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Sunil Sethi: Talk less, work more

A popular slogan of Indira Gandhi’s Emergency era, coined by her son Sanjay Gandhi, was “talk less, work more”. It fits the functioning ethic of Narendra Modi’s government nicely, although back in 1976, the joke was that it was an accurate reflection of Sanjay’s own meagre communication ability – he was infamously abrasive and laconic. What work actually got done in that period is a matter of historical record. It largely turned out to be a bag of tricks.

The commonest complaint in the capital’s media network is that few in the government are talking. Officials have clammed up. Ministers and ruling party members of Parliament (MPs) keep their media interaction to a minimum. Policy statements, ministerial action or political opinion are either narrowly channelled or tightly controlled. In the ongoing session of Parliament an officer on special duty from the Prime Minister’s Office spent days in Central Hall (a popular venue for MPs to catch up with the press), doubtless to keep tabs on who was talking to whom. There is still no media adviser to the prime minister to brief the press, and his own exchanges are few and far between.

Mr Modi is known to be his own best media manager and spin doctor. As chief minister of Gujarat his office pursued a strict policy of “don’t call us, we’ll call you”. When his ministers do call nowadays, it is to put out carefully orchestrated stories. An apt example, a sort of phony TV sting in reverse, was visible in the last few weeks.

Urban Development Minister Venkaiah Naidu and Information and Broadcasting Minister Prakash Javadekar turned up in office shortly after 9 a m to find large numbers of mid-level officials missing from their desks. The cameras tracked Mr Naidu down office corridors, with close-ups of his angry face, as he opened door after door to find officials on the lam, apparently to extend their weekend to the Eid-ul-Fitr holiday on Tuesday. The shots panned to empty desks and chairs, then back to Mr Naidu’s striding figure and grim expressions as he proceeded to inspect toilets. If the skilful edit was meant to win unknowing hearts and minds, it also underscored careful advance planning in connivance with the minister’s office (who possibly scripted the story as well). It smacked of dejà vu to the days of “talk less, work more” and “the government that works faster” when the Gandhis ruled the airwaves.

That opaque age of state-controlled media is long past. With unfettered access to hundreds of TV channels and social media networks, this is the hyperactive age of instant response. Implicit in the Modi mantra of “more governance, less government” is transparent, answerable governance at all levels (clear policy announcements and drop-dead implementation deadlines) and not a daily grind of press releases, Facebook messages and Twitter talk from ministers.

Mr Modi is known to be a tough taskmaster, cagey and controlling, who routinely interrupts or ticks off ministers: when one recently expressed problems about interlinking rivers, he cut in to say if it had been achieved in Gujarat, why not countrywide? Another was peremptorily told to clear a project with related ministries before bringing it to him. Individual or dissenting opinions are frowned upon. Ditto for media interactions, unless they are TRP-winning exploits of the Venkaiah Naidu kind.

Unsurprisingly, in a cogently argued analysis political scientist Ashutosh Varshney and economist Narendar Pani assert that “Modi’s BJP is beginning to resemble Indira Gandhi’s Congress”. It is also notable that when leaders come to power with singularly decisive mandates – as Indira Gandhi did in 1971, Rajiv Gandhi in 1984, and Mr Modi in 2014 – they adopt a form of political purdah. Public interactions become restrictive, ministers and officials seal their lips, and a questioning media is sidelined. Indira Gandhi in her “Empress of India” heyday scorned the press; often her reported mutterings about the railways would result in Kamlapati Tripathi losing his ministry. Rajiv Gandhi’s press relations were selective. He would arrogantly fire chief ministers at airports (T Anjaiah in Andhra Pradesh) and foreign secretaries (A P Venkateswaran) at press conferences.

It is an article of faith at the White House, 10 Downing Street and elsewhere that heads of governments regularly interact with – and face the heat from – the media, as do their deputies and spokespersons. Mr Modi might set such a precedent at 7, Race Course Road. But as his government approaches a 100 days in office, are we entering a Modi-fied theatre of smoke and mirrors, hints and guesses? Slogans like “talk less, work more” are old hat. Mr Modi well knows that this is the age of show and tell.


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