Sagarika Ghose has been a journalist for 20 years, starting her career with The Times of India
, then moving to become part of the start-up team of Outlook
magazine, subsequently joining The Indian Express
as Senior Editor. She was anchor of the flagship BBC World programme Question Time India
UPA is undemocratically aloof
A rough beast snaps at the heels of 21st century democratic governments every minute of their governing lives. That beast is the 24 hour media: constantly hectoring, constantly exposing. The Media is the constant inescapable opposition.
Because it is omnipresent, the media registers absences even more powerfully than presences. When everybody's speaking, those who do not speak become extremely conspicuous. From Obama to Cameron to Sarkozy every modern politician has recognized the importance of constant innovative communication. The UPA, by stark contrast, cocooned in the rarefied notion of its grand social contract with the `rural masses', must be the only democratic government in the world that scorns the media as a middle class irrelevancy. It is this scorn that is adding to UPA2's image crisis.
One gentle sardar stands between the UPA and the relentless barrage of corruption allegations. One Blue Turban is the shield that the UPA can still muster against daily attacks on its credibility. The conventional wisdom is that Manmohan Singh is a lameduck prime minister; on the contrary, politically, the prime minister is at his strongest ever at this time. Is there anyone else in the Congress who could have protected the party by sheer personal stature the way Manmohan Singh is doing at the moment? Is there any other leader who could have stood up day after day against the Opposition and still be grudgingly spoken of as a "good man" across the country?
Even the Opposition knows that there is no substitute for Manmohan at the moment, which is possibly why Sushma Swaraj like the true democrat she is, drew out from the prime minister the words that every citizen was waiting to hear, namely that he takes personal responsibility for the appointment of PJ Thomas as CVC. If the Congress was not hardwired into always blindly championing a Nehru-Gandhi, the party too would realize the USP of Manmohan and leverage the goodwill he commands. The Congress' and Manmohan Singh's utter failure to use the media to project his persona has done untold damage to UPA2. If the soft-voiced sardarji had been projected as a benevolent umbrella figure he could have become the UPA's Vajpayee.
Direct communication between the powerful and the powerless is the zeitgeist. Twitter and Facebook are pushing at the gatekeepers of access and demanding a direct dialogue with those in power. But dinosaur-like UPA2 suffers from a severe communication deficit. In the '40s Gandhi and Nehru wrote openly about their personal and political struggles. In the '70s and '80s Indira Gandhi could get away with an imperious style with the press, but as her elephant ride across a flooded river to the suffering residents of Belchi showed, she was a master at the photo opportunity. As for the BJP, Vajpayee's musings from Kerala and Goa, his delightful press interactions, the modern open-ness of LK Advani who bravely thought aloud on Jinnah's secularism and paid a political price, the open disagreements post 2004, the public wrangling over the role of the RSS, all point to a mentality geared to a much more open dialogue with the public than the lofty cold rather surreal silences of the UPA.
When public outrage over the Commonwealth Games scams reached a fever pitch, the public failed to hear the voice either of the prime minister or the leader of the Congress party or even the Delhi chief minister or sports minister in any great detail. As the 2G scam exploded, it took months for the prime minister to address a rather formalized interaction with editors. Yet this is precisely the time the PM should speak. Speak about spectrum, speak about food inflation and speak about corruption. The prime minister must set out the terms of the debate, set the governance agenda; not set the agenda behind closed doors to bureaucrats but frame the debate on current issues in the open before the public, so that his famed intellect enters every drawing room and every chaupal.
The joyless bureaucratic Vigyan Bhavan press conference held on completion of the first year of the UPA-2 told the public nothing about the government's thinking beyond platitudes about ten per cent growth and that Singh had no plans to retire. On the PJ Thomas issue, the UPA's statements were like Chinese whispers, each whisper a cryptic phrase where a word or two changed with every repetition. Congress spokespersons said 'legal error', the PM said 'error of judgement' then "I respect the Supreme Court' and on prodding by Swaraj, in an Oh-I-almost forgot tone: "I take responsibility." Is that all? A modern democratic government would surely present open and detailed arguments on why it appointed a controversial CVC.
The prime minister at least is heard occasionally: what about the Bihar elections and Rahul Gandhi? Why does the young Gandhi not tell the public what he learnt of the Bihar debacle, having campaigned so hard in a state where the Congress won a shocking 4 seats? Why does Sonia Gandhi not speak about 2G and the 'compulsions' of coalition politics in Tamil Nadu? In fact why does Sonia Gandhi not speak at all? Are the people of India so worthy of contempt that they do not deserve to be addressed as equals or to be given explanations? The top leadership of the UPA is showing a chilling detachment from the people.
Obama has siezed a mike and conducted his own interactions with Mumbai students. Cameron has addresses the Infosys campus in Bangalore on Pakistan's export of terror. But the UPA's leadership continues to say virtually nothing, as if convinced that India's citizens are not really worth talking to.