New Delhi, Sept. 10: In a PMO that has often worn detachment as distinction, the absence of a designated spokesperson is probably not being missed. In the public eye, though, media adviser Sanjaya Barus departure in early August has widened the moat around the taciturn Prime Minister. It has suddenly become tougher to know Manmohan Singhs mind or even get a spin-doctored sense of it on critical issues of the day.
Far too many of them have erupted over the past weeks the terror strikes, the strife in Jammu and Kashmir, communal fires in Orissa, the disquieting deadlock in Singur, and, of course, the price spiral with general elections looming closer.
Manmohan Singh never gave the sense of an engaged Prime Minster, says one of his critics in the Congress, but in election year it is imperative that he develops some direct connect with the public, especially now that we know he is going to be the partys prime ministerial candidate. He heads the highest political office, he needs a public connect, directly or indirectly. The people need to have a sense they are in the Prime Ministers range of vision.
It is known that the Congress was none too happy with Baru, who kept a polite, though firm, line drawn between the PMO and the party.
It is equally well known that the Prime Minister has resisted moves by sections of the Congress to get a political person appointed as spokesperson. Speculation has swirled around a catalogue of names political and neutral following Barus departure; none has graduated beyond the credibility of gossip columns.
And there are no intimations a replacement is on the way, or even being thought of. Neither has the job fallen upon the principal information officer (PIO), technically the governments chief spokesperson. PIOs have held dual charge in the past I. Ramamohan Rao during the V.P. Singh years and K. Narendra during P.V. Narasimha Raos premiership. The current incumbent, Deepak Sandhu, has been offered no hint of dual obligations landing on her shoulders.
R. Gopalakrishnan, a joint secretary in the PMO, was informally tasked to handle the media in Barus wake, and for a brief while he was briefing the media on background. Of late, though, Gopalakrishnan has shrunk from a job that he was never formally given. Sources in the PMO bureaucracy said Gopalakrishnans reticence was understandable as he may not have comprehensive enough inputs to speak on behalf of the PMO. Besides, as one official argued, why should a career bureaucrat rush into a job that he has not officially been given responsibility for, we usually tend not to speak out of turn.
But as elections close in and the disconnect between the Prime Minister and the electorate becomes more pronounced, the sense in the Congress is that even having Baru there is better than having no spokesperson at all. Baru gave up his assignment at an importune time, said a junior minister in the Manmohan Singh government. This is election year and the Prime Minister needs to reach out more than ever before.
It remains an irony that Barus departure for reasons entirely personal was justified in some circles on precisely those lines this is the run-up to elections, politics will overtake policy and make the media advisers job redundant.
It hasnt worked that way, chiefly on two accounts. One, Manmohan Singh has never been a creature of mass politics and betrayed little taste for it during his years in office. Consequently, he needs a via media because there doesnt exist a direct channel between him and the people. And, two, there has, willy-nilly, existed a gulf between the Prime Minister and his party. Congressmen grumble about Manmohan Singh being apolitical and uncommunicative, and the Prime Minister has often openly spoken of the need for his partymen to amplify the achievements of his government more actively and effectively.
There have been Prime Ministers who never needed spokespersons or advisers, says H.K. Dua, editor of The Tribune and one-time information adviser to Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee. Nehru never had one to my mind, and that was because he spoke directly to the people and spoke so often, he was almost constantly communicating, through speeches, writings, debates. Indira Gandhi had that quality too.
But Indira Gandhi too sought support in the PR department and employed the services of the low-profile though widely-respected H.Y. Sharada Prasad, who passed away last fortnight. Since then, all Prime Ministers have found the spokespersons job critical to their scheme.
A recent issue on which a direct prime ministerial voice was perhaps most missed was the escalation in Jammu and Kashmir. Kashmir has over the years come to assume attention from the highest levels and the absence of any intervention from the Prime Minister through the crisis and especially when the Valley was alleging an economic blockade fuelled frustration and anger across the state.
As one senior bureaucrat in Governor N.N. Vohras secretariat said, If the Prime Minister had gone public with one assurance, he wouldnt allow the Valley to starve at any cost, half the rage would have been stilled. The problem is, that voice is not being made or conveyed.