Its second run has been marked by incompetence in dealing with and presenting itself to the media.
Last Thursday, the Director-General of the National Investigation Agency (NIA) called an emergency press conference at 8.30 p.m. to request the media not to publish the details of those arrested in the case relating to the bomb explosions earlier this month at the Delhi High Court, as it would alert the key culprits. A reasonable request, one might argue, but for one small detail: the story was already public as it had been running all day on TV channels, and it was too late to withdraw it from the early editions of the newspapers.
The following day, when news organisations received an invitation to a special briefing by the Prime Minister's Office (PMO) on review meetings taken by the Principal Secretary to the Prime Minister — incidentally on his way out — on the functioning of various departments, they were pleasantly surprised. But those who attended the briefing on agriculture and food were simply handed a press release on a three-day-old routine meeting on boosting production of pulses and oilseeds by a junior official, who had very little to add.
At any other time, these two episodes might have gone unnoticed. But, for a government that is daily being pilloried in the print and, even more stridently, in the electronic media on corruption, soaring food prices and internal security, they are symptomatic of unease with itself. Over the last year, the UPA and the Congress have handled the financial scandals relating to 2G and the Commonwealth Games, and the public protests against corruption led by yoga expert Baba Ramdev and activist Anna Hazare in a — to put it mildly — ham-handed manner.
The results of the general elections of 2009 had boosted the confidence of the Congress, as it had won two consecutive elections — something it had not done since 1984. Better still, it had shed what it believed was a troublesome ally, the Left parties, and its increased mandate made it, apparently, less dependent on partners and more ideologically coherent. But the party's honeymoon was only too brief. Just over a year later in the closing months of 2010, the storm broke — a series of financial scandals relating to the housing, telecom and sports sectors devastated the government. The most damaging was perhaps the 2G matter — the trail which began at the doorstep of an alliance partner, the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagham (DMK), appeared to be leading to the PMO itself.
The articulate new Telecom Minister, Kapil Sibal, was wheeled in to do damage control. But even as he became the face of the government, “the party and government got a battering, thanks to his abrasive style,” lamented a Congress functionary, stressing, “The Prime Minister thought Mr. Sibal would reflect the other side of the story: instead, even as Mr. Sibal's importance grew, the Prime Minister himself began to lose face with the middle class, a group he had brought into the Congress.” Indeed, Mr. Sibal, by virtually repudiating the existence of a scam and frontally attacking the Comptroller and Auditor General's report on the 2G scam, alienated even friendly journalists with a belligerent, “take it from me” manner. “People were demanding answers,” Congress sources said, “and he was denying that there was any corruption. And if that were the case, people began to ask: why is [former union Telecom Minister] A. Raja behind bars?”
It was a disaster.
The Congress's media department, instead of stepping into the breach, just pulled back, party sources say, to demonstrate how incompetent the government's spokespersons were.
As for the PMO, it appeared to be totally paralysed. This, points out a Central Minister, was quite unlike the PMO of UPA one, where Media Adviser Sanjaya Baru took care of the Prime Minister's image and was ready to explain his actions, state of mind and point of view; National Security Adviser M.K. Narayanan performed key behind-the-scenes political tasks, had a good handle on domestic politics and also had a line to Congress president Sonia Gandhi; and Pulok Chatterjee (returning next month as Principal Secretary to the Prime Minister) was an effective, if low-key, bridge between Dr. Singh and Ms Gandhi.
And even if seldom acknowledged, the Left parties performed a useful dual role: their political clout helped Ms Gandhi push her social sector agenda through the National Advisory Council (NAC), while their opposition to economic reforms and the nuclear deal with the United States created sympathy for the Prime Minister, especially among the middle class.
But in UPA two, the gradual departure of the three key officials mentioned earlier resulted in a vacuum which their successors — during, admittedly, a much tougher period for the government — have not been able to fill for a variety of reasons, ranging from lack of experience to their own sense of what their job requires. For instance, two briefings by the Prime Minister for select groups of editors were overshadowed by inept handling, with off-the-record remarks on China and Bangladesh finding their way into print. In the first case, a leading newspaper apparently misunderstood the situation; in the second, the PMO itself put the off-the-record comments in the public domain.
