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Who’s afraid of press' Not Singh
- Prime Minister revives practice of addressing formal news conferences

New Delhi, Sept. 1: Manmohan Singh will be the first Prime Minister to address a full-fledged, structured press conference here in 10 years. The last was P.V. Narasimha Rao, under whom Singh initiated economic reform.

Between 1994 and 2004, none of the heads of government — H.D. Deve Gowda, I.K. Gujral and Atal Bihari Vajpayee — held a press conference.

When Singh faces the media on Saturday, he will revive a tradition dating back to the Nehru era when the Prime Minister addressed journalists once every year. The meet-the-press was open to accredited correspondents and photo journalists and was usually held in the Vigyan Bhavan conference hall. Representatives of the media had to raise placards and identify themselves before asking a question.

Indira Gandhi was fairly regular, as was Rajiv Gandhi — until the Bofors controversy.

Explaining why Singh had decided to meet the press, his media adviser Sanjaya Baru said: “There were over 100 requests for interviews and there was no way we could have responded to all of them. The Prime Minister did not want to pick and choose and play favourites. So a press conference was the answer. Since Parliament was on all these days, we had to wait before calling one.”

Baru objected to the suggestion that the Prime Minister is “media-shy”. “As the finance minister, he was on TV practically every day. Even after that he gave a number of interviews to the pink press (business papers) and TV. Political correspondents are possibly not aware of them and, therefore, they think he’s media-shy.”

Singh may make the event an annual feature.

In Britain, Prime Minister Tony Blair holds a press conference every month, though some observers suggest he takes questions only from a select few. Across the Atlantic, Bill Clinton had the same routine — until, of course, the advent of Monica Lewinsky when all that the press wanted to know was about the cigar and such like.

Clinton’s Monica is George W. Bush’s Iraq. The incumbent was a regular until Iraq went all wrong. Yet, this year he has held at least two press conferences.

Although the BJP was sensitive to the coverage of the party and the government, as Prime Minister Vajpayee did not address a formal press conference in Delhi even once in the six years he held office. His interactions with journalists used to be brief, open-ended and almost always on the sidelines of BJP or government events or when their paths crossed in Parliament.

Still, some of his politically important statements emanated from these chance meetings. For instance, after a book release, he said Ayodhya was a “manifestation of nationalist sentiment”. On another occasion, he threatened to demit office after the “lauh purush-vikas purush” (iron man-development man) controversy triggered by party president M. Venkaiah Naidu.

Vajpayee’s media adviser Ashok Tandon disputed the perception that the former Prime Minister wanted to avoid the Delhi press. “Vajpayee had addressed a record number of press conferences in the country and abroad,” Tandon said.

But asked why he never held a formal one, Tandon said: “It is not possible to have any more when there are over 3,000 accredited correspondents. Therefore, Vajpayee chose to address the press on occasions like the launch of the BJP election manifesto when the number was confined to beat correspondents (those who covered the party) and, therefore, manageable.”

According to him, Narasimha Rao’s meet-the-press was “chaotic” because “too many journalists wanted to ask questions and could not”.

Since he had not held a formal press conference while in power, there was an air of curiosity when Vajpayee suddenly surfaced before the media on the last day of the budget session to attack Singh for “snubbing” a National Democratic Alliance delegation as it went to hand a memorandum to the Prime Minister.

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