Is the PM’s video conference with CMs better than one-to-one phone calls?

Prime Minister is again slated to interact with chief ministers today, i.e. Monday, May 11. But how is a video conference with 10 or 12 CMs better than frank one-to-one conversations over the phone?

PM Modi and several Union ministers interact with chief ministers during a video conference on 27 April 2020
PM Modi and several Union ministers interact with chief ministers during a video conference on 27 April 2020

Uttam Sengupta

The last time the Prime Minister interacted with chief ministers was also on a Monday, April 27. The announcement of the video conference was made the previous day and TV channels went to town speculating what would be on the table.

Media reports that time suggested that nine chief ministers were given time to speak. At least one of them from the North East later complained that he understood nothing of what was being spoken in Hindi. Reports also suggested that the video-conference involved a monologue by the PM and was followed by chief ministers taking their turn and voicing their views on whether the lockdown should get extended. A few bolder ones may have come up with a wish list. But the PM seems to have got away by not addressing them.

Will today be different? If this same format is followed, there will be little scope for chief ministers to raise too many issues or even have a frank, heart to heart talk. With two dozen or more heads listening in, any frank exchange of views is simply not possible.

But why is the PM shying away from calling chief ministers? Why insist on a video conference? The Prime Minister can simply ask to be connected to the chief ministers, pick up the phone on the secure line and speak. He can surely call up a CM at 8 am and another at 10? At Noon or at midnight?

But this orchestrated video-conference with chief ministers makes one suspicious that no meaningful discussions are taking place; that the PM is not interested in a dialogue, that he is more interested in optics and create the impression that he is consulting the states. Any consultation between the PM and the CMs should ideally be a two-way traffic and chief ministers should not be treated as subordinates. Indeed, chief ministers ought to have the privilege of calling up the PM on a daily basis and seek his advice and opinion. One doubts if that is happening.

It is a paradox because the Prime Minister appears to be talking to heads of foreign governments all the time. No, he has not spoken to Pakistan’s Imran Khan. He does not seem to have spoken to China’s Xi Jin Ping either. But from Europe to Africa, he appears to have been speaking to everyone, that is if his Twitter handle is any indication.

Sheer curiosity led me to check what the PM had been tweeting these past few days. And the cursory glance was revealing. His tribute to Maharana Pratap had been retweeted two lakh times! He had also paid tributes to Tagore and Gokhale. He also tweeted his anguish at the goods train running over migrant workers at Aurangabad.

But otherwise, his Twitter handle provides no inkling of the crisis we are going through. Nothing on the lockdown, the stimulus, the tests, the rising number of deaths, the tanking economy—nothing.

On the other hand, he took time off to speak to at least one foreign leader a day. Not all of them seemed to have been as enthusiastic as our PM. The Twitter handle of many of them makes no mention of their great conversation with the Indian Prime Minister. But Narendra Modi’s handle records the following tweets.

· Tuesday, May 5, held discussion with Antonio Costa, PM of Portugal : Extensive discussions on the COVID-19 pandemic. Our nations will continue working together and support each other in these times, especially in ensuring supplies of medical products, sharing research and best practices.

· Wednesday, May 6 spoke to PM of Ethiopia: Spoke to PM Dr. Abiy Ahmed Ali. We discussed the COVID-19 situation. India stands in solidarity with our friends in Ethiopia as well as other countries in Africa, and will be a reliable partner to provide essential medical supplies and other assistance to handle the crisis.

· Thursday, May 7 with President, EU Council Charles Michel: Had an excellent discussion with @eucopresident H.E. Charles Michel on how India and Europe can cooperate during the COVID-19 crisis for protecting global health and contributing to global economic recovery. The India-EU partnership has tremendous potential in many areas, including scientific research & innovation.

· Friday, May 8 with Italian PM Giuseppe Conte: Conveyed my deep condolences to PM @GiuseppeConte for the loss of lives in Italy due to COVID-19. India and Italy will work together for addressing the challenges of post-COVID world including through our consecutive presidencies of the G20.

On Saturday he tweeted a message of solidarity with Russia and President Putin when Russia marked the victory in the second world war with an army parade. On Sunday the PM didn’t tweet anything.

He can certainly squeeze in the time to call chief ministers and discuss issues of mutual concern over the secure phone ? A spectacle during a crisis may not be that effective, sir.

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