One of the enduring memories of the Diwali weekend visit by the planet's most powerful man -- second most powerful, if you go by the recent Forbes ranking -- to Mumbai was his interaction with college students at St Xavier's College, where he fielded diverse, and uncomfortable, questions. Questions ranging from what jihad meant to him to Pakistan, but Obama was game for everything.
The answers may not have satisfied everyone, but by opening himself to questions Obama won hearts and minds in an information-starved India.
Watching him open-mouthed, I realised that he opened up because of two possibilities. One, he had nothing to hide, or two, he did but was willing to brazen it out. The jury may be out on where Obama fits in, but my point is that only those who have things to hide, who don't have answers to uncomfortable questions, take refuge in silence and non-communication.
Unfortunately, a leader who communicates is not an image that sits well in India. When was the last time you had the prime minister, or the Congress president, or the young man who everybody believes is being groomed for the top job in the country, express their worldview in an open interaction?
How many of our chief ministers go about meeting their constituents? Narendra Modi is a name that comes up often here, but who else?
Media conferences may happen once in a while, but a Town Hall kind of meeting that Obama addressed, where the citizens' concerns are directly addressed? If you rule out the ubiquitous election meetings the answer is, never.
Why is it that in this age of exploding communication, our leaders, regardless of age and ideology, shy away from communicating to the people who elect them? Why this unwillingness to be subject to some grilling by the people who voted you into office?
Could it be that our political leaders believe that once the votes are cast, the master-servant equation that powers the democratic machinery changes forever, till the next time the votes need to be canvassed?
It could be that most of our politicians belong to an era when communication only meant writing letters, making a speech and issuing press releases. The man who as finance minister ushered economic revolution in the country, has failed to realise that concomitant to his reforms is the explosion in media we see all around us, which has erased the distance between the ruler and the ruled, thanks to instant communication courtesy the Internet.
To the undiscerning eye, the ensuing cacophony may seem like a media circus, but the true communicator -- like Obama -- would harness this favourably.
The counterpoint can be imagined: Ah, but the internet and such are a young man's playthings, you don't expect eminence grise to get online and chat, do you?
Which can be rebuffed with a quick: But what's age got to do with anything, dude! The Internet is just a medium. The print was yesterday's, television is today's and the Internet is the medium of tomorrow. What matters is how effectively you use it.
Hugo Chavez is all of 56 years young, one doesn't hear him cribbing about technology or new media as he engages with his constituents on Twitter. Or for that matter the venerable Fidel Castro, who engages a team to tweet for him. Only part of their reason could be to appear 'cool' and 'with it'; mostly it is done out of their desire to get their message across.
Our own B S Yeddyurappa is no spring chicken, but thanks to Twitter I knew this afternoon that the embattled Karnataka chief minister who is facing corruption charges has 'ordered a judicial probe by a retired Supreme Court judge into all land deals, in and around Bangalore, in the last 10 years'.
I wish I knew, similarly, as a citizen and not a journalist, what our prime minister thought of the various issues dogging his government, of which there are plenty.
I wish someone would tell him, and the rest of the political establishment, that communication is the hallmark of a true leader. All the legendary leaders were skillful communicators who used the tools of the day to get their point across -- to the people, not to a privileged janata.
And going by the silence from 7, Racecourse Road, the people are not the only ones eager to know what goes on in the occupant's mind -- even the Supreme Court of India, which has ordered the prime minister to file an affidavit explaining his silence on the 2G spectrum scam, would like to know it!
Really, did things have to come to such a sorry pass where the prime minister, for the first time ever, has to explain his silence/inaction to the top court in the land? Even Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, who was directly accused of involvement in the Bofors scam but which was never proved, did not face such a situation. Nor did P V Narasimha Rao, believed by many (not me) to have presided over the most corrupt government in Independent India.
Not even his political opponents suspect Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to be corrupt. Nor does anyone doubt that Dr Singh is a good man who has the nation's wellbeing at heart. But often, a good man's silence has the potential to cause more harm than a bad man's deeds, and we have known this from the ancient legends of this land.
There are so many questions that Dr Singh can address, and here's a sparse sample: Why, despite the widespread knowledge that Andimuthu Raja's actions as telecom minister would cause a humongous loss to the exchequer, was he persisted with?
Why were Raja's dubious actions not annulled and his orders reversed?
Why did it take so long for Raja to be sacked from the Cabinet?
If what we learnt in our civic lessons years ago, that in a democracy the people are supreme, is true, why is the prime minister rushing to answer the Supreme Court and not the people whose mandate made his government?
Couldn't he have avoided the embarrassment by being more open and direct with the people in the first place?
And, there is a lesson in this sorry episode for all future, budding politicians. The point is, will they learn?