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Get political, not voluble

Get political, not voluble

Author: CL Manoj
Publication: The Economic Times
Date: July 6, 2011
URL: http://articles.economictimes.indiatimes.com/2011-07-06/news/29743710_1_media-management-prime-minister-sonia-gandhi

"The Prime Minister speaks, shows he is in control," thus went the helpful pontification by some pundits after Dr Manmohan Singh met a group of editors last week. Since it has been argued that the reason for the UPA-II government's present impasse is Dr Singh's reluctance to communicate with the media, he seems to have finally agreed to swallow the magic pill. But can the prescribed 'speech therapy' make someone a truly inspiring leader?

If being an eloquent communicator were the ultimate test, then A B Vajpayee would not have had to vacate the PM's office for Dr Singh. If schmoozing the media is what makes a successful or effective PM, then Rajiv Gandhi's humongous electoral mandate would not have evaporated so fast. If unpopularity with the media were a recipe for political disaster, Indira Gandhi would not have become the most powerful PM and the biggest mass leader since Jawaharlal Nehru. Dr Singh should be the last one to forget how the man who initiated him into politics , the redoubtable P V Narasimha Rao, demonstrated his Chanakya-like brilliance in statecraft by playing mauni baba, or silent saint. This is not to suggest that a prime minister should make media his last priority but only to point out that his political fate and performance are not solely or primarily dependent on his media skills. In Delhi, it is easy to spot any number of paper tigers who are 24x7 obsessed with 'media management' but still have zero connectivity with the people. A leader, certainly a PM, connects or communicates with the nation primarily through the credibility and effectiveness of his leadership and actions, relayed through multiple channels. Handsome is as handsome does, for the media as well.

So, what was the crux of the PM's message to the nation through the media? Dr Singh appearing 'relaxed and confident' was no big deal. That he is confident of Sonia Gandhi's backing and that he will make way for 'a younger leader' whenever the party wants him to are common sense. And the Opposition indulging 'in clever propaganda' to paint him 'as a lame-duck PM' and his government as 'the most corrupt' is widelyknown. That he is confident of containing inflation one day and will take steps to ignite growth and reforms have become mandatory niceties. Usually, when a prime minister speaks, she speaks with an agenda designed to set or change the political discourse of the nation. What was Dr Singh's 'newsbreak'? Not a single political or policy announcement with an idea or theme that captured national attention! There lies the real problem: Dr Singh's cultivated pursuit of the persona of an apolitical leader that ends up leaving Raisina Hill without an effective political antenna.

Dr Singh is no greenhorn to miss the political USP in his character - his image as a clean and well-meaning, intelligent man - already acknowledged by his party by making him the PM first and then going to polls projecting him as the prime ministerial candidate against L K Advani . When the nation gave UPA-II a resounding mandate, even the BJP admitted its costly mistake in personally targeting Dr Singh and the disapproval it evoked in its cultivated urban middle class vote bank. It is also a fact that the Congress' tactical utility in using Dr Singh's clean personal image as its most credible and secure shield against the BJP has gone up in the raging politics over scams. But Dr Singh seems to have got carried away by the favourite talking point of his critics; that he is a PM without political authority, which, instead, lies with Sonia Gandhi.

But how severe is this perceived structural defect? For all its refusal to give him full political authority, the fact remains that whenever Dr Singh chose to go fully political , pushing the nuclear deal by taking on the Left, stretching his optimism on the Pakistan front beyond domestic political comfort or taking on LK Advani & Co frontally, the Congress high command has backed him to the hilt.

In fact, 10, Janpath, has been shielding the PM from wily Congress leaders, who could have queered his pitch in no time. It publicly reined in and virtually sent into political exile the Machiavellian Gandhi family loyalist (late) Arjun Singh, whose political services to 10, Janpath, during its uncertain years of 1991-97 were of a crucial nature, when he tried to needle Dr Singh by playing the Rahul card. Ms Gandhi's biggest use of 'political authority' was in picking up Dr Singh, over a dozen more experienced leaders, to be the PM. Given how Gandhi-centric the Congress set-up is, these amounted to political licence for Dr Singh to ride high.

The point is, did he make use of this leeway or stay 'apolitical' enough to let even Baba Ramdev almost get away with his trickery? The upcoming Cabinet reshuffle will have no great meaning unless the PM decides to reinvent the political content of his regime and fixes its alltoo-fuzzy political antenna.

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