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 continued…