Mule In A Turf Club: The journey from License Raj to Reforms Raj

Tuesday, 21 July 2015

By S.Narendra
(Former Information Adviser to PM, Principal Information Officer to the Government, and Spokesperson)

Attempting to educate the government on its need of a campaign on public affairs or behaviour change communication is like expecting to train a mule to compete with race horses. When P.V.Narasimha Rao government swept away the Licence-Raj, it baffled the political system, the Congress party, business and industry, bureaucrats and ordinary people. In the face of growing opposition to the new policies, the government continued its routine, Delhi-centric English language ‘publicity. My efforts to change this into public affairs mode was a trying experience. Read on…

When India   began opening up its economy in July 1991 for competition and globalisation, there was joy in small circles and bewilderment in and apprehensions in large sections, including the media. The bold economic reforms drive by Prime Minister P.V.Narasimha Rao were   totally unexpected,  was direly needed for saving the nation but   politically heretical. Even as the official decisions like scrapping of ‘licence Raj’ governed by the Industrial Development Regulations Act,  Directorate General of Technology Development (that controlled import of foreign machinery and technology) and other such measures, the government was not even aware that it needed strategic communication support  for persuading the people, including  businesses  and industry.  There were unbearable short term pains, especially on   the large sections of people already disadvantaged and this section needed to be assured that the government under foreign pressure  was not going to abandon them to market forces.

No one in government  thought it necessary to brief the government information and media system (DAVP,PIB, AIR, Doordarshan, Field Publicity and others )   and make them part of the critical decision making process, thus enabling them to lead a supportive communication campaign. I used to joke that the government media are  hyenas of  Lutyen’s jungle (North –South Block, the Government of India buildings designed by Lutyen). In the jungle, after the big cats have  planned and hunted  the prey and eaten their meal, hyenas  and jackals are allowed to clean up the  carcass.  In Lutyen’s jungle as well, the last act in the decision making process was (and is, I hope not!) the pushing out of a half-baked   press release through the official media system. Breaking into the company of cats and building communication process into the decision making process was a big task. 
Hilarious! The Government of V.P.Singh (1989-90) was somewhat better in this respect. Thanks to the presence of pragmatic P.Upendra as minister for Information & Broadcasting in the cabinet, he used to take me to top level secret briefings given to the prime minister and his Finance Minister Madhu Dandavate, Railway Minister George Fernandes  by  learned economist- turned bureaucrat  Dr.Bimal Jalan. The latter had been recalled from IMF and was soon to take over as the Finance Secretary from Gopi Arora.  Jalan laid it bare before the PM the dire financial situation and some urgently needed   remedies. I was entrusted with the job of creating a communication plan   for preparing the country to receive the bad news and the desperate remedies that were to be expected be administered.
It is another story that this far sighted move to make communication as part of the official decision making process later turned   into hilarious joke. To complete this side of the story, I gathered a team of  economists, economic journalists and other commentators and without telling them the briefings I had received, I assigned them to provide brief, jargon-free, write ups on technical themes like Inflation,  BOP crisis, fiscal deficit,  implications of subsidies, Disinvestment, Exit policy or Labour Reforms,  and others that were to soon become media headlines, if and when the government were to approach IMF/World Bank for loans known as   structural adjustment  loans with inevitable  conditionalities (in today’s terms, ‘austerity measures’, much hated by Greeks and Italians). They were sure to become controversial media headlines, as before, when the Reforms were rolling out. One had just flip through the newspapers of 1980 to understand the political hackles that would be raised if India were to approach IMF/World Bank for a bail out. Mrs Gandhi’s government in 1980, facing a severe balance of payment crisis had negotiated a ‘structural adjustment loan’. The opposition and media (led by Ram of the Hindu) had erupted against the loan, and the consequential conditionalities imposed on India. This background was very useful in identifying likely controversies in the event of the government seeking IMF/World bank help.

