There's a stunning scene in the black and white silent film The Artist that won a cartload of Oscars early last week. Silent movie star George Valentin, worried about his failure to make the transition to the 'talkies', is in the middle of a nightmare. He can hear everything clearly. In fact, sounds of a falling comb, a glass moving on the table, furniture being shifted are exaggerated and loud. But nothing comes out of his throat even as he wishes to make sounds and speak. He wakes up sweating in bed realising that his popularity in silent films may be ended in the new age of talking movies.
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh hasn't yet woken up from his reality-check nightmare. Even as he hears a multitude of voices jabbering away — talking heads on television panels, experts in op-ed pages, politicians all across the field, and now even the general public — his voice remains silent. This silence was made unerringly audible for all to hear when, in an interview to Science magazine last week, Singh stated that American and European-funded NGOs were behind the protests against the yet-to-be-operational Kudankulam nuclear plant in Tamil Nadu.
While a torrid debate about the role of foreign NGOs broke out, Singh's point of a 'foreign hand' bent on scuppering India's civilian nuclear plans sounded like a complaint from an Indian PM from the 1980s, when every opposition was from somewhere 'out there' bent to scupper socialistic India's grand plans. The point isn't that there are no NGOs from foreign shores funding campaigns against the Indian State's plan to generate energy for its industries and economic needs. The point is so what if they are and how the government intends to counter it in a pragmatic fashion.
The Indian government's relationship with its citizenry at large still smacks of a class teacher telling children that the Earth is round and not flat. If anyone, even without a motive to put the teacher in a spot, asks how is this so, GoI's standard way of dealing with such queries or doubts is: because I'm telling you so.
The fact that the Kudankulam plant could make some locals genuinely nervous needs to be taken into consideration. Instead of having a bunch of nuclear scientists going on television, who essentially despise the lot who don't automatically believe them when they say that Indian nuclear power plants are safe, the government needs to engage with its own citizenry. If 'powerful lobbies' can push locals to oppose a State project, surely, it's the job of the government — and not nuclear physicists talking on prime-time news TV — to allay such fears. Barring a few press releases that go into the spam folder of most journalists, no effort is made by the government to tell the people directly about the benefits and the safety measures of any such projects — until they are faced with noisy, 'NGO-funded' placard-waving locals.
Singh's comments about NGOs "creating controversies" hasn't been confined to the Kudankulam plant. He had also mentioned that on issues like genetically modified (GM) food, too, these Dolby Sound voices have cooked up opposition. When this is followed by the current rural development minister stating that as the then environment minister, he had no foreign NGOs influencing his decision to put a moratorium on the commercial use of Bt Brinjal, we have the semblance of voices from the same corner cancelling each other to produce silence. (In all fairness, Jairam Ramesh's decision to stop Bt Brinjal could have been made independently of NGO opposition. But the point is that we still don't really know why Bt Brinjal is bad or good for India. Frankly, we still don't know where the GoI stands on this one.)
As India gets its economy hitched more firmly to scientific and technological developments, the government of the day will need to get more proactive in explaining why it's doing what it's doing to the people. Gone are the 'silent' days when a National Film Development Corporation reel before the feature film in theatres pointed out that a dam or a power plant is good for everyone just because the prime minister is being shown cutting the ribbon during its inauguration ceremony. Indians now are more inquisitive about their well-being. They are also less susceptible to take what the government tells them for granted.
There're far too many spokespersons for political parties, including the ruling one at the Centre. Why can't the prime minister appoint a spokesperson — since the PM himself is too busy and not too articulate — who can be assigned the job of answering questions in regular prime ministerial press conferences? Someone who could, unlike warring scientists or worked up ministers in the media, speak clearly about the government's positions on matters, allaying fears and making statements that can be broadcast on national television. That would finally make us able to hear the PM's (dubbed) voice over all this din.