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Agra summit, in brief

July 25, 2001

The Asian Age

Agra Summit, in brief
H.Y. Sharada Prasad

Most correspondents, who were in Agra for the Vajpayee-Musharraf summit, agree that it was one of the most frustrating experiences in their professional careers. At the end of two exhausting days they had to leave with not even a document in their hand to study and annotate for their readers.

The principals did not meet the press to say what they had discussed. Nor did their advisers. Officials who are generally not shy about sharing their impressions informally with pressmen were this time unusually reticent. There were no leaks or peeks of any kind.

All that the official spokesperson could say at the end of it all was: "I am disappointed to announce that though the commencement of a process and the beginning of a journey has taken place, the destination of an agreed joint statement has not been reached.” Briefing could not be briefer than that.

A spokesperson can speak only if he or she has been personally present at the conference table or has been given an authoritative account of what took place and clear instructions on how to put it across. I was a spokesman for the government for years and know the kind of inputs that go into the work. But at the Agra Summit the spokesperson of the ministry of external affairs, Ms Nirupama Rao, evidently did not receive any such inputs. Little wonder she declined to entertain any questions from the gathered news hounds.

I don't know whether she pointed out to the political masters that saying so little was to lose the battle of public relations. But the masters must have been so overcome by fatigue at the end of a long-drawn-out day — it was near midnight — that they probably thought that the publicity angle could be taken care of later. Even the short statement that was allowed to be made bears evidence of the tiredness.

The metaphor of journey and destination comes more naturally to those who are in the habit of making public speeches than to note-writing officials. It does not seem to have occurred to anyone to point out that the destination could not be just an agreed joint statement but the resolution of all outstanding issues between the two countries.

Lack of attention on our part to the information dimension is one of the reasons why the Pakistan President is widely regarded as having got much more out of the Agra Summit than Mr Vajpayee.

It should have been clearly worked out in advance who would do the talking to the press — whether it would be the foreign minister or the information minister or the foreign secretary or the Prime Minister's principal secretary or the official spokesperson of the Foreign Office.

It so happened this time that both the foreign secretary and the spokesperson were new to their jobs. It takes some time to get to know the senior correspondents and editors and win their confidence.

The relationship between officials and newspapermen is very different than the relationship between journalists and politicians. The first is more professional and the second tends to be rather political. The journalist goes to the politician to find out whether there are likely to be any changes in policy and to the official to know about the administrative and other implications of a policy or a decision.

Politicians can also play the role of governmental spokesmen, but often they are less effective because their judgment is likely to be less dispassionate. The visit of the information minister, Ms Sushma Swaraj, to the Media Centre at Agra and the questions she answered about the content and progress of the talks on the first day seem to have done more harm than good.

When a minister does the briefing there always arises the question whether he or she is doing it for some political advantage. The same thing said by an official carries a greater stamp of objectivity.

In the afternoon of that tense Monday in Agra, after it was announced that the visiting President was skipping Ajmer, there was speculation that, all going well, the Prime Minister and he might address a joint press conference. Then there was a report that the General might extend his stay by half a day.

Even after it was officially confirmed that he was leaving the same night there was talk of his wanting to address a press conference. The security people are said to have come in the way by insisting that more time was needed to sanitise the area.

What happened ultimately was that Ms Nirupama Rao read out her one-sentence statement and the foreign minister met the press the next morning in Agra. For his part, President Musharraf held a press conference in his capital later that evening. He had already carried out a propaganda coup of sorts the previous morning in Agra by inviting a group of Indian editors for breakfast and having it telecast back home to prove to the people of Pakistan that he had talked tough on Indian soil.

(Some newspapers have remarked that the breakfast meeting showed careful pre-planning on the part of the General, but Mr Prannoy Roy has punctured that theory by his revelation that his channel had televised it even before Pakistan Television did. He had noticed that the breakfast show was being filmed. He walked up to the cameraman and persuaded him to let him make a copy.)

Whatever it is, the Agra meeting with editors and the press conference in Islamabad after return show a very self-assured General. Khaki makes people cocky. More so when they are greeted and feted. His unfailingly complimentary references to Mr Vajpayee reveal how much he owes to the Indian Prime Minister whose invitation enabled him to assume the presidentship and also gave him an opportunity to convince his people that he is a vigilant custodian of their interests.

There is an old saying that dictators love a free press as long as it is in other countries and not their own. The build-up they receive is more valuable than what mere money could buy. In the last few days our newspapers and television channels have been full of Pervez Musharraf, emphasising his informality. They have given a new face to the man who planned all that blood-letting in Kargil. The coming months will show what he really is.

H.Y. Sharada Prasad was formerly an advisor to the Prime Minister

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