Handy Apple! As I could not share the secret with any one, I had to take home the office Apple classic desk top computer for preparing the outline of  a public affairs campaign cutting across government and private media and other  political advocacy activities.  Another complexity was that  I had to approach  individually and brief each  person engaged to provide  the write ups, to maintain utmost secrecy of the mission . I served to them   a cock-and-bull story   to explain why   I needed such write ups.
The write ups received were useful as background material but were very raw and jargon-ridden. Selecting a few critical themes, I prepared sample briefs as FAQs to be used in media briefings, and briefs for Advertising and public affairs campaign. Along with such write ups, prepared a step-by-step note identifying tasks for each media unit and a political communication plan to be undertaken by the leadership.
This note of mine was duly to Upendra who, in turn, forwarded it to  Madhu Dandavate. Two months later, (after  Madhu Dandavate  had presented a routine budget ignoring the financial and economic rot)  I received a letter from a junior  under -secretary in the finance ministry that read : “please refer to your discussions with the finance ministry etc and the note submitted . It is decided that no further action need be taken. Please return all official papers supplied to you.’ The Minister Upendra later told me that the finance minister Madhu Dandavate had refused to bite the bullet, especially because   the coalition partners (including BJP) were not  supportive of the much needed reforms. I did not even imagine as to how useful this exercise of 1989 would be when the actual reforms began rolling out in 1991.
Transformative Steps: The mounting economic crisis, particularly the imminent financial bankruptcy, had forced the  Congress-supported Chandrashekkar government to send India’s gold reserves abroad for borrowing money for repaying interests on official debts.  The successor minority government in 1991  headed by Narasimha  Rao, assumed to be a weak politician, began its economic reforms with massive devaluation of the Indian Rupee, followed by the dismantling of the Licence Raj, scrapping of the Industrial Development and Regulation Act (IDRA ) and so on. The Congress party rank and file was baffled by the government’s policies, as they were seen as a sudden reversal of Nehru-Gandhi socialist policies of government’s control over the economy. The Left parties, as expected, were campaigning against it. BJP was sitting on the fence, selectively supporting and opposing reforms. BJP was also spreading fears about globalisation of   the Indian economy (Swadeshi Jagran Manch was active then), as   anti-Swadeshi.  There was the prospect of India having to sign the global trade agreement   creating the World Trade Organisation (WTO), and a campaign  was on to scuttle it. And in   Mumbai,   Rahul Bajaj was leading the Bombay club that was opposed to globalisation   but in favour of market orientation of only the domestic economy.
The union Cabinet itself was   a divided house, yet the finance and commerce ministries were wanting to hurtle India into open, globalised  economy during the time when similar attempt in the Soviet Union was  failing. The changing economy was badly in need of a mindset change   through political communication and dialogue but the government leadership did not seem to have the time or inclination for it. What one noticed was the routine Delhi -centric communication, that too mostly in English. No one cared to find out  how such English language, especially technical  expressions like ‘liberalisation’, economic reforms’, structural  adjustment’ were getting across in the Indian  language media.
Anti-Reform Language Media: The most vocal opponents of the reforms were the Indian language newspapers as well as some of the English newspapers (especially outside of Delhi). Only the pink or business newspapers were giving play to the reforms and supporting them but their influence was limited. An analysis of the newspapers of   late 1980s and early 1990s showed that dailies were heavy with political news. Business stories rarely made it to the front pages. An economic story gaining prominence related primarily to official development plans, government announcements and public sector news. The stock market news was tucked away in a separate section in the middle pages and mostly it was the bare listing of stock prices, without any market analysis.
Yeh share-bazaarse Kya matlab hai?:  The government broadcasters were not expected to give space to private sector news, (private firms were not even named), and stock market news was taboo. Even the news agencies had unwritten laws not to name private sector companies. When  Doordarshan  noted in its news broadcast  the steep plunge   of stock market  on account of news of militants seizing Lal Chowk in Srinagar in 1991, the prime minister Chandrashekhar  issued a stern warning to Doordarshan  to avoid  broadcast  of such news. He angrily said ‘ Yeh share bazaar kya hota hai? Issse desh ka kya matlab hai’ (What’s this share market all about? How is it relevant to the country). Neither AIR nor Doordarshan had an economic desk, nor a foreign news desk.
Advertising guidelines for official media forbid them to accept sponsorships of items of conspicuous consumption and luxury goods. The official TV and Radio were stipulated to avoid mention of the names of private companies in their newscasts. If at all they took their names, it was only in commercials.
Only the Press trust of India had a so-called economic news desk and dealt mostly with government economic policies and reports but was not known for insightful analysis. Business beat   was unknown to language newspapers published outside of Mumbai.  Gujarati language had the distinction of having one and only business daily, Vyapar. The Indian private sector that wanted less government control on economic activities was not making any effort to educate the media and   people about the benefits of the new policies.  NESTLE was one company known to engage in public affairs and bringing out publications highlighting its contribution to  the economic development of host country  through its operations but in India it was lazy.
No free Flow of Financial News: International wire agencies had to route their output through their Indian counter-parts. Even brokers who trade on the quick flow of global financial information did not have free access to such information. They had to get such information provided by agencies specialised in financial news, like   Reuters, AP-Dowjones and others, after filtering by PTI. Whatever Indian news that was getting across to world media was mostly negative. Ill-conceived government attempts to offer a positive picture were drowned   in more adverse news.

