By B. Raman
It has been reported that the Prime Minister, Dr. Manmohan Singh, will be interacting with a small group of senior journalists from the print media on June 29, 2011, to explain and discuss various aspects of the policies of his Government which have caused concern in the public mind. It has also been reported that this is the beginning of an exercise to address criticism of the total lack of communication between him and his personal advisers on the one side and the media world on the other.
The Government headed by Dr. Manmohan Singh is one of the most anonymous Governments the country has had since it became independent in 1947. We hardly know who are the experts on whose advice in various matters he relies for policy-making. We have very little idea of Who’s Who in the Prime Minister’s office. We hardly have an opportunity of mingling with the Prime Minister. He is a phantom Prime Minister.
We cannot afford to go on like this. Things have to change. We need urgent reforms first and foremost in the way the Prime Minister and his office function. Let there be an open debate about it. Let the Prime Minister encourage the debate. Let him shed the image of a phantom and come out talking, arguing, bantering, smiling and laughing. One is never too old for this.
We have a media world of uncontrollable plurality and diversity — the national media, the regional media, the English media, the Hindi media, the media of the regional languages, the ethnic media and so on. The organisation and methods which work in the US and other Western democracies are unlikely to work in India. We need a media strategy based on modern thinking, modern technologies and modern organisation and methods — but in Indian and not Western colours.
We do not presently have a media strategy group in the PMO which understands the rapidly evolving media world and is able to keep pace with it, even if it is not able to keep ahead of it. In 2011 — as it was in 1947 — the Prime Minister of this country, which projects itself as an emerging power, continues to rely on a media advisor, who is either from the print media or from the Central Information Service of the Government of India.
At a time when the print media has been overtaken in its innovative, projection and connectivity skills by the electronic media and the new media of the cyber world, it is generally a senior journalist from the print media — who made his or her name as a pro-PM columnist — who continues to advise the Prime Minister on his media strategies. All those chosen for this job till now tended to be over-protective of the Prime Minister. Instead of encouraging the Prime Minister to venture out and interact with various sections of the media, they tended to keep him on leash discouraging him from such interaction. The only few occasions when the media is able to interact with the Prime Minister and his close advisers freely and frankly are when they meet him on board his aircraft during his foreign travels. They do not get such opportunities when he is in India.
More than 60 years after our independence, we have not been able to develop a PMO Press Corps similar to the White House Press Corps consisting of journalists who have spent their lifetime studying how the Prime Minister and his office function and how they make policies.
Our inability to develop a PMO Press Corps is partly due to the financial constraints faced by our media. They cannot afford to have journalists focussing only on the Prime Minister and his office. It cannot be a full-time job as the White House coverage is in the US.
Another reason is that the PMO itself does not provide opportunities for the journalists to develop a PMO expertise by creating opportunities for them to interact frequently with the PM and his close advisers.
This has to change. There is a need for a larger media advisory strategy group in the PMO consisting of representatives from different media disciplines, technologies and age groups. Looking at India and the world only through the eyes of the print media has to change. In projecting the Prime Minister’s personality and policies, the role of the electronic media has become more important than that of the print media. People assess our Prime Minister no longer merely by what they read of him in the print media, but in an increasing measure by what they see of him on the TV. The new media of the cyber world is bidding fair to catch up with the electronic media. A media strategy largely influenced by minds from the print media is becoming increasingly inadequate and even obsolete.
The setting-up of such a group headed by a media-savvy strategist is the urgent need of the hour. Once such a group is set up and starts functioning as it should, other details will automatically fall in their place.