I don’t want to sound like a sourpuss in a television studio, but Manmohan Singh has done well to heed the advice of two giants of language philosophy, Ludwig Wittgenstein and — no, not the PM’s media advisor Harish Khare — Sonia Gandhi. The intensity of Wittgenstein’s famous observation, “That of which we cannot speak we must remain silent”, was somewhat dimmed by the fact that Wittgenstein actually uttered it. But what the prime minister did in his interaction with television editors on Wednesday was to take the ‘mum’s the word’ philosophy of his mentor Sonia Gandhi and run with it.
He spoke, replied to queries, made his eyebrows look bigger than his beard and yet managed to say little that we didn’t know already — except for the wispy bit that sounded like the first line of a limerick: ‘There’s a BJP minister in Gujarat...’ But then, even if the PM had shown the special gathering — as opposed to PMO beat reporters — a screening of Tees Maar Khan, that would have been interpreted as the prime minister ‘trying to clear the air’.
There’s no doubt that Singh has come out of his press con job looking better. We even got to see a new emoticon on the TV screen: IM, or Irritated Manmohan, when he responded to a question about whether there were ‘backroom talks’ conducted between the prime minister’s office and the Isro-tainted company Devas. Stunningly — yes, I get stunned easily — he even answered a query about whether he, at any point, felt like stepping down, by saying, no, he didn’t. (When was the last time you heard anyone resigning on non-prime time TV?)
Unlike the question-answer session with newspaper editors in September last year — The Times of India pre-empted WikiLeaks and printed the PM’s off-the-record mumble about China wanting to “have a foothold in South Asia and we have to reflect on this reality” — this time round, what the editors heard is what we saw. Which in turn was fodder for experts on TV and newspapers to later figure out what to make of Singh’s Facebook friend invite and flurry of ‘posts’. But like cinema-goers in 1927, overjoyed and shocked on hearing Al Jolson say in the first ‘talking’ movie, The Jazz Singer, “Wait a minute, wait a minute, you ain’t heard nothin’ yet”, the gathered editors and folks beyond seemed amazed to hear Singh reply one by one to their specific questions. If one of the editors had requested the PM to scratch his ear or touch some part of his body to reassure viewers that this was a real-time, live event (as visitors to certain websites ask their ‘host’ on the screen), I’m sure Singh would have happily complied.
Essentially, pretty much everything boiled down to the hope that the PM ‘talks dirty’. Singh charted out the sequence of events that led up to the dismissal of his former Cabinet colleague A Raja. His explanation of why he didn’t order guards to drag Raja out and have him impaled through one of his orifices despite writing a warning letter before the 2G scam hit the fan, didn’t quite bump off coverage on India’s chances of winning the World Cup from page 1 the next day. In any case, we had already heard the defence from more voluble Congress spokespersons on the matter before.
If in September Singh threw the shiny red ball of stating that there was no disconnect between him and the UPA chairperson — thereby leading to conjecture that there was a disconnect between the couple — this time, it was his admission to being ‘constrained by coalition politics’ that was the frisbee in the park. As I write this, all that the nation is talking about is how all the government’s ‘constraints of coalition politics’ can vanish — along with any ‘ethical deficit’ in governance — if the Congress alone can be in power minus all the riff-raff. Now, that’s what I call a smooth sales pitch for the Congress.
The advantage a man like Singh has over, say, articulate blokes like Barack Obama or even Atal [long pause] Bihari [long pause] Vajpayee, is that everyone focuses on the fact that he’s speaking, rather than on what he’s talking about. And once he does speak, Singh, like Hamlet (who shares the PM’s talent of taking time to weigh things over before acting), is brilliant at letting others decide what he says and sees. I’m still wondering whether the cloud the PM pointed to in our scam-tainted sky on Wednesday is shaped like a camel, a weasel, or a whale.
But hang on. I am just receiving information that uncharacteristic raucous laughter is wafting out of 7 Race Course Road. What could that possibly signify?