If regular elections and a constitutionally mandated separation of powers have been the traditional hallmarks of democracy, frequent and effective communication between leaders and citizens is surely a key ingredient of a modern republic. In India, however, our principal political leaders seldom speak without the prop of a prepared text. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh fields questions when he travels abroad but has held only two press conferences and two interactions with editors in Delhi in the past seven years. As for interviews, he has allowed himself to be questioned by an Indian newspaper only once and never by an Indian news channel. Congress president Sonia Gandhi, too, has not really been heard from at close quarters except for the briefest of triumphal soundbites just after the Rajya Sabha passed the Women’s Reservation Bill. These are extraordinary facts by any yardstick. They speak either of our leaders’ lack of confidence or their lack of concern for addressing the sort of questions a democratic polity throws up from time to time. This absence of communication is made worse by the dissonance generated by disparate voices from the ruling party and government. If Dr. Singh bemoans the media helping to create an “atmosphere of cynicism” all around, he and the government and the Congress have only themselves to blame.
The Prime Minister’s interaction with a small group of editors was intended to clear the air on issues like corruption but his answers will likely have the opposite effect. Dr. Singh sought refuge in the claim that the decisions for which his government is being pilloried now “post facto” were taken under conditions of “uncertainty” and that the accusations of wrongdoing and corruption would paralyse the government and discourage “entrepreneurial impulses.” Nothing could be further from the truth. There was no uncertainty about true prices, for example, when bloated contracts were awarded to companies during the Commonwealth Games. And the CBI’s charge sheet makes it clear that 2G spectrum was not distributed by the Telecom ministry under uncertain conditions at all: Former minister A. Raja and his associates and the companies that allegedly colluded with them knew very well what the true value of the licences were. Dr. Singh’s biggest blunder, however, was to upbraid the Comptroller and Auditor General, one of the few state institutions that the public at large still has faith in. Since it is thanks to the CAG report on 2G that the criminal investigation into the telecom scam really got moving, ordinary Indians are likely to view the Prime Minister’s remarks as further evidence of the unwillingness of this government to seriously tackle the problem of graft.