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PM holds durbar, minus trappings

New Delhi, Aug. 10: No lights, no camera, no mikes, no pesky reporters jotting down points. Manmohan Singh wanted it done in an understated way and the Prime Minister’s Office took care the “event” happened that way.

But the PMO could not come up with a name that would assure people it was not a remnant from a feudal era where subjects supplicate before the master to get small favours through.

So call it public darshan or janata durbar or what you will, Singh this morning again went through the rites that will mark his transition from an academic-bureaucrat to a politician.

The hour-long event at his residence was Singh’s second public darshan, his aides said almost apologetically. They want to change the name to “mass contact” programme.

But care was taken to see the hoi polloi calling at 7 Race Course Road was streamlined. An aide of Singh’s said the format evolved because the PMO was inundated with letters on specific issues, grievances and requests, which could not be addressed the way Singh usually obliged callers.

“There are courtesy calls by chief ministers, governors, VIPs, friends and there are official calls by chief ministers, delegations etc. The aam janata doesn’t fit into either category. The janata could also include, say, an MLA who has a constituency-related problem. The darshan was meant for such people,” the aide said.

The PMO’s grievances cell scrutinised the letters and once it was “convinced” the issues were “genuine” — a yardstick being the details given — the petitioner was shortlisted for the darshan.

Not more than 30 people are expected to attend a session. They are seated in rows and Singh goes around, spending a couple of minutes with each supplicant. Their complaints/pleas are handed over to one of the officials accompanying him.

The callers today included Congress workers from Punjab, teachers and children of a Delhi government school who complained their school may be shut down, and a freedom fighter who wanted to know how a plot of land given to him by the government could be transferred to his sons.

Singh’s predecessor, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, started his janata durbar with fanfare with Vijay Goel, minister of state in the PMO, often playing the master of ceremonies. Vajpayee discontinued it when he found that most callers were Delhi residents cribbing about choked sewers, broken roads and school admissions.

“These were grievances which should have been taken to a local councillor or MLA or MP but not the PM,” said a former Vajpayee confidant. Vajpayee got round the problem by reviving the PMO’s grievances cell.

Old-time journalists in Delhi recalled it was Indira Gandhi who perfected the art of “public contact” to a fine political skill. Her aides had created a system by which they would sift the “genuine” complaints from trivial ones and summon the petitioner for a meeting. The summons would be issued well in advance to ensure the petitioner did not miss the date.

Care was always taken to see that the media was tipped off. When Indira Gandhi interacted with the janata, it would appear as if she was finding solutions on the spot when, in fact, her official apparatus had already done the spadework.

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