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HindustanTimes Wed,01 Oct 2014

What “rumour-gate” tells us about PM authority and information vacuum

Prashant Jha, Hindustan Times  New Delhi, August 28, 2014
First Published: 20:08 IST(28/8/2014) | Last Updated: 20:14 IST(28/8/2014)

The PMO’s denial of media reports ‘mentioning the PM, and referring to the conduct of some Union Ministers and alleged misconduct of the Home Minister’s son’ on Wednesday was unprecedented in its tone and tenor. It even invoked the principle of ‘national interest’ to attack those engaged in such ‘rumour mongering’. But key political observers appear to have diverse views about the larger implications of the controversy. Does it enhance or diminish Prime Ministerial authority and image? And what does it tell us about the government’s communication strategy?

Pushpesh Pant, a veteran analyst and retired Jawaharlal Nehru University professor, believes that both Narendra Modi and Rajnath Singh come out looking better.

“These rumours may be true or untrue. But as a citizen, I personally have nothing against it if the PM is keeping tab of colleagues. This will put them on guard and serve as a deterrent. This country has had too long a history of cabinet ministers and those close to them engaging in wrong doing.” He however adds that any surveillance must happen within the confines of the law.

But an analyst with sympathies for the government disagrees. On the strict condition of anonymity, he told HT that in a city like Delhi, the perception that the PM is keeping a tab – even if not rooted in fact – on people will alienate them and lead to a ‘backlash’. “I don’t know whether these were true or false. And if there is a big ministerial error, PM has to step in. But you can’t run Delhi like say Mamata Banerjee runs Kolkata. It cannot be a one person show.”

Pratap Bhanu Mehta, president of Centre for Policy Research and one of the country’s most prominent public intellectuals, believes we should not read too much into the episode. “It seems like gossip circulating around at the India International Centre is being elevated into a proposition of political science.”

The episode, he argues, tells us nothing structurally about how the government is being run or even internal rifts. “We just have three anecdotes – unsourced, unconfirmed, with little context. The real issue is that not more than two or three people know what is going on in government. The media does not know – they have got recent stories on appointments spectacularly wrong. And most people in government do not know.” And it is because of this information vacuum, media is devoting attention to ‘scraps of rumour’.

The analyst quoted above agrees, but puts the onus on the PM and calls it a case of bad media management. “The media is a beast and needs to be fed something daily.” Candidate Modi understood it, but PM Modi has not followed the model. “If you don’t give it access to information, it will create a narrative that may not suit you, or may be incorrect.” He calls the episode a ‘minor shock’, and hopes that it would serve as a ‘wake-up call’ to the government.


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