Obama and media wars (Capital Buzz)

Sunday, November 14, 2010

NEW DELHI - After talks with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, US President Barack Obama had remarked lightheartedly at the joint press conference that the Indian and American media were collaborating when an American journalist asked a pointed question on Kashmir. But little did he know about simmering tensions between officers handling the media from both sides and the hard bargaining that went on for coverage of each event open to the media.

The story goes that White House press officer Robert Gibbs barged into Hyderabad House, the venue of the talks, with four American journalists and threatened to pull Obama out of talks if they were not let in. But that was just the tip of the volcano. Many veteran Indian reporters with permanent parliament passes were left hanging to accommodate 60-odd American journalists. It was a way of saying that ‘America still rules’.


Obama’s Red curiosity

Indian Communists may hate America, but US President Barack Obama was quite impressed with the electoral performance of the India’s Communist parties in a democratic framework. When he met Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee at the dinner hosted by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, Obama asked him about the secret of Communist survival in a democracy.

Mukherjee, known for his photographic memory for facts and figures, impressed Obama with a detailed account, beginning from the late 1940s, when some parts of the country saw Communist-inspired farmer protests, to the Left parties making West Bengal their Red bastion for over three decades and running democratic governments in Kerala and Tripura besides being the main prop for the previous United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government in the centre.


Setting the record straight!

The off-the-record briefings resorted to by some senior officials in the foreign office are causing much frustration among the hack pack. The foreign correspondents are particularly peeved as they are not used to this new culture of simultaneous on-the-record and off-the-record briefings. In fact, at a curtain-raiser briefing for Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s visit to Seoul, a foreign journalist surprised many with his outburst, accusing a senior official at the dais of “multiple personality disorder” — only to invite a sharp reprimand from the powers that be and the Indian journalists on the beat.

Most journalists find it hard to understand why even stated positions of the Indian government need to be guarded in a veil of anonymity of “sources”, when everyone knows that none other than top officialdom would have so much of insider knowledge.


Popular in India, unpopular back home

The huge admiration and adulation that greeted US President Barack Obama during his three days of charm offensive in India has revived old jokes about leaders wounded by electoral drubbings back home hitting all the right notes when they go abroad. “If he contests in the ongoing Bihar polls, Obama will win hands down,” quipped a politician. This despite the steady slide in Obama’s popularity back home as reflected in the electoral rout of the Democrats in elections to the Congress and Senate.

Old-timers came out with an ominous analogy. Former Pakistani president Pervez Musharraf had the same fate, a politico pointed out. The more he became popular in India, the more Musharraf lost backing at home, he recalled.


Scramble for Obama dinner invitations

There was a last-minute scramble for invitations to the state dinner for President Barack Obama and wife Michelle at Rashtrapati Bhavan, so much so that to accommodate the fixed number of about 170 people, the protocol divison of the external affairs ministry had to resort to some cancellations as well, leading to much bad blood.

The office of External Affairs Minister S.M. Krishna had to field endless phone calls till a few hours before the dinner Nov 8 from 10, Janpath, the office of Sonia Gandhi, as well as ministers, bureaucrats, MPs and even state government leaders. Krishna himself had little say in the matter and it is said that he hardly played any significant role during the Obama visit. His job was merely to be the ‘pointsman’ for carrying out orders from the top, in this case 10, Janpath and being a facilitator of international deals that benefit the Congress party.


Busy Jairam has no time for formalities

India’s Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh doesn’t like stiff formalities and believes in doing things simply. Ramesh Friday had to attend four functions, and first on his schedule was a policy dialogue on climate change, where he was asked to release a book on climate change. The minister was handed over an elegantly-wrapped book to release.

Ramesh, who was struggling to open the wrapping paper, immediately took out his pen and tore open the sheet, saying “I wish things are so simple.” He obviously has no time for social niceties, busy as he is most of the time in slaying anti-green demons.


The Taj awaits First Ladies

While the Obamas decided to give the Taj Mahal a miss, the marble monument to love is beckoning French President Nicholas Sarkozy and his wife Carla as well as Russian President Dmitry Medvedev and his wife Svetlana.

The Sarkozys and the Medvedevs are set for a Taj photo-op when they come visiting here next month. But it’s not clear yet whether Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao and his spouse will renew their love in front of the famous memorial Mughal emperor Shah Jahan built for his wife Mumtaz Mahal in the 17th century. Wen comes here mid-December, making it the year India hosts leaders of all permanent members of the UN Security Council. When Sarkozy had visited the Taj in January 2008, he was not married to Carla Bruni. He had written in the visitor’s book then: “Unforgettable, see you soon again.”


Raja and Raj

Why is the Congress dithering from drop Telecom Minister A. Raja from the cabinet, a journalist asked a key Congress leader. “Raja is key to the Raj (government)”, quipped the leader, a clear admission that the support of the DMK, Raja’s party, was vital to the survival of the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government.

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