A delegation of European parliamentarians who met Narendra Modi last year (and were impressed with his work ethic) had a small doubt: what does the prime minister do to unwind? Does he catch a movie, go to a play, listen to music, meet friends, hit the gym or play a sport? The answer, strangely, is no one knows, because a) Modi has cultivated this impossible image of a man who is working 60x60x24x7x365 to make India better, b) he doesn’t reveal anything of his softer side that might diminish the halo around his macho persona, and, c) there is no one in his vicinity who is authorised to tell us these things.
The opacity runs counter to Modi’s accepted credentials as a master communicator, but it is very much in line with modern-day image management where controlling the message is the key. Then again, after 20 months of watching his media strategy unravel, it is clear that what he is most comfortable with are one-way platforms, like Twitter, Man ki Baat and Madison Square Garden, where he speaks and everyone listens, no questions asked. Not for him a robust chat with a journalist who is not a fawning part-time ‘bhakt’ sold into the theology. Not for him a pointsman who can tell all what book he has read.
So, in the year of the lord 2016, if there is one English volume that the PM’s minders might like to place by his bedside, may it be Ramamohan Rao’s. Principal spokesman of the government of India under four premiers and under three political formulations, when the media was not yet the ‘feral beast’ of the breaking news and social media era, Rao unintentionally shines the light on the “trust deficit” between the PMO and the “news traders” and “presstitutes”, as we have been libellously labelled by worthies in the current dispensation, including the former by the big man himself.
If Modi listens to our gratuitous advice and picks up Conflict Communication, he will learn how those before him dealt with the eyes and ears of the people:
- At Jawaharlal Nehru’s monthly press conferences, journalists would try to provoke Panditji and India’s first PM would oblige with a response that usually began with his favourite phrase, “what fantastic nonsense”.
- Rajiv Gandhi did not mind the media writing about how he spent his New Year eve or weekends, and Ramnath Goenka of the Indian Express actually thought he was the “best thing to happen to India” (till Bofors struck).
- V.P. Singh regularly hosted small groups of editors and commentators for informal dinners at his residence and could be told in his face that the constituency that had backed him was now unhappy with his performance.
- Chandrashekhar could speak extempore, precise to the dot, even in a live televised address, never asked journalists what they were going to ask beforehand, and 'no comments' was never his response.
- P.V. Narasimha Rao, clad in an undershirt and dhoti, himself opened the door to a cameraman on the day his name was announced as likely PM and, when asked for a comment, said, “No, no, not now”.
The word that Ramamohan Rao repeatedly uses vis-a-vis his interactions with the four PMs he worked with is ‘access’, but for reasons not hard to fathom, the a-word is clearly anathema in Modi’s lexicon. Rao is no William Safire. But this motley collection of newspaper columns originally published in Kannada, which owes its title to his initial days as a defence PRO during the three wars from 1962, has a sterling piece of advice to those who think keeping the “nattering nabobs of negativism” at bay can be standard operating procedure to stave off scrutiny and criticism: “Not treating the media like an adversary is the first thing that a government communicator must keep in mind.”
When it takes two months and more for an ordinary letter to the PMO to be acknowledged, it shows that a media advisor is the first thing Modi should get after he puts Rao’s book down, before the script goes awry.
After five decades in government, Ramamohan Rao joined his son-in-law’s Asian News International (ANI), which has emerged as India’s top video news agency.