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Pressing the PM

'Why are journalists suddenly so critical of the prime minister?' It was, admittedly, a question at a dinner party but it was also a pointed inquiry. Karan Thapar writes.

columns Updated: Sep 10, 2011 19:41 IST
Karan Thapar

'Why are journalists suddenly so critical of the prime minister?' It was, admittedly, a question at a dinner party but it was also a pointed inquiry. "These days everyone's turning on the poor chap as if they've suddenly discovered some horrible lapse or as if the man's become an overnight criminal. It's terribly unfair. How do you account for this?"

I fidgeted with my drink sensing that this comment was directed specifically at me. After all, I've done a fair number of interviews and discussions that have raised questions about Manmohan Singh's image, credibility and political competence. They've attracted a certain amount of adverse attention.

"Well," I began. "When a government passes through a crisis, isn't it the job of journalists to ask uncomfortable questions? And this government has passed from crisis to scam and back to crisis and scam virtually non-stop since September! In fact, that's been the dominant subject in the news."

"Yes, yes. I know all that. But why is everyone picking on Manmohan Singh? It's not as if he's personally to blame. And everyone knows that he's probably the cleanest, most honest man to be prime minister. Why isn't that a factor in your comments?"

That, I suspect, is part of the reason why criticism, or even tough questioning, of the PM is for some difficult to accept. Because Singh is personally and irreproachably clean, how can he be blamed for the mess around him? I decided it was time to address this issue head on.

"For three reasons, I would say. First, because he is the PM. The buck stops with him. Second, because in cases like the CVC controversy he was part of the decision-making and chose to overlook Sushma Swaraj's warning. And, third, because he should have stepped-in earlier to calm and reassure public opinion but did not. He's, therefore, allowed a bad situation to grow worse."

By now a few others had joined my interlocutor and although I'm always happy to have an audience, on this occasion I wasn't sure they were on my side. As it turned out, they weren't.

"The problem is Indian journalists don't know how far to go and when to stop. Criticism may well be valid but you guys become personal. That's not on." Although the point was made in various ways, this was the nub of the complaint.

Once again, I think I understand what lies behind this. When you focus the blame on an individual, and not just the system, you inevitably end up talking of personal qualities such as the PM's competence, skill and ability. Given his age, you might also comment on his capacity and will. To some this feels like a personal attack. But is it?

To the extent you are blaming the PM - maybe not wholly but partly - and not the government or the system, it is individual criticism of the man. Yet that doesn't make it personal. Neither in the sense of being rude nor in terms of being unjustified.

More importantly, all over the world heads of government carry the can when things go wrong. That's true of Obama, Cameron and Sarkozy. How can it not be the case with Singh? And that's simply because they are personally accountable.

Friends and admirers of the PM might find that difficult to take but perhaps they need to ask whether sentiment has clouded their judgement rather than perceive prejudice behind most critical comments.

The views expressed by the author are personal