Look closer to home
The sharp reaction from the Prime Minister’s Office to a report in The Washington Post last week that said that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was “depressed", “silent" and a “tragic figure" is in keeping with its noticeable hypersensitivity to how Dr Singh is portrayed in the foreign press. The report itself was not novel in its content — indeed, some of the most damning quotes, from historian Ramachandra Guha, had previously appeared in the Delhi-based monthly The Caravan last year — but it nevertheless made headlines in much of the Indian media. In some ways, therefore, the PMO’s reaction was in keeping with that of some others. Several questions are thrown up by this set of circumstances. First, why is the PMO hypersensitive? Second, why is it that foreign news sources often warrant such treatment? And third, is this not a counter-productive reaction?
The PMO’s acute concern about foreign viewpoints about Dr Singh and the UPA government has been on display before. It responded aggressively to the recent cover of Time magazine that labeled him an “underachiever"; subsequently, a news item in the London-based Independent that spoke of him as a poodle — the epithet made famous when it was applied to Tony Blair during the Iraq war — also came in for some flak. The government could sensibly argue that maintaining Dr Singh’s image is central to keeping foreign investors’ confidence in India afloat and that India, with its precarious external balances, is dependent on that confidence not shattering completely. Yet it is far from certain that this is the way to go about it — and any such argument misses the point anyway. Indeed, foreign investors are quite capable of reading Indian news sources and sensing the mood in what is, after all, an open country. None of the foreign reports which have provoked the PMO are harsher than many pieces in Indian newspapers evaluating the performance of the prime minister or his government in the past year or so. All that comes across from the PMO’s reaction — and, indeed, from that of many mainstream news outlets — is that India is still underconfident. This is an attitude that is depressing when visible in the media of the world’s largest democracy, and one going through a remarkable economic transformation that requires no external certificates of merit; it is deeply inappropriate when it is visible in the office of its chief executive. In its own response to these reports — while maintaining a studied silence on so many others, in the domestic media — the PMO merely lowers its own profile. Is that what it intended? If not, its sensitivity is counter-productive.
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The simple truth is that Dr Singh’s domestic profile, and therefore his international one, has undergone a change given his government’s perceived inactivity and mismanagement of the past few years. If the PMO or the UPA feels this is unfair, they need to defend their record better. If the conversation changes in India, so will news reports coming out of New Delhi to the world. In order to do so, the PM must move out of his comfort zone and address the media directly more — his office must be more active, not reactive. What has happened, for example, to his media briefings, which were supposed to be a regular feature? If the PM is unable to control how his legacy is being shaped, it is not the media — Indian or foreign — that is to blame.