Rajiv Gandhi gave perhaps the best press conference in 70 years of Independence when he addressed the National Press Club in Washington in June 1985. Referring to India's non-aligned status, he said, "We will not be tied to the apron strings of any major power."
Then he added: "We do not lean left or right. India stands up straight.” And he got a standing ovation. On the way home, Rajiv addressed the 71st session of the International Labour Organisation in Geneva and wowed them with his discourse on child labour and the need to attack it head on.
The only other person who has had this happy gift of gab is Prime Minister Narendra Modi. He knows how to play his audience with oratory that Marcus Antonius might well have envied. The same ‘friends, Romans and countrymen’ call to arms pervades Modi’s speeches.
While Rajiv made a stab at regular press conferences that were televised (our first equivalent of the famous Franklin Roosevelt fireside talks), they died out as his kitchen Cabinet closed the circle around him and journalists began to turn each such meet into a farce by asking lengthy questions so that the TV camera would focus on them. One question was recorded at 67 seconds to which the prime minister answered ‘yes.’
The mantle stayed in the closet for years until Modi took it out and cloaked himself in 'Mann ki Baat', a radio programme that comes closest to the Roosevelt chit-chat. Rajiv’s son Rahul created his own dubious record in Mumbai on Wednesday by hanging in there for two minutes, 45 seconds in a fiasco of a press conference that clearly indicates a major flaw in his communications skills and makes one wonder why the media still continues to record and project his every word.
The US media — except Fox News — has come together to give President Donald Trump the cold shoulder for his contempt of the Fourth Estate. The Indian media should do the same. Either respect us or take a hike. A little bit of this treatment will go a long way in replenishing Rahul's regard for the media.
Through the decades, the press conferences of India's prime ministers have not been particularly exciting. In the days before wi-fi, the press was divided into front row sycophants and the rest who seldom got to ask questions that were largely planted.
Indira’s conferences were largely a teacher-student affair and the aura of fear was so strong that everyone was intimidated. Her answers were acerbic and impatient and you came out with bromides, fait accompli and zero debate. She brooked no argument and was likely to snap at scribes if things got awkward.
The worst meets were with Morarji Desai, who answered questions with questions. At one such conference in Mumbai, the editor of a top daily asked a reasonable question about India’s nuclear policies. Desai said: Who are you? The editor identified himself. And Desai said: In that case, you should know the answer. Sit down.
After a few more such non-responses, the press actually walked out (expect for the sycophants in the front row). For sheer grumpiness, it is hard to beat PV Narasimha Rao. He would just growl his way through such meets. Except they weren't really meetings, more of a just sort of passing through this way events.
One always felt Rao was just about to lose his cool. Atal Bihari Vajpayee did not have many press conferences but whenever he met the media, it was affable, relaxed, genial and easygoing; the word ‘friendly’ comes to mind. Chandra Shekhar was also easy to speak to and did not carry the aura of office.
But none of them, not even Desai, had a two-minute presser and snubbed the media the way Rahul did. Not even during the Emergency, when much of the press cowered in submission, did Indira treat the then submissive Fourth Estate with such indifference because she knew somewhere in the back of her mind that it might be silent now but it would bite back… and it did.
Rahul should learn a lesson. You may not like the media but it is the conduit to the public and this sort of unapologetic conduct has the codicil of comeuppance to it. It will bite you.
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Updated Date: Jun 14, 2018 22:10:58 IST