What’s the big difference between our politicians and theirs?” It’s a question I’m often asked but last week, as America voted and the world was transfixed by the Obama-McCain battle, everyone I met popped this query. “Why can’t our guys be more like them?”
I don’t know the answer but I can identify one important area of difference between our big politicians and theirs. The latter readily give interviews. Our top guns shy away. McCain and Obama sought opportunities to talk to the press. They debated amongst themselves. They took the tough questions head-on knowing they couldn’t duck them.
In contrast, I can’t remember when our top leaders last gave an interview. If you disregard a casual ten-minute chat to The Telegraph, I’m pretty sure the Prime Minister hasn’t given a single interview to an Indian journalist. Vajpayee’s record was equally poor. But this is also true of Sonia Gandhi and, sadly, L.K. Advani, who used to speak but has, of late, opted for silence except to promote his autobiography.
So where does this leave our big four? Well, to start with, it shows an incredible irresponsibility. It’s the moral duty of democratic politicians to be accountable. Answering awkward questions in interviews is usually how this is done. So if they won’t give interviews, clearly, they’re evading this.
Ah, but they give speeches, you might counter, and they address press conferences. Isn’t that accountability? Quite honestly, it’s not. In a speech, you set your own agenda. You speak about what you want to. You avoid what doesn’t suit you. And although at a press conference a politician answers journalists’ questions, he or she has multiple interlocutors, each with his own subject, and because the issue changes with each person there is little follow-up and even less intensity or persistence.
In short, India’s top politicians do not present themselves for ‘grilling’. In fact, they go to great lengths to avoid it. Which naturally leads you to ask why? Are they not capable of standing up to it? Do they have something to hide? Even if you’re kind and put aside such doubts, there’s still one further consequence that’s inescapable.
When in trouble, politicians need to assure people that they know how to handle the problem that’s pulling them down. They need to show they have the answers, the resolve to push them through and the deftness to do so successfully. All of this is shown by answering tough questions.
And that’s where interviews play their role. At such times, if he handles the media effectively, a politician wins respect. If he avoids the media altogether, he leaves the field open to doubters and critics. Remember, their questions remain but his answers are unheard.
So, in the end, refusing to give interviews doesn’t protect but damages a politician. That’s the nub of the point. Obama, McCain and their fellow Western politicians understand that. So too did Nehru and, once upon a time, L.K. Advani. Today, it seems, the big guns of the BJP and Congress couldn’t care less.
Perhaps they should learn a lesson from Mrs Thatcher, one of the greatest prime ministers of the last century. I recall a young cockney electrician once asking her how she decided whether to give an interview or refuse. Her answer was revealing. “When I’m in trouble, when I need to show I have the answers and I have the determination to put things right, I agree to every interview. After all, it’s only when people know that I can remove their doubts that they will have confidence in me. But when things are going right I stay silent. At such times, there’s a danger that if I speak I might put my foot in my mouth and create a problem that doesn’t exist!”
Amazingly, our politicians do the precise opposite! To the extent they give interviews only to gloat, which is why they end up embarrassing themselves. But when they need to reassure and win confidence they opt for hermit-like silence. Which is why they’re so often — and for so long — in trouble.