If this is the age of television news, then Dr Manmohan Singh clearly belongs to another era. During the 1998 elections, we were doing a news programme on a day in the life of the economist-politician. It was his first electoral battle and the reticent academic in him was clearly troubled by the intrusive nature of the camera. Already tired of being jostled by Congress workers on the campaign trail, he appeared reluctant to come out of his shell. Finally, late in the afternoon, we learnt that it was Dr Singh’s grand-daughter’s birthday and a small party was being organised in the garden. Could we film it, we wondered, sensing a chance to show Dr Singh the family man to the wider world. No cameras, this is a private moment, was the cryptic answer.
‘Privacy’ in the 24x7 news whirl may seem incongruous for someone in public life. A Laloo Prasad Yadav will take you to his cowshed, even brush his teeth in front of the camera, and an Obama family holiday will be splashed across the front pages, but Manmohan guards his personal space zealously. Last year, we managed to get the prime minister to do a Children’s Day special with his wife Gursharan Kaur on the lawns of 7 Race Course Road. The feisty lady broke into a song at one stage, the best the prime minister could manage in response was a weak smile, barely visible under the grey beard.
It should come as no surprise then that the prime minister hasn’t really done a single detailed interview in almost seven years in power. In his first term, he did two major press conferences at Vigyan Bhavan and then stopped them altogether. He did another one last year, but then again retreated behind the forbidding walls of government. Which is why the sudden decision to hold a ‘live’ television interaction with editors from the electronic media appeared out of character. What made it even more mysterious was just why Manmohan had chosen this moment to finally speak out. With the budget session of Parliament just days away and a series of scams having tarnished the government’s record, what really was the message the prime minister wished to send out?
Days later, one is, frankly, none the wiser. If the prime minister wanted to use the platform to suggest that he was firmly in charge, then his responses only seemed to confirm a sense of growing helplessness at being almost encircled by a group of rogues. If he was hoping for sympathy for being a ‘victim’ of coalition pressures, then he seemed to forget that ‘victimhood’ is often synonymous with weakness. If he was confident that his personal integrity would carry the day, he ran the risk of being accused of avoiding any individual responsibility for the acts of his colleagues.
If he had considered a mea culpa, the closest he came to doing so was that “irregularities” were his biggest regret, but he wasn’t as ‘guilty’ as some suggested. And if he was hoping that the media would be an ‘ally’ in reporting an India story beyond scams and “negativism”, he failed to realise that journalism cannot be a lapdog of political authority either.
Okay, so the prime minister did tell us that he wasn’t a “quitter”, that there were still many unfinished tasks. So, he did promise us that his government was “dead serious” about punishing wrong-doers. But somehow Manmohan doesn’t fit the image of a Schwarznegger-like Terminator. Moreover, middle-class cynicism can be infectious: the very same social groups that were praising the PM’s honesty now see him as a Dhritarashtra-like figure who “tolerates” corruption.
Ironically, it is this very middle class that the PM must reach out to once again by using TV more, not less. His soft, almost inaudible voice may seem boring in the cacophony of the modern-day news juggernaut. But being telegenic is not just about clever soundbites and powerful oratory. There is space even in today’s age of political ‘spin’ for old-fashioned values of decency, simplicity and straightforwardness, values he still embodies.
But to express them in moments of crisis, he needs to first unshackle himself from his inherent nervousness in facing the camera. He needs to talk to the Indian people more often, become our moral compass in these times of all-round venality. His prolonged periods of silence are seen as a sign of timidity, of a diffident leader lacking in political authority as a result of never having won a Lok Sabha election.
Maybe at age 78, it’s too late for Manmohan to transform himself from the self-effacing bureaucrat-politician to an effective mass communicator. Maybe, he will always be the Humphrey Appleby of government, a civil servant first, a neta only later. Which is also perhaps why he needs Sonia Gandhi’s help now more than ever. He has at least spoken, when will Sonia break her sphinx-like silence?
(The writer is editor-in-chief, CNN-IBN, IBN-7 & IBN Lokmat.)