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Lesson from Britain

india Updated: Mar 06, 2010 23:23 IST
Karan Thapar

Occasionally television can be truly revealing. That was the case on Friday when the BBC broadcast live the interrogation by the Chilcot Inquiry Committee of the British prime minister on the Iraq war. As I sat glued to the screen, one conclusion seemed obvious — this single event shows how far short India falls of a great democracy and how much closer Britain is.

Consider the facts. Gordon Brown is a sitting prime minister. In two months he faces re-election. He had the choice of appearing in front of Chilcot after the elections but deliberately chose to do so ahead of them. And then for four hours — yes, that’s the truth — he answered every question, knowing the Opposition and the press were waiting to pounce on any small lapse and fully aware he might never recover.

But today I’m not writing to compliment his courage or his commitment to transparency, although both are obvious. It’s the British system that required this of him which is the object of my praise.

The committee asked sound intelligent questions. They weren’t polemical and they certainly weren’t simply technical. But they also weren’t politically easy and they tested Brown on the most precise situations and often in the smallest detail. In turn, the prime minister was fully prepared — he had his facts at his fingers tips, kept his cool and relied on argument and analysis to explain himself.

In contrast, can you even think of an Indian prime minister putting himself in a similar position? The closest is Indira Gandhi before the Shah Commission and P V Narasimha Rao in front of the Liberhan one. But two critical facts ring the difference. At the time neither was in office. Brown is. Nor at that point did either believe he or she would be back. Second, the questioning was live — in fact, with a national election possibly just eight weeks away.

But that’s not all. The difference between our prime ministers and theirs goes further. Brown was willing to be cross-examined on live TV for hours on end; ours won’t even agree to a simple 20-minute interview. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has spent almost six years in office yet not once in that time has he agreed to one. Of course, he’s done several with the foreign press but they are unlikely to embarrass him or even question him toughly. However, why single out Singh? A.B. Vajpayee’s record was no different. Nor is Sonia Gandhi’s or her son’s.

Our lot are either shy or scared. At any rate, they don’t know how to use the press. Their lot are articulate, confident and able to put their message across despite the questions they face. They win respect and admiration, ours diminish their own standing.

Ultimately there is a simple truth they accept and we dodge. Politicians need to make themselves accountable. Speeches and press conferences are not sufficient. You have to be available for tough — even, at times, hostile — questioning. That’s what happens in an interview. That’s what Brown accepted from the Chilcot Committee. That’s what Singh and Vajpayee have dodged for 12 years together.

But why do I blame our system for this? Simple. British politics would not for a second accept silence from Gordon Brown. Ours doesn’t complain when consecutive prime ministers stay mum. Worse, even L.K. Advani, who was once happy to talk, has discovered he can get away with it. Now he too won’t give interviews.

The views expressed by the author are personal