'Tragic figure'. That's how the Washington Post describes Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. Other Indian and foreign publications and his political detractors have been calling him worse. If only he broke his silence and stood up in his own defence! We know it won't happen. He would look so out of character if he did that. He does not excel in the art of communication, maybe he does not believe in it too. It's a definite disadvantage in a country obsessed with loudness, high-pitch arguments and shrill discussions.
Manmohan appears to be a misfit in the age of media proliferation. With the media playing the force multiplier like never before, magnifying every spoken word, reading noise in even stubborn silences and reading between the lines more than the written word, a smart leader is expected to be agile with his words as well as body language. The prime minister with his passive, some would call it sad, demeanour does not look the part. It is no wonder, he is a magnet for nasty comments. It has not helped that he has little to show as the leader of the country.
Manmohan might not agree, but his party is certainly worried about being overtaken by the main opposition in the communication aspect. "The media has transformed itself faster... social media, electronic media, print media there has been a proliferation of media. And the communication skills that we need for modern media, we don't have, unfortunately. Therefore we are losing the communication battle," said Law Minister Salman Khurshid the other day.
It shows during television debates. There are not just enough articulate Congress spokespersons to handle aggressive questioning by anchors. They easily get outshouted by panelists from other parties and are far from adequate in putting forth their point of view on issues. The inadequacy gets more apparent when the subject in question is full of legal intricacies. You need legal experts out there, experts with great persuasive skills. The party looks hopelessly underprepared at the moment.
It has not yet woken up to the power—both constructive and destructive—of the social media and it utility as a propaganda tool. The online universe is virtually colonised by right wingers now and Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi has brilliantly displayed how the anonymous online community could be turned into a strong political support group. The Congress so far has shown little inclination to harness the potential of the new media to its advantage.
Left back too far in the race, the party is trying to catch up. It seems to have come to the understanding that there's no point expecting the media to behave. The nature of the beast has has changed. It cannot be expected to be restrained or abide by the ethics of the profession. The party is changing itself to tackle the media.
"Much of our work we are doing now is trying to improve our communication skills. These come naturally to some people and some people have to be taught it," said Khurshid. The party might groom a new team of spokespersons and improve its performance in the media. But what about the prime minister?
Would the party instruct him to open up some more? With the prime minister looking disinterested in defending himself, they can do firefighting only to an extent. Manmohan said recently that he is averse to getting into slanging matches. "I have to maintain the dignity of the office of the prime minister. Can't get into slanging match with political leaders. It is better I would keep silent," he said recently. But does it work for him?
Obviously not. He would probably cut his problems by a half if he started speaking to people. As the leader of the nation he is supposed to do that and assure countrymen every now and then that he is in charge and things are in control. By not opening up he is just making the suspicion around him bigger.