PMs' AND THOSE PRESS CONFERENCES

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New Delhi, May 20 (ANI): Dr. Manmohan Singh will address the first formal press conference of his second term as Prime Minister on May 24 here. The Prime Minister's Media Advisor, Harish Khare, will conduct the press conference where over a thousand reporters and photographers are expected to be present.

Though, the Prime Minister has addressed the media on several occasions when traveling abroad, he is reticent when it comes to interacting with the press at home. This is inexplicable, because Dr. Singh's press conferences are a no-stress affair for the media and have never generated controversies.

He speaks at great length, does not snap at uncomfortable questions and explains his point of view gently and self-effacingly to even the junior-most of reporters.

Manmohan Singh never plays favourites with the media and does not hesitate in answering a question such as, "Sir, who is in the driver's seat - you or Mrs. Gandhi?" a question once asked by a slightly inebriated reporter. Dr. Singh kept his cool and answered the young lad and, even posed for a picture with him at the end of the press interaction!

Dr Sanjaya Baru, a former media advisor to the Prime Minister and currently on the other side of the fence as Editor of the Business Standard, says, "As media advisor to a Prime Minister like Dr. Singh, I often felt like a BMW salesman would! The brand and the product are so good, that there was not much of sales talk to do."

Dr Baru served as the PM's Media Advisor in the UPA's first term. In the second term, Dr. Singh has Mr. Harish Khare, a former Associate Editor of The Hindu, as his media advisor.

A media advisor's office before a PM press conference is a beehive of activity. He has to prepare a list of questions that might be asked and must advice the PM on how best to respond. The list of questions are made up after consulting with other senior officers of the Prime Minister's Office as also with journalists. Mr. Khare is a veteran journalist, having done the 'PMO-beat' himself. So, he would be well aware of the kind of questions likely to be asked on Monday.

Predictably the questions will center round the Naxal issue, inflation, Indo-Pak and Indo-US relations. The googlies could be about Tharoor and Twitter and Jairam Ramesh and China.

None of the press interactions are ever orchestrated. The questions are not filtered through the media department in the PMO, nor is the reporter harassed if he asks a question that may seem a bit harsh.

So long as the language is courteous as befitting the office of a Prime Minister, the PMO offers little resistance to even the most belligerent of reporters.

However, times have changed from the era of Mrs. Indira Gandhi, who had an uncomfortable relationship with the media.

Her media advisor, the legendary journalist and writer H.Y.Sharda Prasada, was well aware of Mrs. G's cut and dry method of dealing with reporters.

She was disarmingly charming to some, gave the right quotes and posed prettily for their cameras. But she could be bitingly harsh to many others.

Mr. Sharada Prasada had a comparatively easier task when he worked with her son, Rajiv Gandhi. Here, the problem was different. Rajiv would breach protocol and mix very freely with journalists. Mr. Sharada Prasad was of the old school where Prime Ministers maintained their distance, and were supposed to be unapproachable. RG would have none of that.

The PM's office has changed. Whether V.P.Singh or Chandrashekhar or I.K.Gujral, they were all accessible to the media. While Gujral and Chandrashekar were not in their jobs long enough to hold the customary Vigyan Bhavan press conferences, the others did.

V.P.Singh held his in the Siri Fort auditorium as Vigyan Bhavan was under renovation and predictably, the questions were about the Mandal report and things got too hot to handle.

Mr. Narasimha Rao was dour during a press conference, but polite to journalists when he knew he was not on record! His famous last press interaction at 7, Race Course Road soon after the destruction of the Babri Mosque was legendary.

BBC correspondent Mark Tully asked him "Do you Sir, take no responsibility for the destruction of the mosque?" Mr. Rao, who had for over half-an-hour droned on and on about law and order, bristled at the question, and shockingly answered, "I do not think the responsibility lies on me."

That was the last formal press interaction Mr. Rao had as Prime Minister. While editing the tape, I was well aware that this was the best 'bite' for many years to come.

Mr. Atal Behari Vajpayee's press conferences were a delight to attend.

From the long pauses, which gave us junior scribes enough time to take down each and every word without abbreviating, to the cryptic statements which had to be deciphered after the presser, one always had brilliant copy at the end of the interaction.

But editing his sound bites for TV were nightmarish experiences! There were times though one was irritated about why he would not be as honest with the media as he was with his colleagues.

The most glaring example being his apparent soft approach to Chief Minister Narendra Modi when he visited Gujarat post riots, and said that the Chief Minister should practice "Rajdharma".

Most journalists were disappointed with the Prime Minister. They expected a reprimand. But the PM would not oblige. If Modi was reprimanded, it was behind closed doors. Vajpayee practiced his "Rajdharma".

Dr Manmohan Singh is in his sixth year as Prime Minister and interacts with the press in the same manner as he did during his first year in office. In April 2010, in Washington DC after meeting with US President Barack Obama and completing six other engagements, the Prime Minister answered every question put to him without a single 'no comment' or a brusque 'this is a hypothetical question'.

While the government is working hard to put together its report card on 'One year of UPA-2', the media in Delhi is readying for the event of the summer. That is, unless President Obama decides to visit Delhi in the summer. By Smita Prakash (ANI)

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