A rough beast snaps at the heels of 21st century democratic governments every minute of their governing lives. That beast is the 24-hour media: constantly hectoring, constantly exposing. The Media are the constant inescapable opposition.
Because it’s omnipresent, the media register absences even more powerfully than presences. When everybody’s speaking, those who do not speak become extremely conspicuous. From Barack Obama to David Cameron to Nicolas Sarkozy, every modern politician has recognised the importance of constant innovative communication.
The UPA, by stark contrast — cocooned in the rarefied notion of its grand social contract with the ‘rural masses’ — must be the only democratic government in the world which scorns the media as a middle class irrelevancy. It is this scorn that is adding to UPA 2’s image crisis.
One gentle sardar stands between the UPA and the relentless barrage of corruption allegations. One Blue Turban is the shield that the UPA can still muster against daily attacks on its credibility. The conventional wisdom is that Manmohan Singh is a lame duck prime minister.
On the contrary, politically, the PM is at his strongest ever at this time. Is there anyone else in the Congress who could have protected the party by sheer personal stature the way Singh is doing at the moment? Is there any other leader who could have stood up day after day against the Opposition and still be grudgingly spoken of as a ‘good man’ across the country?
Even the Opposition knows that there is no substitute for Singh at the moment, which is possibly why Sushma Swaraj, the true democrat she is, drew out from the PM the words that every citizen was waiting to hear, namely that he takes personal responsibility for the appointment of PJ Thomas as Central Vigilance Commissioner (CVC).
If the Congress was not hardwired into always blindly championing a Nehru-Gandhi, the party too would realise the USP of Singh and leverage the goodwill he commands. The Congress’s and Singh’s utter failure to use the media to project his persona has done untold damage to UPA 2. If the soft-voiced sardarji had been projected as a benevolent umbrella figure, he could have become the UPA’s Vajpayee.
Direct communication between the powerful and the powerless is the zeitgeist. Twitter and Facebook are pushing at the gatekeepers of access and demanding a direct dialogue with those in power. But dinosaur-like UPA 2 suffers from a severe communication deficit. In the 40s, Gandhi and Nehru wrote about their personal and political struggles. In the 70s and the 80s, Indira Gandhi could get away with an imperious style with the press.
But as her elephant ride across a flooded river to the suffering residents of Belchi showed, she was a master of the photo opportunity. As for the BJP, Vajpayee’s musings from Kerala and Goa, his delightful press interactions, the modern openness of LK Advani, who bravely thought aloud on Jinnah’s secularism and paid a political price, the open disagreements post-2004 and the public wrangling over the role of the RSS — all point to a mentality geared to a much more open dialogue with the public than the lofty, cold, rather surreal, silences of the UPA.
When public outrage over the Commonwealth Games scams reached a fever pitch, the public failed to hear the voice of the PM, the leader of the Congress, the Delhi chief minister or the sports minister in any great detail. As the 2G scam exploded, it took months for the PM to address a rather formalised interaction with editors.
Yet, this is precisely the time the PM should speak about spectrum, about food inflation and corruption. The PM must set out the terms of the debate, set the governance agenda; not set the agenda behind closed doors to bureaucrats but frame the debate on current issues before the public so that his famed intellect enters every drawing room and every chaupal.
The joyless bureaucratic Vigyan Bhavan press conference held on the completion of the first year of UPA 2 told the public nothing about the government’s thinking beyond platitudes about 10% growth and that Singh had no plans to retire.
On the PJ Thomas issue, the UPA’s statements were like Chinese whispers — each whisper a cryptic phrase where a word or two changed with every repetition. Congress spokespersons called it a “legal error”, the PM said “error of judgement”, then “I respect the Supreme Court” and, on prodding by Swaraj, in an Oh-I-almost-forgot tone, “I take the responsibility.” Is that all? A modern democratic government would surely present open and detailed arguments on why it appointed a controversial CVC.
The PM at least is heard occasionally. What about the Bihar elections and Rahul Gandhi? Why does the young Gandhi not tell the public what he learnt from the Bihar debacle, having campaigned so hard in a state where the Congress won a shocking four seats? Why does Sonia Gandhi not speak about 2G and the ‘compulsions’ of coalition politics in Tamil Nadu? In fact, why does Sonia not speak at all? Are the people so worthy of contempt that they do not deserve to be addressed as equals or given explanations?
The leadership of the UPA is showing a chilling detachment from the people.
Obama has seized a mike and conducted his own interactions with Mumbai students. Cameron has addressed the Infosys campus in Bangalore on Pakistan’s export of terror. But the UPA’s leadership continues to say virtually nothing, as if convinced that India’s citizens are not really worth talking to.
Sagarika Ghose is Deputy Editor, CNN-IBN
The views expressed by the author are personal