Syed Akbaruddin is by far the best and the most efficient spokesperson the Ministry of External Affairs has produced yet. But the problem is that he is the spokesperson of the MEA and not of the Government of India on the whole.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi does not have any spokesman. There is no ministry in the government of India which has a spokesperson who regularly briefs the press. There is only one spokesperson who holds regular briefings and that is the spokesperson of the MEA.
But as Akbaruddin goes from strength to strength within the MEA and the government, his answers at on-record press conferences have acquired a different hue. He is now tackling all sorts of questions that any MEA spokesperson, including him, would have parried not too long ago.
Sample how Akbaruddin tackled at least two questions during his 31 October on-record press conference. One question pertained to Jama Masjid Shahi Imam’s invite to Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif for attending his son’s ceremonial take-over as Naib Imam of the country’s largest mosque later this month while snubbing Modi. The second question was about the controversy regarding a media report which said that a lawyer appearing for the MEA had told the Bombay High Court that an unwed mother applying for her child's passport must declare how she became pregnant and if she was raped.
On the first issue, Akbaruddin was asked whether the Pakistani premier had plans to travel to India in view of the Shahi Imam’s invite. The question was greeted with a boisterous laughter from the press corps when it was barely completed.
This is how Akbaruddin responded: "I am tempted to evade the question because you heard the laughter. But that said, when voices from the wilderness are heard, these are addressed to all of you, not to me as government. As far as I am concerned, as government I respond to government, not to voices from the wilderness who are always clawing to get space and your mind space."
So here is Akbaruddin, a Muslim who is effectively describing the Shahi Imam, a spiritual leader of the Muslims, as a "voice from the wilderness"! He also subtly hit out at the media for giving the Shahi Imam acres of space and hours of airtime in terms of print and electronic coverage and allowing this "wilderness" to dominate their "mind space".
Akbaruddin came up with an unusually strong answer on the other question about a woman passport applicant about whom the government lawyer had reportedly told the Bombay High Court that she would have declare who her husband is and whether she was raped. If one reads the full answer by Akbaruddin it would make it clear that here is a person who is speaking on behalf of the entire government of India, not just the MEA.
This is how Akbaruddin responded to this question: "I am shocked if you think that is our view. If anyone thinks that is the view of the government of India, I am appalled by that… It is absolutely contrary to what the government of India or the Ministry of External Affairs stands for. We do not stand for gender discrimination. We do not countenance insensitivity in such matters."
He further elaborated his answer by saying that when an unwed mother is applying for passport for her children she should simply leave blank the column about the name of the father. "The name of the father should be left blank and should not be entered into the passport, as admission by a woman of the birth of a child out of wedlock invites social stigma. It should, therefore, be presumed that her affidavit is true. So we go on the basis of the affidavit with that part being blank."
Akbaruddin is always well-prepared and it is seldom when he begs to get back to a questioner during his frequent briefings to answer a question he is not updated about.
He was among the few officials Modi took fancy oft. So much is PM Modi’s predilection for Akbaruddin that he even proposed to make him his spokesperson in the PMO, an offer that Akbaruddin politely declined. His main argument in declining such a generous offer from the PM was that he is essentially a diplomat and would like to remain a diplomat.
The diplomat who is just about six years away from his retirement has not had a single ambassadorial stint yet. And this was the main reason of declining an offer from the PM for which much senior officials would die for.
Akbaruddin’s CV would be corrected suitably in this context and he is all set for an ambassadorial posting shortly – as India’s Permanent Representative to the United Nations in Geneva, a high-profile post. If all goes well and the prime minister agrees to relieve him, he should be taking over his new post in Geneva in January.
For the almost three years Akbaruddin has been the MEA spokesperson he has steadfastly and consistently declined to answer questions that pertain to intra-ministerial affairs within the government set-up or belong to non-MEA domain.
But if PM Modi has to reach out to the nation in flawless language via bureaucracy, there is only one man he has to turn to in absence of any spokesperson of the PMO or the government: Syed Akbaruddin. This is what Modi has been doing of late.
The writer is Firstpost consulting editor and a strategic analyst who tweets @Kishkindha.
Updated Date: Nov 03, 2014 08:18:49 IST