Sunday, June 11, 2006

Spin doctor's manual (June 11, 2006)

By Swapan Dasgupta

I have not heard of any book entitled “The Spin Doctor’s Manual” penned by some of the redoubtable backroom political strategists in the democratic world. In all probability, such a book is yet to be written. There are, as most of its practitioners will tell you, no prescriptive norms in politics. Ritualised responses inevitably yield diminishing returns.

It is ironic that despite this understanding of what constitutes good politics, Indian spin-doctoring remains mired in the predictable. Look back to the NDA regime. Every now and then the Atal Bihari Vajpayee Government hit air pockets and encountered political turbulence. There was the spectacular defeat in four Assembly elections in 1998, the scandal of the Tehelka tapes, the 2002 Budget fiasco and, of course, the period attacks on the Prime Minister by either the RSS or one of its constituent organisations.

The responses to these crises invariably followed a pattern. First, events would overwhelm the government. Second, there would be a spate of feeble denials followed by the mandatory search for a fall guy. Third, there would be a torrent of adverse publicity in the media. Finally, the Prime Minister and his office would wake up to the devastation and formulate the most predictable of all predictable responses. The “plantation sector” of the media would be summoned and reports would gradually emanate about how enough is enough and the Prime Minister would now show who is boss. Some of us may recall that after a particularly damaging crisis for the NDA, one leading magazine projected the new-found “assertive” Vajpayee as Shivaji on horseback.

No supine flatterer has yet painted Prime Minister Manmohan Singh as the new Maharaja Ranjit Singh. However, in the past few days, reports have appeared suggesting that a determined Prime Minister has patted Petroleum Minister Murli Deora on the back and told him that tough decisions, once taken, cannot be reversed. Others have put out that an exasperated and “assertive” Manmohan has now deemed that it will be reforms, reforms and more reforms. The “assertive Vajpayee” spin has been repackaged into the “assertive Manmohan” spin.

Actually, no amount of spin can distract from the mounting woes of the Prime Minister. When he was catapulted to the top job by Sonia Gandhi’s “inner voice”, Manmohan had only two things going for him: personal integrity and a modern outlook. These, coupled with the natural propensity of the electorate to give everyone a fair chance, ensured he had a two year honeymoon.

Whether the honeymoon ended the day Arjun Singh declared that his Human Resource Development minister was no longer under the overall control of the Prime Minister, or the day the Congress Party felt it could no longer afford to back government decisions, is a matter for historians to consider. For the people of India, what matters is that the end of the honeymoon was immediately followed by the precipitate deterioration in the quality of governance. It is bad enough that it took the government more than three months to put into effect an overdue price rise in petroleum product. What is worse is that the terms of the increase couldn’t be negotiated with any finality.

The Congress Party’s unhappiness with the price hike and Sonia Gandhi’s displeasure with the new Saral form may be inconsequential and purely for the record. However, coupled with the unending whispers of a dramatic deterioration of relations between 10 Janpath and 3 Race Course Road, they suggest that Manmohan’s Government may be at the slog overs stage of his innings. Rashtrapati Bhavan’s reported intransigence on the cynical Office of Profit Bill, which stands to benefit fat cat Leftists, may constitute the denouement.

The Government is fast running out of steam. In the tug-of-war between populism and reform, populism has prevailed with the full backing of the Italian Lady Bountiful. The non-productive Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme is fast bankrupting the country. Reforms, if not bad news, have been deemed to be politically unrewarding. With the Opposition in disarray, the Congress is exploring ways to jettison both the baby and the bathwater of anti-incumbency.

(Published in Sunday Pioneer, June 11, 2006)

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