The day Manmohan Singh was chosen to be the PM, he met journalists. On September 4 he did it again — as soon as he had got over the Parliament session. His speech was couched in the usual bureaucratese. But translated in common language, it made much sense. He is still angry at the NDA’s sabotage of Parliament and will not yield to its blackmail. The criticism that his is a government of bleeding hearts who keep whining about poverty has got to him, and he has begun to appropriate shining India from the NDA.
He means to be in charge of economic policy, and will do it through the Planning Commission. He has woken up to the atrocities of the army in Manipur and Kashmir and the damage done by the home ministry, and stresses that all militants are welcome to talks and there are no conditions. He wants to improve relations with Pakistan by taking many small steps. He would strive for codes of conduct, ethics and good practice for the bureaucracy, and one with parties on electoral reform and banning of criminals. He wants the media to be patriotic, and parties to play the political game by the rules.
The Prime Minister should certainly use his position to correct the mistakes of his ministers; but action speaks volumes in a way words never can. Perhaps it would be too much to ask of Manmohan Singh, a cautious constitutionalist, that he should go further and make policy corrections.
The lassitude of Shivraj Patil on Manipur has done enormous damage. A more impulsive, high-profile gesture from the Prime Minister — say, a visit to Manipur, or a handover to the local police or a quick and exemplary trial of the four accused soldiers who picked up Thangjam Manorama and left her violated and dead — may not be proper in his books but would serve national interest better, even so late. In Kashmir, the wooden constitutionalism of the home ministry has set the clock back; if the Pakistani foreign minister can give the Kashmiri separatists a good dinner, so can the Prime Minister, who has better chefs if Vajpayee’s culinary reforms still survive. A statement that he would be prepared to put the CBI at the Supreme Court’s service to process all the Gujarat riot cases, as was done in the Jain Diary case, would have an impact at a time when he is seen to be shying away from Gujarat.
It was the PM who unleashed competition in the media 12 years ago by abolishing newsprint controls. Instead of complaining he should use the media; he should be aggressive and capture the media space being occupied by his opponents for lack of emanations from the South Block. The media are happy to have a Prime Minister at last who can speak intelligently in complete sentences on national affairs. But they will mirror him better if he shows more of himself. As finance minister, Manmohan Singh very deliberately played the expert. After his fall, he cultivated the image of a loyal Congress soldier. It is perfectly understandable that journalists, starved of fresh material and always economical in thinking, have fallen back on two clichés — that of the Good Doctor and of Sonia’s Man Friday.
These images may be wrong and unfair, but it is no use being grumpy about them or denying them. The way to get rid of them is by creating new images. Manmohan Singh may not have thought of it, but when he threw away the memorandum George Fernandes handed him for a deal behind closed doors, he did more to change his image than anything he has done before or since. He would have done even more if he had issued an outraged statement denouncing the offered deal immediately after.
The Prime Minister’s grouse against the press is understandable. The average level of expertise in the press is not high. Most journalists get into the profession straight after an Indian degree, usually in English literature; that is poor training to understand what the Prime Minister is saying about the preconditions of faster growth or the finance minister about the causes of inflation. Some do come in after a PhD in economics or politics; but they are generally from one of the chip-on-the-shoulder universities. They find in the newspapers a facile medium for regurgitating the ideologies they absorbed from their teachers. When I was in the finance ministry, the journalists who wrote most virulently against us never sought any interview with me, or even sought any information; they just knew. Those that came had no penetrating questions to ask, nothing that made me reflect or want to find out something. There were only two journalists who set me on my toes — Swaminathan Aiyar of The Economic Times, and David Housego of The Financial Times.
Journalists too are economic animals; they save labour on collecting news. The simplest way of doing so is to cultivate a few ministers and civil servants and butter them up frequently. Such contacts can often lead to an editorship or something still higher. But the cost can be high. For those deep throats are themselves involved in political intrigue, and use journalists in their games. One of my colleagues in the finance ministry often fed a well known Bombay journalist with completely false stories to damage me. After the Congress fell from power, a famous journalist came to me and said he wanted me to meet Vajpayee and advise him on economic policies he should follow; but that before he set up a meeting, he would like to have a position paper from me to give Vajpayee. I thought that Vajpayee needed economic advice like anyone else, and that if he was going to become Prime Minister, it was my patriotic duty to prevent him from making mistakes. So I gave the journalist the paper he asked for. That was the last I heard of it; to this day I do not know whether he gave Vajpayee the paper, and if so, in his name or mine.
Anyway, enough of these indigenous trivia. The best current lesson I can find in media management comes from England. When he came to power eight years ago, Tony Blair was a most admired Prime Minister. He was young, articulate, intelligent and persuasive: nothing could stop him from becoming one of Britain’s outstanding Prime Ministers, in the line of Pitt, Gladstone, Disraeli and Churchill. In these eight years, he has constantly spoken, communicated, and explained himself. But today he is one of the most reviled men. Meanwhile Gordon Brown, the Chancellor of the Exchequer and his rival, smells of roses although he has hardly ever spoken. How did Blair do it' By trying overtly, both through his press adviser, Alastair Campbell, and himself, to manipulate news. How did Brown do it' By developing underground lines of communication with the media and pointing them towards the issues he wanted highlighted, but making them work for the story and not feeding them an obvious line. Today you know that he has put out a line, but you never know through whom; he has no obvious favourites, and hence no pronounced enemies in the press. Masterly performance, and one the Prime Minister could emulate with profit.