The PM who doesn’t talk
It makes you wonder about the times we live in — and the country we live in — when the news that the Prime Minister is going to talk to five journalists is such a big deal that it makes page one of major newspapers and is a headline on TV news. The following day, even though the PM has not said anything we did not already know and has answered every question with vague generalities (yes, there will be a reshuffle but I won’t tell you when; yes corruption is a problem but there is no magic wand; I would be happy to step aside for Rahul but I don’t think he wants the job yet etc.), this briefing is the main news story in every paper.
In no Western country would this happen. Not only does President Barrack Obama talk to journos on an-off-the-the-record basis all the time, he also holds regular press conferences, appears frequently on TV to take questions but also pops up at the White House media room whenever something big has happened.
In the UK, Prime Minister David Cameron interacts with the press on a regular basis, gives regular TV interviews and has friendly, off-the-record chats with editors all the time.
So why is it such big deal when the Prime Minister of the world’s largest democracy agrees to finally open his mouth? It reminds me of those old Hollywood hoardings they put up when talking pictures first arrived and Greta Garbo made the shift from silent movies to talkies. “Garbo Talks” the hoardings boasted (though, as it turned out, just like Manmohan Singh, she “wanted to be alone”).
So now, nearly a century later, we have the Indian equivalent: “Manmohan Talks”. (“But not a lot”, they could have added)
It astonishes me that Manmohan Singh should talk so little and be so barely visible that we might be forgiven for thinking that India has an imaginary Prime Minister. It is not that he can’t talk or doesn’t like doing it. In his days as Finance Minister, he talked all the time. When the Congress was in opposition he was happy to give interviews. During the election campaign that preceded the UPA’s first victory, I remember dragging him to Noida for a half-hour interview for Sab TV.
Even after he became Prime Minister, he was an accessible figure. Many journalists could simply call up his PS and get an appointment to meet the Prime Minister on an-off-the-record basis. His first Media Advisor Sanjaya Baru, did his best to get the PM to meet more journos. When the media accompanied the PM on his trips abroad, there would be the traditional on-board press conferences but there would also be many private chats with him in the PM’s cabins. There would be tea parties to which small groups of editors and political commentators were invited and these were not treated as big events — in fact, they were not even mentioned because the content was off-the-record.
You can argue about how much this level of media interaction helped the Prime Minister but you only have to look at the way he was perceived during his first term (as a statesman) and the way he is seen now (as a barely visible lame-duck) and ask yourself: what made the difference?
After all, he is the same guy today that he was four years ago. He heads the same UPA. His majority in parliament has actually increased. He is rid of the allies (the Left for instance) who hampered his functioning. His biggest rival in the Cabinet — Arjun Singh —- was dropped and is, in any case, now dead. Stores that Sonia Gandhi would not back him have turned out to be false. Not only has she stood by him she has allowed him to make some very dodgy appointments and she even cobbled together a majority for his beloved nuclear deal. (Remember that one? He told us it was going to transform India. We are still waiting.)
So, by all accounts, Manmohan Singh should be even more confident, even stronger today that he was four years ago. He should be happy to talk to the country and to provide direction. He should have the confidence to push forward his agenda. He should be continuing to meet journos and tell us about his plans for the nation.
Instead we are reduced this: Manmohan Talks!
I’ve tried very hard to work out what has gone wrong. How did a man whom the Indian middle class so respected and admired during his first term turn into this shadowy cipher? How did the hero of educated India become the sort of chap who is reluctant to face the media and is unwilling to offer any visible leadership to his own people?
Try as I might, I cannot work it out.
The best I can offer is a hypothesis. My view is that Manmohan Singh did not seriously expect to become PM. Even when he got the job, he thought his tenure would not last the full five years. When it became clear that he was going to be around for the entire term of parliament, he began to get edgy and frustrated.
Many of us recall him saying, towards the end of his first term, that he believed that India was blowing a historic opportunity. If we attracted vast levels of foreign investment, he said, then we could eliminate poverty in a decade or so. The first step on that road was the nuclear deal. Rightly or wrongly, he genuinely believed that once the deal went through, billions of dollars in foreign investment would flow into India.
When the deal seemed to have fallen through, Manmohan Singh grew tetchy and edgy. “What is the point of being in office if you can’t do the things your country needs”, he would say. Eventually, he staked the future of his government on the deal (though shrewdly, he waited till the end of his term to do so). Either the deal went through, he said, or he would go.
Against the odds, the Congress got a majority vote in favour of the deal even without the Left. The deal went ahead and the government survived. Then, something he had never dreamt would happen occurred: the UPA won a second term.
My guess is that this was the beginning of the end. Naively, he believed that the vote was for him and his nuclear deal. He began to imagine that even though he had never won a Lok Sabha election in his life, he was now a popularly elected Prime Minister.
With that belief came a previously undiscovered arrogance – one that was reflected in his staff. He believed that he could do no wrong. He told the party to get lost. He embarked on foreign policy adventures (remember Sharm-el-Sheikh?). And he decided that the media did not matter. India loved him. He did not need anyone.
As misbegotten as this view was, he would still have got away with it if he had used his new found clout to implement reforms or even to outline some kind of agenda for the future. Sadly, he did not bother to do so.
And because the only people he met told him what he wanted to hear, he had no sense of the frustrations of educated Indians or of the perception that his government was drifting aimlessly.
But because his inaction created a vacuum, other rushed in to fill the vacant space. The civil society initiatives that receive middle class support these days could never have succeeded during UPA I when Manmohan Singh was a middle class idol. But it was only when educated Indians began to feel that he was a do-nothing PM that they began to look elsewhere.
When the bad times started, Manmohan Singh froze. He retreated into his shell. He stopped meeting even the few people he would meet earlier. His reactions were guided by fear and indecision – first talk to Ramdev, then lathi-charge his supporters etc.
Now, under pressure from his own party which has told him to go out and recapture his middle class constituency, the PM is trying to meet people again. Hence the absurd situation where a chat with five journos becomes headlines news: Manmohan Talks!
Some people say it is too late. I hope it isn’t. Whatever his failings over the last few years, Manmohan Singh is one of the brightest and most decent people in Indian politics. It would be a shame if he was to be remembered as our imaginary Prime Minister, as the man who provided no leadership when it was needed most.
The PM must come out of his shell and recapture his goodwill. He cannot allow his career to end in this kind of pointless failure.