Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Power & Politics/ Mail Today, March 22, 2010

SOMETIME in May, when UPA II completes a year in office, Manmohan Singh will do something he has done only once in his five and a half years as prime minister. I am reliably told that he will address what is only his second “ formal” press conference in the capital. The first happened in May 2005 when the UPA completed a year in office and Manmohan released the first “ Report to the People”, which was a detailed compendium of the programmes initiated in the government’s first year. Though similar reports have been compiled annually since, there have been no formal launches. But two months from now, the prime minister is expected to release the sixth volume for which a news conference is being scheduled.

In any functioning democracy, there are frequent interactions between the rulers and the media. The British Prime Minister routinely interacts with the press. Apart from regularly addressing press conferences, the US President keeps an annual date with the White House Correspondents Association where the interaction is more banter than business.

Compared, what’s happening in India is the closest thing to censorship. Manmohan has been in office since May 2004 and has formally met the press just once. Atal Bihari Vajpayee was perhaps the most popular PM we have had in the last quarter century. He knew a lot many journalists personally but was averse to addressing them as a crowd. It wasn’t always like this. Jawaharlal Nehru routinely held conferences and was on first name basis with several senior journalists, many of whom had unrestricted access to Teen Murti Bhavan, the official residence of the first prime minister.

Indira Gandhi was blessed with boundless charm and even more cunning and used both in equal measure in her frequent dealings with journalists.
In her early years, she met up with journalists almost every month, but as her popularity began to wane in the early 1970s, she began to avoid the media. Morarji bhai was in office for only two and a half years, but began two New Year’s days with a press conference. After her triumphant return to power in 1980, Indira began to befriend the media again, holding a news conference every quarter at Vigyan Bhavan.

Considering that there was no love lost between the host and the guests, these interactions witnessed much handwringing, incisive questions and sharp- tongued responses. Yet, Indira always welcomed everyone with a smile. A permanent curiosity of her press conferences was that the privilege of asking the first question always belonged to a gentleman from a little known Urdu eveninger published from Chennai. Many of us couldn’t figure out the reason for the special chemistry between the two— one who was then considered the world’s most powerful woman and the other a hack from an obscure newspaper— until a veteran journalist told us that the Urdu paper had been founded by a Congressman who was a close associate of Motilal Nehru. Rajiv’s interactions with the media weren’t as frequent as Indira’s and that may have had something to do with the fact that he had his own group of friends in the media. Yet, until Bofors began to weigh him down, he did meet the media at least twice a year.

After Rajiv, the tradition has taken a toss.

Vishwanath Pratap Singh was so busy balancing allies from the Right and the Left that he found little time. Chandrashekhar’s interactions happened on a daily basis, but were limited to four or five close “ journalist” friends and were held invariably at his kutir on South Avenue where he chose to live even after becoming prime minister. P. V. Narasimha Rao was perhaps the last one who tried to keep the prime ministerial tradition. His fiveyear term saw as many news conferences, which is not bad going considering that after December 6, 1992, he was no media darling.

Hopefully, in about two months, we will see Manmohan treading the same path as his mentor. I am told the prime minister truly believes that he has earned enough credits to flaunt the Progress Report at a press conference before live cameras and hundreds of unruly newshounds. Let’s hope it is only the first and that many many more press conferences will follow.

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