In the first flush of reforms, Rao approved a proposal for removing restrictions on the direct flow of financial news provided by Reuters, AP-Dow Jones to brokers and investment firms. This move had caused considerable resentment in Indian news agencies that had enjoyed a monopoly until then. And, they were making huge money by acting as middle agents.
In the political and bureaucratic circles, communication went by the word ‘publicity’ that was mostly practised as partisan political information push, bordering on duplicity. As a result, official media and communication had lost their credibility. While the political leaders wasted money on ‘publicity’, bureaucrats who controlled the purse and watched such waste, would allocate less and less funds for communication activates.
None in government viewed communication   as an aide to policy making and facilitating implementation. And preparing the ground for introducing new policy or for altering existing ones was out of question.
Political Communication Vacuum: The political communication from the government party leadership was conspicuous by its absence. The finance minister Dr.Manmohan Singh and Commerce minister P.Chidambaram were in the fore front, speaking up for reforms but were busy in addressing foreign audiences. Often,their  road shows to showcase India’s early reforms and their future course for attracting FDI was causing problems back home. That was because what was sweet music to foreign audiences, who were impatient with   the pace of Indian reforms,   was played up in Indian media as the brain child of IMF/World Bank/American agenda – not in the national interest. At that stage of political economy, the ideas like ‘disinvestment’, ‘downsizing of government or firms’, ‘cuts in  subsidies’, ‘reduction of  fiscal deficit’, ‘ austerity’, ‘trade as against aid’, ‘exit policy’ or ‘labour laws reforms’ and many such expressions  suited for a market –orienting economy  were ‘foreign’ and anathema to Indian media audiences. The utterance of such expressions by these two   key ministers had made the government leadership to be perceived as two-faced and deceitful. Political opposition was using such utterances as surrender of India’s sovereignty.
Glasnost & Perestroika: The 1990s had begun with unexpected and unprecedented changes in international political and economic order, engineered by Gorbachev of Soviet Union. Unfamiliar words like ‘glasnost’ and ‘perestroika’ began to circulate around the globe. But such words had difficulty in penetrating the closed Indian media system and reaching the political leadership and senior administrators. I started gathering information about such changes sweeping hard –core communist countries from Albania to Indo-China countries by sourcing information from the Economist, International   Herald Tribune and Times- London that used to reach India late. I was on the mailing list of the US embassy that used to compile daily –‘World Press Review’, an excellent digest of happenings around the world. Another invaluable source was the daily digest of broadcasts by radio stations around the world prepared by the monitoring division of AIR. By culling stories of political and economic changes in closed economies, I began preparing a digest titled ‘perestroika-here and there’ and this was sent to select political leaders and bureaucrats. In order to test readership of this digest, I used to cut a few names from the mailing list. This had the desired effect and my office would get calls from officials who had not received the digest. A few senior journalists who came across this digest and wanted the copies as well.
TV Spots out: In January 1992, I (in my capacity as DG, DAVP), was asked to make a presentation to the PM on the steps taken by  I&B ministry for explaining the reforms. Risking rebuff, during this presentation I submitted to Rao that communication only through the government media can never politically succeed without the party’s political communication. The great man readily appreciated the point and said: ‘I need the official media to work more because I don’t have political communicators’. The I & B minister, his deputy and the secretary had taken leave of absence and did not turn up for this meeting. K.Varadan, a new additional secretary in the ministry, represented the ministry and it was left to me to account for what I had done on behalf of DAVP but also chart out a course for what needs to be done by the government and the party.  I brought to the  prime minister’s attention that a detailed plan (A  Marketing Plan for Economic Reforms in India and Abroad)  submitted to the Steering committee headed by the principal secretary to PM,  A.N.Verma, was not getting financial and political support.
