Among the litany of mistakes that have littered the Congress’ path around the crisis it finds itself in now, two structural ones stand out for special mention. The first was an inexplicable strategic call early on that it could somehow pretend that the party was in some way separate from the government, that the sins of the latter would have no bearing on the former.
To pretend that the party could in some way remain holier-than-thou and keep its nose up while its own government sank deeper and deeper into a muddy quagmire was always going to be a ridiculous proposition.
Soaked in the special kind of self-destroying hubris that Congress leaders of a certain ilk seem to specialise in, it goes to the heart of the dysfunction that has come to characterise this government’s public imagery.
The Congress’ confusion and crisis of confidence are inextricably linked to a deeper, more fundamental problem with its political communication. In a crisis that has essentially been driven by the new media and the 24-hour TV news wheel, everybody and their hysterical uncle have had their say but the voices of the three people who matter most in the government have been missing: the Prime Minister, Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi.
By not coming out at all to speak for his government, the Prime Minister has left a vacuum that has been filled with adjectives like ‘weak’, ‘adrift’ and ‘powerless’. By not speaking up for the party line, Sonia Gandhi has left the impression of a rudderless party, represented by clueless spokespersons running around in circles.
By keeping his silence, Rahul Gandhi has reinforced the perception of only speaking up in carefully orchestrated political productions and of being reluctant to get his hands dirty.
At a time when the Congress and the government are facing their greatest crisis of credibility since 2004, all the heavy lifting has been left to Kapil Sibal and Digvijay Singh. An army whose generals are missing from the front is bound to lose direction.
It is like the TV revolution only happened for the party’s mid-level leaders and spokespersons who remain constantly on the rollercoaster of 24-hour news. The top level seems to pretend that they can remain cloistered within protected walls and carefully calibrated appearances will suffice.
It is a fundamental misjudgement of the nature of the modern media. In terms of political communications, the Congress seems to be running a 2011 government with a 1950s-style culture of outreach.
This is not to say that the Prime Minister should provide a soundbyte a day. It is to point out that among all mature democracies, it is India alone where the head of the government does not routinely put himself out there to answer difficult questions on his government’s priorities and policies.
President Obama, for instance, posts a weekly video address on the issues that matter on the White House website, his press secretary holds a daily briefing to answer questions on his views and he routinely appears on well-chosen talk shows. In February this year, he even took the risk of appearing on the most rabid of Republican platforms, the O’Reilly Factor on Fox News to defend his administration’s record.
In Australia, Prime Ministers appearing on TV and radio shows is a phenomenon so regular that it doesn’t even make news by itself and in the UK, David Cameron regularly answers questions personally in Parliamentary question time.
The current Congress propensity to wrap up the top leadership of the government in cotton-wool is so archaic that is retrograde even by the standards of the 1950s.
Nehru, for instance, used to conduct a forthright monthly press conference as prime minister to put forth his views on issues of national importance. That culture ended with Indira Gandhi and the Emergency and as Inder Malhotra once pointed out, the idea of a regular prime ministerial interface with the press became redundant after Doordarshan turned into a daily gazette of officious prime ministerial engagements in the 1980s.
But in the age of Twitter, Facebook and 24-hour TV, however superfluous it may be, the Congress and the PMO must adapt to the new social realities. A government must have a voice and that voice must come from the top and in the public domain.
Before the 2004 general election, an internal Congress committee headed by Pranab Mukherjee prepared a blueprint for Sonia Gandhi on electoral strategy. It had a special section on the changed post-television social landscape which recommended ‘highly professional and politically fine-tuned electronic election warfare’. It went on to point out, ‘it is the electronic media which in 21st century India, as in all developed democracies, has to emerge as the premier campaign media’.
The question is did the party’s top brass really understand the import of this message?
Television cannot solve the government’s problems. But it can certainly be the vehicle to pass on its message. Or it can be the conduit of its rudderless swivelling, magnified in sharp detail.