A non-press briefing that achieved nothing

    Press Briefing by Fin Min - Mann Ki Baat instead of Dhan Ki Baat?

    Press Briefing by Fin Min - Mann Ki Baat instead of Dhan Ki Baat?
    Press Briefing by Fin Min - Mann Ki Baat instead of Dhan Ki Baat?

    Fin Min tries its own version of Mann Ki Baat

    It was supposed to be the press briefing that would break the ice between the Finance Ministry (Fin Min) and the media. However, there was neither a press briefing nor any thaw. If anything, the relations between the two were further embittered.

    The reporters covering Fin Min were informed by the Press Information Bureau (PIB) that there would be a “press briefing by Finance Ministry officers today” at the National Media Centre at 4.30 PM. The reporters were also informed that the “briefing will be off-camera.”

    There was commotion and confusion. Snide remarks were made about the government’s management of the economy: ‘To what level should the Sensex fall for the government to accept there everything is not right?’; ‘How bad should the economy get to wake up the government?’; and so on.

    They duly trooped into the NMC’s video conference hall. The interaction with the media, after the restrictions Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman imposed on the entry of journalists to North Block which houses much of FinMin, was expected to thaw the relations between the Ministry and the media. It didn’t happen, though.

    There were three Additional Secretaries from different FinMin departments. The PIB officer, R C Joshi, stated that the officers would read out the developments, and that would be all; no questions would be entertained.

    The journalists present protested indignantly: what’s the point in asking us to be here if the officials can’t take our queries? A press briefing, by its very definition, is an interaction with reporters, and interaction can never be a one-way communication. If the government wanted some information to just be disseminated, it could have issued a press release, as it does regularly.

    But neither Joshi nor the Additional Secretaries were willing to accept the reporters’ demand; apparently, there were strict orders that the communication has to be one-way.

    What about Dhan Ki Baat?

    Just as the commotion reached a crescendo, Chief Economic Adviser (CEA) Krishnamurthy Subramanian walked in. Evidently, it was an unexpected arrival, as there was no chair reserved for him. The officers hurriedly seated him at the centre of their row of chairs.

    He talked with the officials, seemingly inquiring about the din. It looked like he made a call; without saying anything, he walked out talking on his mobile. It looked like he was talking to somebody important, maybe the Finance Minister. Everybody waited, hoping for the green signal for interaction, but it never came. Nor did the CEA come back.

    There was commotion and confusion. Snide remarks were made about the government’s management of the economy: ‘To what level should the Sensex fall for the government to accept there everything is not right?’; ‘How bad should the economy get to wake up the government?’; and so on.

    The drama continued for about half an hour. All reporters—well, almost all—decided to boycott the so-called press briefing. But they were gracious enough to apologize to the FinMin officials, saying that they didn’t mean any disrespect to the latter. The officials nodded their heads.

    Outside the room, PIB officials distributed the notes that the FinMin officials were expected to read. One was about the government’s acceptance of Reserve Bank of India’s proposal pertaining to the modalities to operationalize a Budget announcement on non-banking financial companies and housing finance companies.

    Then there was an announcement about the Finance Minister meeting the heads of public sector banks and major private banks. There was another on the Micro, Small and Medium Enterprises (MSME) sector.

    These were unexceptional notes, typical officialese. What was exceptional, however, was the mainstream media’s defiance of the FinMin’s highhandedness.

    About the response of the press during the Emergency, senior Bharatiya Janata Party leader L K Advani famously said that it was asked to bend but it started crawling.

    The press—at least part of it—seems to have redeemed itself.

    Ravi Shanker Kapoor

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