While in themselves these events may not have got much play, they added to the sense of disarray and the feeling that there was no one in charge. From Ms Gandhi's action plan on corruption, announced at the Congress plenary in Burari last December, to the setting up in January 2011 of a Pranab Mukherjee-headed Group of Ministers (GoM) to implement the plan, the government's and the party's efforts to present the measures it had taken to deal with the financial scandals and prevent corruption in the future have simply carried no credibility — not even the fact that Ms Gandhi's NAC, too, was working on a draft Lokpal Bill. The Prime Minister's resolve to fight corruption from every possible fora, party sources add, was also not marketed properly.
The government, according to these sources, was also not given any credit for putting two key members of the DMK, Mr. Raja and Rajya Sabha MP Kanimozhi, behind bars and dropping another Lok Sabha MP, Dayanidhi Maran, from the Cabinet. The DMK, Congress sources point out, has 18 MPs whose support is crucial for the continued existence of the government.
Lack of judgment
All through, the government appeared to misjudge the situation — the manner in which forces were being marshalled against it and the extent of the public anger. It was, for instance, unaware that from at least mid-2010, India Against Corruption was taking shape across the country with coordinators being recruited by, among others, Arvind Kejriwal. It was also unfamiliar with activist Anna Hazare's history and his capacity to undertake serial fasts — a senior Maharashtra leader's warning before Mr. Hazare's first hunger strike was not taken seriously. More recently, a key Minister remarked at an internal meeting that he was surprised the government had no real information on what was happening at Ramlila Maidan during last month's protest. On each occasion, the government acted after the event.
In May this year, the government created a “structured mechanism to disseminate information and relay the government's position on emerging issues, especially those that have political ramifications” — a Group of Ministers (GoM) to deal with the media. Headed by Home Minister P. Chidambaram, the GoM's other members were Union Ministers Ambika Soni, Ghulam Nabi Azad, Kapil Sibal, Salman Khurshid, Pawan Bansal and V. Narayanasamy.
The GoM meets virtually every day, occasionally holding press conferences, even though its initial mandate was a daily briefing. Its object was also to “keep in close touch with the Congress to ensure coordination between party and government briefings” and fill the “news vacuum,” especially on contentious issues, when the media “tended to fall prey to rumour-mongering.”
The GoM got off to a good start, even showing signs of excellent coordination with the party, but, its inability to deal with the really tough issues, propensity not to hold briefings when the situation was difficult, inability to devise a long-term strategy to identify why the media was so universally hostile and deal with it and, finally, the breakdown of the government-party coordination, meant its gains were offset by its losses. Indeed, the Congress has periodically set up panels of its brightest and the best, drawn from both the party and government, to appear on TV discussions. But most of them are unwilling to do their bit, with some even being discouraged by party leaders from making such appearances.
The GoM has also been hampered by the fact that it is entirely a Congress show even though some of the scandals — or, indeed, criticism — in this government have related to portfolios held by allies. By defending allies accused of wrongdoing, the mud has stuck to the Congress; and when it has acknowledged that an ally had erred, it has created a rift in the UPA.
From time to time, corrective measures are taken. Indeed, as Mr. Hazare's second fast got underway last month, a message was conveyed, party sources say, from Ms. Gandhi — recuperating in the United States after her surgery — to Mr. Chidambaram and Mr. Sibal. The two men who had jointly become the face of the government were asked to lie low.
Mr. Mukherjee and Mr. Khurshid, with the help of Congress MP Sandeep Dikshit because of his familiarity with the NGO sector, were asked to continue the negotiations, while Union Minister Vilasrao Deshmukh was deputed to talk directly to Mr. Hazare, rather than through the latter's colleagues. Now it was Mr. Khurshid who was fielded for government briefings — the Law Minister's USP is that though he is as articulate as his other lawyer colleagues in the Cabinet, his style is gentler, often ironic, and never abrasive or unfriendly.
But clearly, with less than three years before the next general elections in 2014, the government and the party need much more than a friendlier face; they need a long term strategy that can reverse the credibility deficit.