By B. Raman
I can’t claim to know Mr. Simon Denyer, the New Delhi correspondent of the “Washington Post”. I had met him and his headquarters-based News Editor during a long off-the-record discussion at New Delhi in April.
His News Editor had come to India for doing a story and he and Simon went around meeting people in important positions for a discussion on the state of India.
I found them to be pleasant and friendly. They were both very well-informed on India. They came well-prepared for the discussions. On the whole, I had an impression that they were professionals to their finger-tips, well disposed towards India.
A dispatch of Simon on Prime Minister Manmohan Singh carried by his paper on September 5, 2012, has received mixed comments in New Delhi. It has been very critical of the Prime Minister’s style of leadership. Official circles in the entourage of the Prime Minister are reported to have been unhappy about the way the dispatch has projected the Prime Minister in negative colours.
There is ill-concealed glee among the Prime Minister’s critics and political adversaries over the dispatch. Their attitude seems to be: “It serves the Prime minister right.”
For over a year now, the Prime Minister has come under severe criticism even from non-political persons in India over what is seen as his ineffective leadership style, marked by an inability to formulate and articulate policies and to interact with confidence with the people and the media.
In recent weeks, this criticism is being increasingly reflected in foreign media. As a result, the halo that he had acquired in his first term as one of the economic wizards of the world whose views are sought even by the developed countries of the world is slowly disappearing.
In all international summits on the state of the global economy during his first term, he had the pride of place in the head table as the Prime Minister of India taking the country forward with wisdom and determination. He still has a place in the head table, but minus the aura. There is an anxiety in official circles in Delhi that the “Washington Post” dispatch could add to the attrition of the aura.
From a perusal of some tweets sent to his followers by Simon, one could see that his dispatch was based on his assessment and insights. He did not have the benefit of a discussion with the Prime Minister or any of the senior officials in the Prime Minister’s Office. According to his tweets, he did seek a meeting with them before sending his dispatch, but there was no response. He had no other option but to send his dispatch without the views of the Prime Minister or his entourage.
The case brings out in bold relief the defective media strategy of the PMO in his second term as the Prime Minister. During his first term, he had in Dr. Sanjaya Baru, an activist and always-on-the-go media advisor, who compensated for the Prime Minister’s reticence to interact with the media.
Dr. Baru did manage to organise two Press conferences during which the Prime Minister gave a charming assessment of his own performance since he assumed charge. He hardly gave any one-to-one interview, either on or off the record, but Dr. Baru sought to make up for this by actively interacting off-the-record with senior journalists to explain the Prime Minister’s thinking and policies. The senior journalists were not able to get the Prime Minister’s version from the horse’s mouth, but got it indirectly through Dr. Baru.
In 2008, Dr. Baru joined a Singapore think tank. The media advisors, who succeeded him in the PMO, were not proactive as Dr. Baru was. They were unduly defensive and protective and did not realise the importance of perception projection and correction through regular interactions with the media. Instead of encouraging the Prime Minister to give up his propensity for silence and reticence, they tended to strengthen it by failing to adopt a proactive media interaction policy.
The only occasion journalists had for interacting with him was on board his aircraft during his foreign travels, Since foreign correspondents did not accompany him on his foreign travels, they had no opportunity of interacting with the Prime Minister and picking his brains.
During the last one year, there has been an increasingly negative projection of the Prime Minister partly due to his bad style of leadership at a time of cascading crises and partly due to the lack of interactions between the media and the Prime Minister or senior officials of his office.
The Prime Minister and his officials do not seem to realise the importance of such interactions in order to let the media and the people in India and abroad have a clear perception of the state of the nation and what the Prime Minister intends doing to deal with the various issues confronting the Government.
The lack of a corrective due to the unwillingness of the Prime Minister or his senior officials to meet Simon has resulted in a one-sided dispatch, which reflects the views of people outside the PMO without projecting the views of the PMO.
Many of us have been repeatedly stressing the importance of a new and more open media strategy to prevent wrong perceptions of the state of the nation and the Prime Minister’s ability to overcome the crises confronting the nation.
Unfortunately, the Prime Minister and his officials have been continuing in their old ways, hoping that somehow these negative perceptions will dissipate on their own. It is hoped that the discomfiture caused by Simon’s dispatch will lead to the adoption of a proactive media strategy.
This may please be read in continuation of my article of January 27, 2012, suggesting the appointment of a Task Force on a new media strategy available at http://ramanstrategicanalysis.blogspot.in/2012/01/need-for-task-force-on-pms-media.html