Facing a serious dip in its credibility following a series of financial scandals, the United Progressive Alliance government has created a “structured mechanism to disseminate information and relay the government's position on emerging issues, especially those that have political ramifications,” according to sources in a freshly minted Group of Ministers (GoM) that will deal with the media.
Headed by Home Minister P. Chidambaram, the GoM will be serviced by the Information and Broadcasting Ministry. A formal announcement came on Tuesday, following an order issued by the Prime Minister's Office, mandating it to “meet every day at a fixed hour, analyse the events of the day and issue suitable directions to a nodal officer to prepare appropriate material for briefing the media.”
One of the ministers in the GoM or the minister concerned with the matter will brief the media at 3 p.m. every day, says the PMO order. Simultaneously, a written brief is also to be released.
The GoM, the sources said, would “keep in close touch with the Congress to ensure coordination between party and government briefings,” as “sometimes, the party speaks, sometimes it refrains, saying it is in the domain of the government. The new mechanism hopes to bridge that.”
It also hopes to expand “individual briefings by individual ministers into a collective effort” and fill the “news vacuum,” especially on contentious issues, when the media tended to fall prey to “rumour-mongering.”
Clearly, for the UPA government, its second consecutive term in power — of which it completes two years in another 11 days — has been a public relations disaster, evident from the negative coverage it has been getting in both the electronic and print media. There is a sense in the government that even though — in its opinion — it has done its best to tackle the slew of scams through a host of investigations, it has failed to carry conviction. The latest spat over the drafting of the Lokpal Bill and the fast that Gandhian Anna Hazare went on in the full glare of TV cameras only added to the damaging optics.
Curiously, the GoM is entirely a Congress affair, even though some of the scandals — or, indeed, criticism — in this government have related to portfolios held by allies. Government sources say this could prove to be a handicap for the GoM — for, if it were to defend an ally accused of wrongdoing, the mud would stick to the Congress; if it were to acknowledge that an ally had erred, it would create a rift in the UPA.
Meanwhile, even though the GoM was created after discussions between Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Congress president and UPA chairperson Sonia Gandhi, after some Ministers pointed out the urgency of dealing with the government and party's credibility deficit, the Congress appears to view it entirely as a government initiative. On Wednesday, a functionary responding to the setting up of the GoM, said, “We can have a view different from the government — after all, it is a coalition.”
The GoM members, apart from Mr. Chidambaram, are Union Ministers Ambika Soni, Ghulam Nabi Azad, Kapil Sibal, Salman Khurshid, Pawan Bansal and V. Narayansamy.
A serving officer or a retired person on contract, the PMO order says, will be appointed the nodal officer, who will be provided with a small secretariat of up to three persons.