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The Prime Minister’s Monologue: Why The Public Can’t Ask Him Questions

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By Nissim Mannathukkaren:

A politician who can master the media can shape political affairs outside of parliament and even eliminate the mediation of parliament. – Umberto Eco

Another session of the parliament is upon us, and if we go by the recent history, the prime minister, the central spokesperson of the government in parliament, will not be compelled to answer the questions directed at his government.

Recently, there were two interesting developments.

First, as the second anniversary celebrations of the BJP-led NDA government began, a BJP spokesperson tweeted that Prime Minister Modi is the “most hardworking PM ever in Indian history.” The reason for her characterisation was that Mr. Modi delivered a speech very 45.6 hours in the two years of his tenure.

And second, a few days ago, the prime minister gave his first television interview in two years.

There is a bewildering irony here: the prime minister who has given the most number of speeches in the first two years has taken the least number of questions from the people. There is a chasm between Mr. Modi’s frequency of speeches as well as communicating through 140 characters, and the refusal to dialogue with, and being interrogated by the people. This irony of monologue is a defining feature of the current regime.

How do we get our elected leaders, especially the head of the government, to take and answer questions from the people is the question that should animate every Indian citizen.

The parliament is the ultimate forum to achieve this task. Yet, it has seen a progressive decline in the nature and quality of debates and interventions. The number of sitting days in the last three Lok Sabhas including the present one is almost half of the first Lok Sabha. Crucially, the prime minister himself has played only a minimal role in the proceedings of this parliament, leave alone regularly answering questions from the members.

In the first six months of Mr. Modi’s tenure, he spoke only once. Even though the record has improved since then, the frequent absence of the PM from parliament does not augur well for democracy. This is despite Mr. Modi declaring: “conversation and debates are the soul of Parliament.” It is also in sharp contrast to a Jawaharlal Nehru who used to attend parliament regularly. If the BJP mocked Manmohan Singh as the “NRI-PM,” ironically, the same tag has come back to be applied on Mr. Modi.

The Question Hour period is itself lost when there are recurrent parliamentary disruptions. It was held only around 40 percent of the scheduled time in the last parliament. Thus the vital function of interrogating the government is taken away. India does not in any case have a parliamentary practice like that of the “Prime Minister’s Questions” in the UK where the prime minister takes questions from MPs every sitting week for a dedicated time.

People also have contributed to monologic politics. A study by Praveen Chakravarty showed that the poor record of an MP in parliament does not seem to affect her popularity with people.

It is the decline of the parliament as the voice of the people that has led to the hardening of a monologic politics, leading to placing of faith in other institutions like the fourth estate. Of course, the fourth estate is by no means, “the people”, especially when the media is increasingly corporatised, and largely does the bidding of those in political power. Yet, in a capitalist democracy, the fourth estate, at least provides a fig leaf of protection of people’s interests. Therefore, the prime minister’s reluctance to take questions from the press and be subject to even its minimal scrutiny is particularly damaging to the largest democracy in the world.

In this, Mr. Modi, ironically, continues the legacy of Manmohan Singh, who was widely criticised for his silence and who interacted with the Indian press collectively only thrice during his ten-year tenure. This is a poor record even considering that Mr. Singh’s is soft-spoken and reticent, personality traits which are completely opposed to Mr. Modi’s. Mr. Singh’s defence was: “My silence is better than a thousand answers.” Yet, the surprising and largely unknown aside is that the maiden media interaction that Mr. Singh had as the prime minister was with the editor of the RSS mouthpiece, Panchjanya!

Mr. Singh did also give one-to-one interviews to the foreign media. Thus in his first term, Mr. Singh spoke with Time, Newsweek, The Washington Post, The Times, Le Figaro, CNN, The Financial Times, etc. and twice with American journalist Charlie Rose. But this is away from the heat, dust and glare of the domestic constituency to which the prime minister is accountable. That Mr. Modi lags way behind Mr. Singh in the foreign realm, where he has sought to create a definitive impression, including, in an unprecedented way, on the Indian diaspora tells a lot about the monologic nature of politics fostered by Mr. Modi.

What should be realised is that monologic politics is increasingly outmoded as the discourse of democracy, equality and freedom cannot be wished away as before. Besides, now we are in an era, when we have the technological tools, like social media, which even when its effects have not often been benign, has provided unique access to the marginalised groups to question the powerful.

Monologic politics of “Mann Ki Baat” is an attempt to turn the clock back. It resembles what the philosopher Jürgen Habermas had called the refeudalisation of the public sphere.

Habermas had coined the term before the era of social networking, and meant by it the control of the public sphere by powerful private interests, especially corporations. The public sphere instead of being one where citizens could rationally and democratically deliberate about matters concerning society becomes one which is managed top-down by those wielding political and economic power. Politics is here reduced to spectacles on corporatised television, or to public relations managed by private firms, and citizens become mere passive consumers.

Any attempt to push forward democracy will have to break the stranglehold of monologic politics. There is a disjuncture between the flow of social media and the concentration of power in a few people. While the prime minister takes to fora like Twitter and Facebook, he is acknowledging the power of the multitude. Umberto Eco would have called it media populism— “appealing to people directly through media.” But at the same time by refusing to indulge in a genuine conversation or dialogue, the PM pulls back to a monologic politics.

This refusal to dialogue with the people is absolutely rare in democracies. When Mr. Modi’s first interview in two years became news, Barack Obama recently became the first American president to complete 1000 interviews! It is an astonishing number considering that he had 274 other interactions (at the six-year mark) of short Q&As and press conferences. Professor Martha Joynt Kumar, who has studied the numbers, has pointed out that Obama’s interviews have been to a “broad range of reporters, columnists, bloggers, radio hosts, local television anchors,” etc.

While Obama is unique, even former Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, as Kumar shows, while together giving only 572 interviews (in 6 years), had 989 and 581 other media interactions respectively. This is when the US is one of the classic cases of the corporatisation of the media, politics, and the public sphere. The opacity of the Indian prime minister becomes in comparison staggering.

Monologue has been a significant artistic device right from early Greek theatre. But it cannot be a good tool in politics. The fundamental basis of a democracy is dialogue. No democracy can survive in any meaningful sense when it degenerates into a monologue. But as Paulo Freire, the Brazilian educator, contends, there is no dialogue without humility, or faith in the people and their power to change the world.

For this to happen, the general culture of obsequiousness, which shows the perpetuation of feudal and hierarchical modes of thinking, has to end. Judges touching the feet of the prime minister, or journalists rushing to click selfies with the prime minister are small examples of the watchdogs of democracy turning into feudal serfs.

Democracy is not about the nation’s leaders talking at people, but talking with them. We cannot sing paeans to democracy while refusing to let the people ask questions. And as Freire would put it, “If the structure does not permit dialogue the structure must be changed.” That would require at least the restoration of the sanctity of the parliament as the forum of the people, as well as the dignity of the fourth estate as an independent observer.

This post is an expanded version of an article published here on The Hindu.

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