Every White House needs a Sarah Sanders, even India’s

The mouthpiece for a country’s premier statesman is occasionally bound to be dumbfounded by the public’s queries. But that can’t be a reason not to have one in a modern democracy.

Much of our national discourse revolves around politics and not policy. The issue of where and when the Ram Mandir will be built appears to be more interesting than the issue of intermediary liability, for instance. This is ironic, because the latter might change how we use WhatsApp and Messenger. This policy discourse should be more relevant to millions of Indians who use these apps on a daily basis. In times such as this, with the current election, there is need for the voting public to know exactly where the Prime Minister’s Office stands on policy issues. You might be able to point to an Aayushman Bharat as being a policy initiative, but have little idea of who the winners and losers of the scheme might be — or, at least, not in as much clarity as you would like.

A good step to rectify this would be to have a press secretary in the Prime Minister’s Office. The incoming government will have the opportunity to make that happen. It is a practice that the United States has been using for decades, with mixed reviews. There have been varying degrees of respect for press secretaries throughout American history. For instance, the current press secretary for the Trump Administration, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, was recently refused service at a restaurant and asked to leave. However, there is no questioning the importance of her office and what it stands for. Today, whether or not Sarah Sanders obfuscates or lies on the podium, we have a fair idea of where the President’s office stands on different issues. And if not, the press has a chance to ask for that stance several times in a month. So, if people in the U.S. wish to like or dislike Trump, they can have a basis to do so, thanks to knowing where he stands on energy, immigration, etc.

Replicating/adapting the same to the PMO in India may not be that complicated an exercise. At first glance, the first choice for the post seems to be the office of the Principal Secretary. Unfortunately, the office currently does not have this responsibility (I called and checked. You can too, at 011 2301 3040). The office of the principal secretary would argue that as one of India’s top IAS officers, the PS is already overburdened with a range of issues and has no time to manage public relations. That is a classic bureaucratic argument and justified in its own right.

The responsibility to handle press engagement falls to the Press Information Bureau (PIB). The website of the PIB is very accessible and has a separate section of press releases by the PMO. However, it is hard to navigate and there is no opportunity for engagement with the press. Releases published on the webpage are to be notifications of what the PMO has done and/or plans to do. More importantly, the PIB is not the direct representative of the PMO and thus not a mouthpiece.

Modern India’s policy discourse should contribute towards having a more informed nation and voter base who know what each administration stands for.

It is a welcome provision for transparency but is by no means a substitute for having a dedicated press secretary. Daily press briefings on issues that are televised have much more room for transparency and accountability. This is especially useful when the press is free and unbiased. Instead of asking what may be easy, scripted questions, members of the press should be able to inquire about government operations without concerns for personal safety. So, if the Principal Secretary to the PM doesn’t have the mandate to handle the press and the Press Information Bureau is not a direct representative of the PMO, perhaps it is best to establish a new department that is in charge of public relations in a way that the office of the Press Secretary is in the U.S. It would be a big step in ensuring that truth alone triumphs.

It is, after all, a worthwhile cause to keep the public informed of the policy actions the highest office in the land is taking. Of course, the PMO engaging with the press will also mean asking and answering political questions, and that’s okay. Politics and policy are mutually reinforcing and it may be a fool’s errand to segregate the two. However, the idea here is to have a platform where a free press has the opportunity to ask questions that are important to the public. Having such a stage would have immense potential to supplement the policy discourse that prevails in a modern India and should also contribute towards having a more informed nation and voter base who know what each administration stands for.

This article was first published on The Hindu Thread: https://www.thehindu.com/thread/politics-and-policy/every-white-house-needs-a-sarah-sanders-even-indias/article27126101.ece