Sunday, June 26, 2011

The PM must speak up......

Chidambaram said yesterday that he believed that the people of India want to hear their PM’s views on corruption and the several other issues facing the nation. Dead right. The people do indeed want to hear him speak. Then there was this lovely article of Karan Thapar’s in HT (Reflections page) yesterday which narrates how Margaret Thatcher in the UK used to communicate with her people. And then of course, there is the example of Obama who holds weekly briefings with the media.

The point made by Margaret Thatcher was interesting. When asked when she chose to grant a lot more interviews to media and when a lot less, she apparently responded: “When things are going wrong, when my government has problems and when criticism is loud, I give as many (interviews) as I can. Because I need to reassure people that I am responding to their concerns, that I care, and ultimately, that they can rely on me to put things right. But when things are swimming along satisfactorily and all seems well, I refuse. Because chances are I’ll put my foot in my mouth and create a problem for myself”! Point well made! Karan’s own comment was that our politicians are the exact opposite!

The important point is that the Executive must speak to its people. Surely, the Executive understands that if they are unavailable to media for a response, the media will “spin” the story the way it wants to (in any case it will......but at least the “responsible” media will give the other side of view also). Surely they understand that the people of this country are cynical of politicians.....and so when they keep quiet, people think that they are hiding something. That they have nothing to clarify?

Take the example of the recent stories of Pranab Mukherjee’s office bugging. Now let’s be clear. No one knows the real story. A few people have said a few things and the rest has been made into a story by the media basis whatever information they have and whatever their political orientation is. The opposition has also chosen to speak from a very narrow perspective. They are apparently not so concerned about the FM’s office being bugged as much as they are in the possibility that there could be a tussle on between the FM and the Home Minister. They have figured that the bugging story is otherwise bogus. That using the internal tussle argument is a better way of hurting the government. Nothing wrong with this. They are the opposition and they will try and show the government in poor light. What is “bugging” is that the government chose to stay quiet yet again. And let the wild stories do the rounds for quite a few days. Till Chidambaram finally spoke up himself and said that “Pranab Mukherjee is at least 10 years older than me....and that he is more senior than there is no question of me wanting to become the PM before him” or some such thing. When Chidambaram himself spoke, the story immediately went cold. The “masala” had been leached out from the story!

Take the 2G problem. I have a strong view that the CAG has no business to comment on policy initiatives of the government. The government chooses to give subsidies for diesel and kerosene. That’s their right. There is no corruption in this policy decision. If there is a process violation in implementing this decision, the CAG has a right to point that out as a case of corruption. In the 2G case, I think the government did the right thing by treating 2G spectrum like saw the power of telecom in elevating the lives of poor people. Had it gone with 3G like spectrum auctions, the penetration of mobile phones would have been much lesser and the poor would have stayed behind! Today, even those who don’t have homes or offices are able to procure orders on their mobile phones. Of course, there was much corruption also....but limited to a few thousand crores (to be factually correct, so far trails of only Rs 200 crores of corruption has been found....the Raja-Kalaignar TV-DB Realty link). The media has built the perception that its 1.7 lac crores. There’s a world of a difference between the two figures. Even in public perception, a few thousand crore rupees in corruption is taken as par for the course today. But a 1.7 lac crore figure gives the story a totally different spin. It suddenly becomes the biggest scam of history. The problem is that the government has chosen to stay quiet and give the impression that it’s been caught by surprise. That there is some truth to the larger corruption figure.

In a democracy, strong leaders are those who can communicate strongly with the people. Whether Nehru or Indira Gandhi or Atal Bihari Vajpayee, they were all strong communicators. And I am not talking of oratory skills here. I am talking of content. The ability to strike a chord with their constituency. Manmohan Singh is a poor orator, but can be a strong communicator. The opposite is equally true. Kapil Sibal is a good orator, but not that good a communicator. He’s too smart for his own good. He speaks with a smugness that doesn’t help. He has the “I know it all” attitude which makes him look like a power broker. Likewise, when Arun Jaitley or RaviShankar Prasad speak, they too look too smug and their agenda drips from their persona. But when Nirmala Seetharaman of the BJP speaks, she communicates very powerfully (the neat sari, the conservative hair style are markers of a carefully crafted “Indianness”). People believe her but they don’t believe Kapil Sibal. They would believe Manmohan Singh. When the PM speaks, people listen with apt attention. They give him the benefit of doubt. They understand that he’s not a great orator....and that earns him their goodwill. It’s because of the PM that the UPA won the elections in 2009. The Congress must ask the PM to speak up.

The real truth is that in today’s times, more so than ever before, perceptions matter more than the truth. The truth is always relative. No one knows what the real truth is (except the writer of this blog!). So people form their perceptions basis what they see. What complicates matters is that media is politically motivated. In an environment like this, how can the PM – the Congress’s best batsman – not come out opening???? I must end with this wonderful sms joke which did the rounds recently. Manmohan Singh was at his dentist’s. A frustrated dentist says “Mr. least now, please open your mouth”!! I hope he gets the hint!

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