Today is the second death anniversary of I. Ramamohan Rao, the genial Kannadiga who served as the principal spokesman of the government of India under four prime ministers and under three different political formulations.
There is an advertisement (above) in the Delhi papers to mark the date.
Rao, who like most Dakshina Kannada boys of the time cut his teeth in Bombay, was a defence public relations officer (PRO) during the three wars from 1962. He ended up serving Rajiv Gandhi, V.P. Singh, Chandrashekhar and P.V. Narasimha Rao.
Admittedly, Rao served in a pre-satellite TV, pre-internet, pre-social media era. But as the alleged “Master Communicator” Narendra Modi finds himself in all kinds of knots with the media, Rao’s description of the interactions of previous PMs makes for sober reading.
- At Jawaharlal Nehru’s monthly press conferences, journalists would try to provoke Panditji and India’s first PM would oblige with a response that usually began with his favourite phrase, “what fantastic nonsense”.
- Rajiv Gandhi did not mind the media writing about how he spent his New Year eve or weekends, and Ramnath Goenka of the Indian Express actually thought he was the “best thing to happen to India” (till Bofors struck).
- V.P. Singh regularly hosted small groups of editors and commentators for informal dinners at his residence and could be told in his face that the constituency that had backed him was now unhappy with his performance.
- Chandrashekhar could speak extempore, precise to the dot, even in a live televised address, never asked journalists what they were going to ask beforehand, and ‘no comments’ was never his response.
- P.V. Narasimha Rao, clad in an undershirt and dhoti, himself opened the door to a cameraman on the day his name was announced as likely PM and, when asked for a comment, said, “No, no, not now”.
In his book, Ramamohan Rao has a sterling piece of advice to those who think keeping the “nattering nabobs of negativism” (as Richard Nixon‘s speech writer William Saffire called those whom Modi calls ‘dalals’) at bay can be standard operating procedure to stave off scrutiny and criticism.
“Not treating the media like an adversary is the first thing that a government communicator must keep in mind.”
After five decades in government, Ramamohan Rao joined his son-in-law’s Asian News International (ANI), which has emerged as India’s top video news agency—and Narendra Modi’s television agency of choice.
(Excerpted from Conflict Communication: Chronicles Of a Communicator; Pentagon Press; Pages 188, Rs. 595)
Also read: Kalyani Shankar on I. Ramamohan Rao