, end up with egg on their faces.

For the first time in decades the government behaved very differently when, last week, Kapil Sibal and Salman Khurshid decided to give interviews and answer the many questions, accusations, doubts and, even, the ignorance about the lokpal issue. If the stand of the media has shifted and public perceptions altered, this is a significant part of the explanation.

Up till now the government has argued that speeches and press conferences are enough to mould opinion. It's a folly the Vajpayee administration was equally guilty of. While speeches are ideal when you have a case to make and press conferences are perfect when you want to respond to a wide range of issues without going into detail or subjecting yourself to scrutiny, neither is adequate when you need to prove you're on top of a crisis and answer an adverse public opinion.

Why? Because in a speech you set your own agenda and at a press conference rival questions by a multitude of journalists confuse or diffuse the agenda. It's only when you willingly subject yourself to a hostile agenda set by someone else that you're perceived to be answering their concerns. Only in those circumstances can people be persuaded to believe you have the answers and care. And this will only happen in an interview.

Mrs T understood this. Indeed, that's why Obama, Cameron, Sarkozy, Merkel and every other leader of a vibrant democracy gives so many interviews.

One last point: don't be deterred by the fact you can't answer every question. No one can and it doesn't matter. What you need to show is you're sincere in trying and determined to succeed.

Margaret Thatcher achieved 11 years in office because she convinced Britain of her sincerity and determination.

The views expressed by the author are personal.