Whenever a new prime minister assumes office there is speculation, especially among journalists, on whom he will pick as his media adviser. Usually a high-profile editor from the loyalist media is chosen as the interface between the prime minister and journalists. Indira Gandhi had Sharada Prasad, Atal Bihari Vajpayee had H K Dua and later Ashok Tandon, V P Singh selected Prem Shankar Jha, and Manmohan Singh, as is clear from the The Accidental Prime Minister, relied heavily on Sanjaya Baru during his first term in office. Every media adviser had his own style and level of competence; not all succeeded in projecting a favourable image of their respective bosses during times of crisis
Jha, a pundit in the profession who took himself very seriously, was not used to rubbing shoulders with the hoi polloi of journalism and acted with outrage when, during the Mandal agitations, a group of aggressive young journalists barged into his office wanting to interrogate him on V P Singh’s silence in the face of mounting deaths of students in police firing. Rajiv Gandhi eased out his mother’s media adviser Sharada Prasad after the Bofors scandal and appointed G Parthasarthy, earlier the MEA spokesperson, but the stain of Bofors could not be washed away. Narasimha Rao’s media man P V R K Prasad did little to salvage his image in the aftermath of the Babri demolition. More recently, Pankaj Pachauri, hired as communications adviser in 2012 to help bolster the sagging image of the government due to the economic downturn and a series of scams, proved unequal to the task. While departing, Pachauri himself created a controversy for his boss — instead of simply handing over the PMO’s Twitter account handle to Singh’s successor, he archived the account, leading to protests.
Opinions differ as to what makes an ideal media adviser. From a journalist’s point of view, the adviser should be accessible at all times. But the more high-profile the adviser, the less likely is he to react to the queries of all and sundry. Sharada Prasad is often cited for his courtesy in returning phone calls even if it was from a publication unfavourable to the PM. But Harish Khare, who worked with Manmohan Singh, points out that in the post-internet, 24×7 television age, the situation is very different today from the Indira era when Prasad had only to deal with only around a dozen newspapers. Still, many journalists recall with gratitude the low-profile Ashok Tandon who interacted with the media during Vajpayee’s regime and sought to ensure that he returned all calls.
Perhaps the most inaccessible of all media advisers was P V R K Prasad, an IAS officer, during Narasimha Rao’s regime. When media men tried to contact him, they were usually told he was busy in the puja room. Although Prasad’s official designation was media adviser, he was more involved in trying to resolve the Ayodhya dispute.
It is also a misconception that the media adviser generally writes the PM’s speeches. Only two, Sharada Prasad and Baru, performed that task. Rajiv Gandhi relied on his joint secretary in charge of panchayati raj, Mani Shankar Aiyar, for writing his more colourful speeches. Vajpayee often turned to Sudheendra Kulkarni to voice his inner musings, even though Kulkarni was officially not connected with the media and was simply an officer on special duty.
Former media advisers differ on what the role entails. Tandon feels that as adviser, it was his duty to accompany the PM everywhere and share information of the PM’s activities with the media. He had to explain government policy and clear up misunderstandings. Khare believes there is no ideal answer to what the role of the adviser should be; it depends on the PM of the day. A PM could be flamboyant or choose to be retiring. Khare’s predecessor Baru consciously chose to build up his boss’s image often at the expense of his party, while Khare and later Pachauri, who were reportedly appointees of the party and not the PM, did not focus on this aspect. Pachauri pioneered the use of Twitter for the PMO, but Singh, a reserved personality, did not encourage much activity on the social media. Dua points out the importance of the media adviser lies in off-the-record briefings: “Not all questions can be answered by press statements. The adviser reflects the PM’s thinking on government to the media and informs the PM of the media’s thinking on him.”
It is over a fortnight since Narendra Modi took over as PM but he shows no sign of appointing a media adviser. Instead a self-effacing, discreet, 70-year-old former information officer, Jagdish Thakkar, who worked in Gandhinagar with Modi, has been summoned to Delhi to act as his public relations officer. Thakkar’s duty is to write press statements and also to provide easy translations into Gujarati of material he believes his boss should read. He works closely with the Press Information Bureau, which has drafted several press releases on behalf of the new prime minister, including the PM’s meeting with government secretaries and the cancellation of the practice of groups of ministers.
In Gujarat, Modi worked on a media model where the guiding principle was “Don’t call us, we’ll call you”. The media would be provided whatever information the CM desired, but off-the-record briefings and requests for exclusive information or even permission to visit the CM’s office or the secretariat was discouraged. It is the same model that Modi presumably plans to replicate in Delhi. Which is why he apparently has no need of a high-profile media adviser.
His Twitter account is handled by Hiren Joshi, his OSD (information technology), who provides information on the PM’s thinking after interacting with low-key officials working with Modi and sometimes with the PM himself. The PM’s attitude towards the media is clearly discernible from his first trip abroad. He decided to travel to Bhutan with a skeletal media team consisting of news agencies and the official media, whereas previous prime ministers had travelled abroad with a jumbo-sized media team of some three dozen.