UPA needs to learn the ABC of PR

The irony of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s situation cannot be lost on any observer. Here is a man who, for all his other attributes and accomplishments, has been universally hailed for his honesty.

Yet today he finds himself at the receiving end of a nationwide upsurge against corruption. His government appears to be fighting with its back to the wall. His purportedly apolitical opponents have the upper hand. And his political adversaries are happy to make the most of his extreme discomfiture.
The perception today is that the government is stonewalling, seeking to stall a mammoth effort to cleanse the country of the cancer of corruption. A series of acts of omission and commission have brought the government to such a pass. If arresting and jailing Anna Hazare, the messiah of the middle class, was ill-advised, taking him to Tihar Jail was a PR disaster. Tihar is where the authorities have lodged those accused of some of the worst excesses in corruption in recent times.
Mr Hazare lost no time in turning his incarceration in Tihar to his advantage and declaring that he would not leave the premises until all his fast-related demands were met. In fact, smart communication lies at the heart of Mr Hazare’s success. The Anna campaign has made an impressive use of all manner of PR tools and techniques ranging from symbolism (fasts and meditation at Rajghat) to social media (Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, apps, you name it), FM radio, news media, television and mobile telephony.
In contradistinction, failure to communicate has been the UPA’s Achilles’ heel. The top leaders have consistently and stubbornly refused to engage with the media, secure in the belief that they did not need any mediation to reach out to the electorate. The 2009 electoral victory of the UPA must have been seen as a vindication of this policy. The pitfalls inherent in the policy of media silence must be more than apparent to them now. Not for nothing have a succession of US Presidents routinely used the radio, often on a weekly basis, to reach out to the citizenry. Another communications blunder of this government has been to let the anti-corruption crusaders drive the agenda of public discourse. Speaking at a Ficci event last month, home minister P. Chidambaram lamented that security and corruption had come to occupy the centrestage of national discourse when that place rightly belonged to economic growth, change and reforms.
He had hit the nail on the head. But what he said begged the question as to who allowed the anti-corruption crusaders to grab the ball and run with it. For months now, few observers have spoken of reforms and growth except while bemoaning that these have suffered as a consequence of a policy paralysis in the government.
The government would have been much better placed today if it had seized the initiative by moving aggressively ahead on the unfinished reforms agenda. It did not even officially celebrate 20 years of reforms, in July, as though it disowned them. Smartly handled, a publicity blitzkrieg would have done wonders for its reputation, especially with those young middle class Indians who have benefited the most from the fruits of the economic reforms that transformed India. It is these young people who have come out today heeding Mr Hazare’s call. Instead of regarding Dr Singh as their friend and benefactor, they see him as an obstacle to change. How ironical for Dr Singh.
Dr Singh hurt himself by declaring that there is no magic wand to remove corruption. Of course, there isn’t. But that is for others to say. Not for the government. In fact, he would have done well to declare that the battle against corruption in general and the move for a strong Lokpal Bill were an integral part of the reforms process, which indeed they are. If the RTI brings glasnost (openness) in governance, then Lokpal is part of perestroika (restructuring).
A brilliant beginning was made during the first phase of Mr Hazare’s agitation when the government moved swiftly and imaginatively to strike a deal with the civil society representatives. Unfortunately, that move came a cropper, perhaps due to intransigence on both sides, and once again the government found itself painted into a corner by an aggressive Mr Hazare. Here again, a PR coup could have been scored if Dr Singh had forcefully asserted that he was on the same side as Mr Hazare. To drive home the point, he could have said that he would join Mr Hazare on a day’s token fast at the same venue. That would have gone a long way in bridging the communication gulf between large sections of the population and the government, which they see as remote, unfeeling and loath to abandon old habits.

Vivek Sengupta, founder and chief executive of the consulting firm Moving Finger Communications

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