Manmohan waltzes where many predecessors slipped

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  • Published 26.05.10

New Delhi, May 25: When former Prime Minister Morarji Desai was asked at a news conference whether the CPM would join his government, he told the journalist: “Are you their spokesman here?”

Manmohan Singh avoided any such stumbles at his meet-the-media yesterday where the questions were largely innocuous but a few were similar to ones that a predecessor or two had found tricky to handle.

“Desai did not know how to parry a question,” said MP and senior journalist H.K. Dua. Singh, on the other hand, did parry but not too much or too brazenly.

“He did not lose his cool. He was confident. He did not dodge questions. He was courteous but still put his point forth, like not giving telecom minister A. Raja a clean chit or the question on Rahul Gandhi’s place in the cabinet,” Dua said.

Asked about possible action against Raja, the Prime Minister had said: “If I come to know there is corruption at any level, I will take action.”

Rajiv Gandhi, however, had virtually sacked his foreign secretary, A.P. Venkateswaran, at what many veteran journalists consider the most memorable among prime ministerial media conferences.

A Pakistani journalist had asked Rajiv about a mismatch between his and Venkateswaran’s statements on a possible Islamabad trip. “You will be talking to a new foreign secretary soon,” Rajiv said.

The reply shocked everyone at the venue, said senior journalist Harihar Swaroop. Venkateswaran, who was present, resigned the same day.

Dua and journalist Inder Malhotra rate Desai’s news conferences as the most delightful. The head of India’s first non-Congress government would be peppered with questions on his favourite subjects: auto-urine therapy and prohibition. The Janata Party Prime Minister was an advocate of drinking one’s own urine.

He began his very first media meet on the wrong foot.

One of the Janata Party’s main poll planks had been the way Indira Gandhi had allowed son Sanjay to exercise and misuse power during the Emergency (1975-77).

“But at his very first news conference, Desai’s son Kanti flanked him on the dais. Desai was tactless,” Dua said.

Desai’s predecessor had an uneasy relationship with the media. Initially unsure of herself, Indira came into her own after leading India to victory in the 1971 war.

“She would often lose her cool. She once rebuked the editor of a leading national daily as if he were a primary school student. Mrs Gandhi asked him to sit down, not ask illiterate questions and come to the next media conference after having done his homework,” a former journalist said.

Her father too would rap reporters for asking uncomfortable questions, but more subtly. “What fantastic nonsense,” would be Jawaharlal Nehru’s stock reply to a question he deemed ill-informed.

He would then proceed to enlighten the questioner and the larger journalistic fraternity that would gather at his monthly media conferences with a lecture on the subject.

Unlike her son, Indira would never announce anything substantive at her media interactions, Dua said.

He described how then railway minister K. Hanumanthaiah had sacked the railway board chairman, a certain Ganguly. The chairman refused to accept the sack order and set out for Delhi’s Sarai Rohilla station for his pre-scheduled trip to Jaipur.

The minister had the sack order pasted on the coach Ganguly was to travel in. Ganguly did not budge and even held media conferences in the coach.

At her news conference a few days later, Indira was asked about the situation. “She chose not to bite the bait but Hanumanthaiah was out in the next ministerial shuffle,” Dua said.

P.V. Narasimha Rao was an expert at dodging questions. “He was a polyglot — he knew 12 languages — but that didn’t help. He was equally evasive in all 12,” said a journalist who had covered Rao’s only official news conference.

At that interaction, Mark Tully, then with the BBC, had asked Rao whether, as Prime Minister, he took responsibility for the destruction of the Babri Masjid.

Rao, who had spoken at length on law-and-order problems, bluntly said: “I do not think the responsibility lies on me.” He never held an official media meeting again.

One prime ministerial news conference is remembered for a rather different reason, though.

“On the morning of May 22, 1964, Nehru addressed what was to be his last news conference,” said journalist Inder Malhotra.

“A journalist asked him whether he should not nominate a successor during his lifetime. ‘My lifetime is not ending that soon’ was Nehru’s reply. His audience greeted it with loud and prolonged cheers that I joined in heartily.”

Five days later, Nehru was dead.