It went on predictable lines and had the look and feel of Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh’s earlier press interactions. The formal press conference held in the prestigious Vigyan Bhavan hall in central Delhi on May 24, 2010, was well attended. Over 500 journalists, including those of the foreign media, and editors crowded the front rows, well before 10.30 am, when the press conference was to begin. Strangely, this time the media was segregated into different groups, with editors occupying the central portion and reporters from vernacular press and English media on either side. The electronic media were scattered around. Members of the foreign press were perched on the top part of the hall, which in itself was a departure from tradition.
Usually Prime Ministers set the agenda for a press conference by reading out the opening remarks and then the media advisor to the Prime Minister begins conducting the press conference by calling out to media persons to identify themselves and pose their questions. This time, however, the opening remarks were taken as read and the Prime Minister was, metaphorically speaking, thrown to the wolves. The first few questions were rough. They ranged from Naxal violence to Pakistan. The Prime Minister did not have the luxury of a soft landing. He began by deflecting and parrying. This confidence did not stem from being a consecutive second term Prime Minister. Dr Singh’s clarity of mind and thought is the envy of many. He believes that the Government is not fire-fighting on the issue of internal security.
On recurring incidents of Maoist violence, the Prime Minister said, “If you remember, I have been saying for the last three years that Naxalism is the biggest threat to internal security and it is not correct to say that the Government has not taken serious action to tackle this problem.” And, “I have discussed the matter many times with all the chief ministers and I believe that all CMs are of the same view as that of the Centre.” Basic questions of ‘So What’ and ‘What if’, were in the minds of all present, all the more reason it should not have precipitated into a crisis situation. If the chief ministers of the concerned states and the Centre are on the same page, then where is the ‘lack of mandate’ that Home Minister Chidambaram talks about?
Predictable questions on the economy got the Prime Minister a bit more animated, the economist that he is. Answering questions on price rise in both Hindi and English, he added, “We will closely monitor the situation and, together with State Governments, take all corrective steps to bring down prices and protect the vulnerable sections of our society from the impact of high prices. Our medium term target is to achieve a growth rate of 10 per cent per annum. I am convinced that given our savings and investment rates, this is an achievable target.”
This seemed a bit blasé. One expected a little more emotion from a Prime Minister, something that his American counterpart has displayed over the course of two years when talking to people who lost their jobs in the recession. But then, it is perhaps wrong to expect it of Dr Singh, who is taciturn to a fault. He can sit stony faced in Parliament for over an hour, displaying not a trace of emotion. If he was laughing at the banality of some of the questions put to him, he would have been doing it in his mind. A hint of a smile at some of the laughter that emanated from his replies is all that he would allow as a relaxation of atmospherics.
A number of articles have already appeared in websites and some tweeters have tweeted complaining that the questions put to the Prime Minister were banal and lacked punch. Yes, they did. But after the first five questions or so, most journalists realised that they are not going to be able to ruffle the Prime Minister. He deflected and parried the toughest of questions. His defense of telecom Raja was too much to swallow. Most reporters were heard gossiping after the press conference, saying that such a spirited defense did not even come from Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Karunanidhi.
The Prime Minister handled all questions on his leadership with aplomb. He said that he had regular interactions with Sonia Gandhi and said that allegations on any dissonance in this relationship were misplaced. While gossip corridors in Delhi work overtime discussing the power struggle between 10 Janpath and 7 Racecourse Road, those in the know say that this is a figment of imagination. The Prime Minister and Mrs Gandhi have a cordial and well defined relationship, where each knows the other’s value. They both shun gossip and people who indulge in shenanigans. Mrs Gandhi knows where the Prime Minister’s expertise lies and vice versa. A quote on the contrary, though desired by the media for headline material, would be a long shot.
I am reminded of the several occasions that journalists would try and prod the then Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee to say something critical of Home Minister LK Advani. The PM would just not oblige. The same was the case with Mr Advani. While it was well known that the two were rivals, there was also the strict norm of proper behaviour that the two adhered to. That meant that in public, they would never say anything that showed that they hated the other’s guts. They both played state craft in perfect tandem for six years. Any hint of dissonance was only gossip.
But there is an additional factor today. Rahul Gandhi. The Prime Minister is aware of this and so is the country. So, why is he not in the Cabinet? Why the delay in inducting him into the chain of command? The Prime Minister was graceful in his answer on whether he would retire mid-way through his term and make way for Rahul Gandhi to become Prime Minister. “I sometimes feel younger people should take over, I would be very happy to make place for anybody the Congress party chooses,” he said, responding to a question on whether he was willing to make way for Rahul Gandhi, and added, “Rahul is very qualified to hold a Cabinet post.”
A Prime Ministerial press conference is a rarity. It should not be so, but that is the way Prime Ministers have been in India. They interact with the media in smaller groups when they are travelling within the country or abroad, but a formal press conference like the one that was held on May 24 are few and far between. The exclusivity factor remains, a throwback to the earlier century. Heads of governments around the world are more accessible to the media. Whether the British Prime Minister or the American President, they interact with the media almost on a monthly basis. One is even reminded of General Musharraf, whose addresses to the nation were a source of great mirth, this side of the border.
The Prime Minister, if he was to address the media more often than once in four years, would certainly seem more Sphinx like than he does now.
(Smita Prakash is Editor - News at ANI. She had asked the crucial question on naxals to the Prime Minister at the conference on May 24 and has attended pressers of several heads of state and former Prime Ministers. She tweets at @smitaprakash. The views expressed here are her own.)