How does the Prime Minister of a country giving a press conference become a milestone in his career? Today's meet with the media had Indians rating him on the basis of how he responded to their questions, some of them utterly asinine.
We have become a nation obsessed with sound bytes. As long as it was restricted to news channels it was okay. But these days every political utterance, howsoever serious it be, has become a hook. The kangaroo courts are out and you get to hear a lot of chest-thumping by anchors and panelists, fed further by political spokespersons and leaders, including those of the Congress party.
I watched segments of the live telecast and later the stuffed suits appraising the PM's words. As has happened in the past few months, this is the template set by Narendra Modi. Give speeches, make a noise, and get discussed. Rahul Gandhi fell for the bait. Arvind Kejriwal has done the pantomime act. Dr. Singh, obviously, did not match up in the hot air department, and did not even wish to.
It would be easy to term his speech as dignified. Yes, it was. That is not the point. The media should have been treated as middleman that would take his message to the public, who he is answerable to. It did not come through.
The most important take-away was that he would complete his term and then retire. Apparently, it was not clear to the journalist who asked, "Do you rule out active political life after 2014?"
He did not see the role of the Congress party chief and vice president as clashing with his prime ministerial tenure, yet he spoke about Rahul Gandhi as a future PM Congress candidate. If this was his genuine sentiment, then it was a great forum to lay out the reasons. Whatever be his flaws, the PM is an educated man, probably much too educated for a job that requires skills other than acquiescence. As I had written earlier, he is not a brand, but a franchisee.
Therefore, does the PM come across as one who can sell the Congress brand?
At one point he mentioned how he has not used his position to benefit his family and friends. This went down quite well with some commentators. I think it is rather sad for him to want to state that he is clean and hasn't abused his power for nepotism. Was he taking a dig at dynastic politics? Was he in a subtle manner washing his hands off?
He made an astonishing comment that as far as the charges of corruption are concerned, most of these are related to the period of UPA 1. He was the PM during this period, and UPA 2 did not fall from the sky; it is the built-up floor of the first tenure, and it would have been better had he seen himself as accountable, even if not directly responsible.
He did so for anti-Sikh riots. "I have publicly apologised to the Sikh community for what happened in 1984." This is true, and for whatever it is worth it was an important gesture, unlike Narendra Modi penning a blogpost to convey his feelings.
If there was a moment of conviction, it was the PM's statement on Gujarat, and that it will be a disaster for India to have Narendra Modi as the PM. He generally avoids taking potshots. At any other time, I would have preferred if he had not mentioned Modi by name and given him the royal shrug. But now it is important for the head of government to make his views known. After all, he has had a long tenure, with several ups and downs.
It is interesting to watch the BJP leaders parsing his words, they who survive only on empty rhetoric.
The PM actually mentioned "vested interests" and how the "media played into it" sometimes. This was a good rap on the knuckles. Wonder how the Sangh devotees always carping about paid media, who assume only those supportive of the Congress or "secular parties" (naturally uttered within quotes and with a snigger) can be bought, would react to this. I don't know how the PM intended it to be, but it had to be said and he did. The saffron supporters who are paid to flood the social media regularly might, of course, not get it.
Senior journalist and a 'connected' man Prabhu Chawla was on the CNN-IBN panel and he said that giving poor speeches is in Dr. Singh's DNA. These are the the sort of throwaway comments one has got to hear within minutes of the speech.
The PM is not a performer, and in areas other than just speeches. This whole act could have been avoided. He emphasised he had five months left. It is too late to be a man in a hurry.
Some of his confessions about the government's failures were too general. However, when he said, "India will continue to invest in defence and national security, and seek better relations with neighbours", he sent out the clear message that India will talk to Pakistan, but keep its security on the ready despite it. This lack of diplomacy was refreshing, although he did sentimentalise the issue by talking about the village in West Punjab, now in Pakistan, where he was born and how he'd like to visit. I don't think this should have made its way here, now.
That was the problem with the prime minister's press outing. Too little straight talk. And a non-committal attitude we are now familiar with. His being a genial fellow is of little consequence to the public.
He seems aware of that, which is why he said that history would judge him. It was probably a tragic moment for we were supposed to think about history by what appears to be so transparently now as history itself.
© Farzana Versey
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