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Former prime minister Manmohan Singh. File photo: Bloomberg
Former prime minister Manmohan Singh. File photo: Bloomberg

Opinion | Understanding Brand Manmohan

Manmohan Singh's silence is often pitted against the powerful public rhetoric of Modi

In his 2014 book, The Accidental Prime Minister, Sanjaya Baru, the then media adviser to former prime minister Manmohan Singh, wrote that the “problem" with Singh was that he never wanted to become more popular than his Congress party leader at the time, Sonia Gandhi. In fact, Baru says, Singh would feel “relieved" if an opinion poll showed him slightly trailing the former Congress party president in popularity. That, concludes Baru, “defined the limit to his projection and brand-building".

Many words have been used by commentators over the past 20 years to describe Singh and embellish a narrative similar to the one above: silent, self-effacing, academic and low-profile are just a few. The one that’s stuck is ‘silent’. The philosopher-king, the narrative goes, remained silent in the face of corruption by other Congress leaders. For over half a decade now, this narrative has also been successfully deployed by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to corner the Congress.

Now, it seems, Singh has had enough. In a remarkable, hour-long conversation with the economist Kaushik Basu this week at the launch of a multi-volume book of his speeches, articles and interviews, called Changing India, the former prime minister rejected the suggestion that he was a silent spectator for the 10 years that he led the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government from 2004.

“People say I was a silent prime minister. I think these volumes will speak for themselves…I would certainly like to say that I was not the prime minister who was afraid of talking to the press. I met the press regularly; and in every foreign trip that I undertook, I had a press conference on return in the plane or immediately after landing," Singh said. This was a put-down aimed at his BJP successor Narendra Modi, who is yet to hold a press conference since storming to power in May 2014.

But are press conferences and media interactions all that they are cracked up to be in the age of unmediated social media platforms that are designed to give politicians the power to communicate directly with the masses—every day, hour or minute if they like? Indeed, if anything, direct media interactions can turn messy for politicians, especially in settings of free and independent journalism. Faced with difficult questions, US President Donald Trump has taken to hitting back at reporters, especially those from CNN and NBC, accusing them of being peddlers of “fake news" and “dishonest reporting" in increasingly abrasive interactions.

Is silence then a virtue? Manmohan Singh’s silence is often pitted against the powerful public rhetoric of Modi. If talking to the press, and taking questions from the press is seen as a test of communication, then Manmohan had the clear edge. If communicating directly to the masses is the test, Modi’s your man.

The important question of communication strategies looms over India in the run-up to the next general election, due by May, in which Modi is being challenged by Congress president Rahul Gandhi. In a curtain-raiser, both hit the dust trail with high-decibel campaign speeches in the run-up to assembly elections this month in five states. Yet, counter-intuitively, both could learn from the experience of the academic Manmohan Singh, whose strength lies in writing papers, not speeches.

In 1971, Indira Gandhi swept to power as prime minister for the second time and followed up the victory with successes in state assembly elections the next year, riding an “Indira wave", much as Modi did in 2014 and in the assembly elections subsequently. Gandhi’s principal secretary P.N. Haksar then turned to Manmohan Singh, who was chief economic adviser in the finance ministry, for advise on economic direction.

Singh, the academic, promptly came up with a paper, titled Victory and what to do with it. Unfortunately, that paper’s now gone missing. “In that paper, I said the victory of the Congress party is a rare occasion to use politics as an instrument of economic and social change. This basic paper is somehow not available. That was my first big introduction to the world of politics," Singh said at the book launch.

Whether the world of politics has been kind to Singh remains to be seen, but it most certainly has built up a Brand Manmohan. In 2009, just weeks before the general election that would see him leading the Congress back to power for a second stint, Mint asked advertising agencies how they would market the three main candidates—Singh, the BJP’s L.K. Advani and Dalit leader Mayawati—in terms of brand value, ad strategy, positioning and slogan.

The words used for Singh mostly centered around his honesty and incorruptibility, but he was seen as too much of an academic (his Oxford PhD paper’s included in one of the volumes for those interested), perhaps in need of the common touch. But he signalled continuity and stability. Advani was described as the strong, tough-talking and decisive rival but divisive for his accent on Hindutva. Mayawati was the ambitious, no-nonsense leader, in touch with the grass-roots and the downtrodden.

In Modi and Rahul Gandhi, next year’s general election will see two different leaders stepping up to the centre-stage (although Mayawati’s presence can never be discounted). Whether they will borrow from the new Manmohan Singh brand remains to be seen.

Dipankar’s Twitter handle is @Ddesarkar1

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