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Home / Columns / It’s been quiet a while

It’s been quiet a while

The prime minister’s bewildering silence is making him a stranger to his own people. Like other world leaders, he must connect with the masses to preserve his legacy. Barkha Dutt writes.

columns Updated: Jul 08, 2011 20:56 IST
Barkha Dutt
Barkha Dutt
Hindustan Times

For those of us who still believe in the political process and the Idea of India, these are lonely times.

On the one hand, sundry and smarmy interlopers have hijacked the political discourse and trivialised it with their hyperventilation. But on the other side, the absolute surrender of robust, honest leadership by the government — and the fact that it appears to have totally lost its way — has thrown open the highway for freelancers and self-styled Robin Hood figures. The problem now is that no matter who you hitch a ride with, you end up in a place that isn’t of your choosing.

So yes, while we can — and do — cite the huge voter-turnouts in the recent assembly elections to make the point that the sweeping anti-politician sentiment is still an elitist, urban phenomenon, the bare truth is that the UPA has not done anything to restore the country’s sense of confidence. So, if you are not an Anna Hazare acolyte, and you are exasperated by the lethargy of this political leadership, who do you turn to? And what do you believe in any longer?

Why is it — I asked Congress spokesperson Jayanthi Natarajan — that though the UPA has secured the resignations of more ministers and high-profile politicians than perhaps any other ruling coalition, the overwhelming impression is still one of paralysis and ineffectiveness. She conceded that at least part of the problem was being on the losing side of the perception battle. And yet in a week when the world’s most powerful politician just wrapped up his first ‘Twitter townhall’, the prime minister’s team continues to regard the very notion of direct communication as an airy-fairy, new-age concept that has no real relevance, except to the English media.

Sophocles first warned that silence only strengthened the “accuser’s charge”. But it was philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau, an inspiration for the French Revolution, whose words captured the depth of its damage when he wrote “absolute silence leads to sadness. It is the image of Death”.

Indeed, two years into its tenure, the UPA has begun to resemble a drowning man who is barely managing to come up for air. And the prime minister, despite his essential decency, has come to be perceived as a sad and listless caricature of himself.

When the government did accept the overwhelming criticism of being seen but never heard, it reacted in an extraordinarily tepid manner that took the shape of the prime minister meeting a handful of senior newspaper editors. Quite aside of the botch-ups that made their way into the official transcript released after this meeting, was this mediated and controlled interaction really the best way to reach out to the people of India?

All right, the prime minister may think that Twitter is banal and TV even worse. But across the world, leaders have other ways of reaching out. They use State of the Nation broadcasts or regularly drop in on their favourite radio show, or better still, work their way into a crowd, clasping the hands of their constituents in a perfect Clintonian moment of communication.

Here, culturally, politics remains trapped in a ‘Mai-Baap’ template of patronage by the powerful for the poor. Our leaders sit aloof on a stage that stares down at an impoverished but eager sea of people, kept at suitable distance from them behind wooden barricades and gun-toting, safari-suited security officials. Rahul Gandhi’s padyatra politics is finally a more informal and friendly attempt at mass contact. But even he restricts himself to the villages of Bharat, ignoring for the most part, the ordinary folk of Middle India.

However, even by Indian standards of stodgy communication, the prime minister is bewilderingly silent. Even inside Parliament, his interventions are irregular and mostly triggered by political crises or assaults by the Opposition.

It was agricultural expert YK Alagh who first famously called Manmohan Singh an “overestimated economist and an underestimated politician,” a line that self-described “loose cannon” Digvijaya Singh would repeat in the course of several TV shows. But where is the political dimension to the prime minister buried today? Does he appear unassertive because he is invisible? Or is he invisible because he does not have the freedom to be assertive? Is the sense of disarray his government conveys a function of Manmohan Singh’s diffident personality, a result of his losing control or a by-product of the intrigue within his team that has pitched minister against minister in barely disguised turf-wars? It’s probably a combination of all three.

But the prime minister — known to be a reflective man — must ask himself a tough question. During his first tenure as the head of this government he was willing to resign rather than see a nuclear deal he had invested his legacy in fall by the wayside. If he is unable to come out and take charge of an unravelling situation, are the reasons to preserve his legacy not far more crucial now?

And while we are on the subject of America — why can’t the PM borrow a lesson or two from President Barack Obama? Come and talk to us — your citizens — and admit that mistakes were made. Concede as he did that you have got a “shellacking” or two and promise us that you will now lead from the front and not hide behind the opaqueness of “coalition politics”. Do not be a stranger to your own people.

Otherwise, Manmohan Singh needs to remember that tears in a fabric can be held together by safety pins only for long. After a point, when the threads start coming loose, it’s sometimes best to get yourself a new set of clothes. The problem with the UPA is that it doesn’t seem to want to fix anything, unless it is already broken beyond repair.
Barkha Dutt is Group Editor, English News, NDTV
The views expressed by the author are personal

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