A series of spots for explaining the new policies and their effects on different sections of people, after going through the tortuous process of approval by the ministries of Industry and Finance (I had been assured that Dr. Manmohan Singh had seen and approved them) were not allowed  to be screened, because the communist parties  objected to their screening. Rao directed Verma then and there to clear the campaign.
I also brought to the PM’s notice that the speeches made abroad by  the Finance Minister and Commerce Minister and using expressions like ‘exit policy’ ‘disinvestment ‘ were causing disquiet in Indian media. I had prepared a list of such expressions that should not be used.
The newspapers run by the Left parties would carry advertisements on reforms and run commentaries criticising the reforms along side. I   struck them off our media list but I was not politically supported, although my stand as an advertiser was wholly in the government interest.
My friend and one of the doyens of Indian advertising, R.K.Swamy, and myself collaborated in putting together a paper on the necessity of the government engaging an international PR agency for communicating the new policies abroad. During a visit to Japan, in Apirl 1992, the founder chairman of Sony, Akio Morita,  met the PM and had  asked; “Mr Prime Minister, is it true that  foreign firms like us  can now invest in India?” This was ten months   after India had opened up its economy and government ministers were travelling abroad to canvass for FDI.  R.K.Swamy had tied up with the well-known PR form Hill and Knowlton and had offered their services for FDI-related PR. But this paper did not evoke any response.
Official Media Turf Wars: The biggest hurdle that I faced was to make the then powerful official media change gears from their conventional publicity mode towards a public affairs mode. Doordarshan and AIR in their news and programming were doing a great job statistically matching their record of the emergency between 1975-77. Inputs offered for making their programme impactful were rejected as interference. Their political masters were satisfied with statistical results and were not open to make their programmes candid and credible.
The year 1992-94 was also the period when some media houses like India Today and others were experimenting with Video News  Magazines  and some of them began to send to Hong Kong and Singapore  their video cassette for uplink from foreign satellites  and broadcast to India. But such Video News Magazines were heavy with political news and entertainment news. An attempt was made to penetrate such news magazines with economic reform news.

The Author

When the PM saw the conclusions of this 3-level ‘impressionistic study’,  he was much dismayed. For us, the Karnataka consultations had yielded valuable insights and inputs for dealing with this deficit at communication and political level.

The Campaign: The foregone discussions offer a summary of the hurdles to be crossed for initiating a comprehensive public affairs campaign. An agency can conceive and recommend but the client has to totally buy into the philosophy, goals and objectives and the plan of action of the campaign. In the case of DAVP, it had to think both as the client and the agency. In addition, the client, the government was not one but multiple entities each guarding its own turf zealously. The Steering committee, headed by the principal secretary, on paper was supposed to be an overarching body for overseeing reforms roll out but it also had to work through various departments and ministers that was a very slow process.(To be continued).


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