Though his public speaking could use some work, Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh -- dubbed an underachiever and an ineffectual ditherer by the foreign press, and much worse by his trenchant critics at home -- has perfected the art of keeping silent. Unfortunately, his support staff don't know when to shut up.
In an ill-considered and disproportionate response to the latest salvo from Simon Denyer at the Washington Post, the Congress Party's Ambika Soni lashed out and demanded an apology, according to Indian media reports.
"The article on the prime minister by a paper like Washington Post is unacceptable. The claims made there are completely baseless and we reject it," she told reporters.
According to the Press Trust of India, Soni said she would take up the issue with the Ministry of External Affairs and other government departments and act against it. "They had done this kind of things earlier and had apologised. If the Washington Post has written things like this against the prime minister, trust me I will take strong action against them," the agency quoted her as saying.
Officially, the PMO's reaction was somewhat more tactful. In a letter addressed to Denyer, which the Post dutifully posted on its website, Pankaj Pachauri
Communications Adviser to the Prime Minister’s Office, primarily takes issue with WashPo's decision to run the article without first interviewing the prime minister for his perspective.
"Despite all lines of conversations open, you never got in touch with us for our side of the story though you regularly talk to me about information from the PMO. This story thus becomes totally one sided," Pachauri wrote.
In addition, he said, "You have been telling the media here in India that your request for an interview was declined though the mail below says clearly that the interview was declined “till the Monsoon Session” of the Parliament which gets over in two days."
Denyer responded, "I requested an interview with the PM on three occasions, and also with T.K.A Nair, Advisor to the Prime Minister, and with Pulok Chatterji, Principal Secretary in the Prime Minister’s Office. Those requests were either ignored or declined."
"When I made my final request for an interview with the PM in July,'" Denyer goes on to add, "I was told on July 30 'The PM has declined all interview requests till the Monsoon session is over.'"
"At that stage the current session of parliament (known as the Monsoon session) of parliament had not even begun. There was no mention of the possibility of an interview afterwards. In any case my story touches on the fact that parliament has been adjourned every day throughout the current session by opposition calls for the PM to resign, which is a story I felt should be told, interview or not."
The most ridiculous thing about this exchange, of course, is that the article that caused this brouhaha is nothing new. At best, Denyer has thrown some new verbiage onto the list of criticisms that have plagued Singh for the past year -- adding "ineffectual" and "dithering" to Time's "underachiever" and a host of other criticisms. At worst, he snagged zingers from historian Ram Guha and others that first appeared in The Caravan without crediting the Indian magazine. It was getting a lot of hype on social media. But it would hardly have had the staying power it has attained now, if the PMO had been savvy enough to ignore it.
But there's another point worth making here, in defense of the so-called "one-sided story."
Pachauri rightly points out that journalistic standards require that reporters get both sides of the story. But there are notable exceptions. If we were to decline to write about a subject simply because a source on the opposite side of the issue refuses to talk, we'd be giving politicians, companies, and criminals power to kill a story anytime they like. Writing about Enron? Nope, we won't talk to you. Criticizing Obama? Stand in line with a thousand other journalists for an interview.
Nor, as Denyer points out, should the classic stalling tactics be honored. Singh's office reinterprets a "not now" as a promise that the PM planned to grant WashPo a one-on-one in as short a time as two days after Denyer's critical article appeared. But no such interview was scheduled. And even if it had been, neither Denyer nor WashPo had any guarantee that new, more pressing matters would force the PM to cancel. Ineffectual or not, as the case may be, Singh is a very busy man.
According to the PMO website, the prime minister has granted only seven interviews since as far back as 2009, when he met with WashPo family scion Lally Weymouth -- though it's possible there are some others that didn't make the cut for the web. How likely was it that Singh was really going to do an interview with Denyer right after the Monsoon session? Make your own judgment. But I can tell you I'm still waiting for a visa from a foreign government which shall remain nameless, where I was planning to interview an unfriendly public figure. And I have never heard back from at least a dozen companies that I've written critical items about over the years.
What's more, should WashPo really be following the PMO's schedule? It doesn't appear so in this case, but a request to delay a story until after the end of a parliamentary session could very well have political implications. Perhaps the content of the story might have been taken up by the opposition, if it was published when it could still make a difference. Or perhaps the paper should have given the PM two weeks' time to respond, before they decided to publish. Newspapers, after all, are now in the business of publishing "aged news."
My take: If the prime minister, or the prime minister's office, wants to share the government's side of the story, they have a million ways to do so, all of them more effective and less embarrassing than a "shame on you" letter to the bureau chief of the Washington Post.
To start with, they could start actually granting interviews.