Chidambaram’s ‘Hangout’ debut: learning from Modi, a lesson for others

March 4, 2013

(Any opinions expressed here are those of the author, and not necessarily of Thomson Reuters)

P. Chidambaram’s budget announcements might not have pleased everyone, but the finance minister has done reasonable work in the recent months to improve market sentiment and shed the ruling coalition’s “business as usual” image.

On Monday, he became the first cabinet minister in India to appear on Google Hangout, taking questions from young students, analysts and industry experts on topics from the budget, rising prices and the economy in general.

Chidambaram, seen by some as the Congress party’s next candidate for prime minister, has taken the right step towards shedding the reticent, sometimes secretive image of the party’s top brass. Congress party chief Sonia Gandhi and vice-president Rahul have long been criticised for their media shy, quiet image.

Chidambaram as finance minister must address businesses and the media regularly. But with 65 percent of India’s population less than 35 years old, connecting with masses using platforms like social media is key in today’s age, and a good step for someone who already has a good record of communication.

With general elections approaching and the government’s image tainted because of corruption scandals, appearing disconnected from the public will only hamper the party’s road to recovery.

Here, it seems, Congress has learned a trick or two from Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi, widely seen as main opposition party BJP’s prime ministerial candidate for 2014.  After his recent election victory in Gujarat, where he boasts of fast growth and clean governance, Modi is fast becoming a role model for India’s politicians.

Modi became the first Indian politician to use Google Hangout to interact with the public, and he continued his technological approach when he used 3D technology during his poll campaign. He also addressed more than 1,000 students in Shri Ram College of Commerce in Delhi in February, a move that seemed to be a bid for the youth vote.

Modi has set the bar high, but if Congress must compete with Modi, its senior ranks must think about how to match him and outdo him.

Though Chidambaram’s “Hangout” seems to be a good starting point, it would be interesting to see if other party leaders, especially Rahul Gandhi, widely seen as PM-in-waiting, adopt this approach to connect with the masses.

It might be tough to cross-question Chidambaram during a press conference, but Monday’s ‘Hangout’ was a bit different. At one point, he was repeatedly interrupted by a participant who wanted to know his views about India’s urban middle class and rising costs.

It seems Chidambaram managed to convince the participant, as she ended by saying: “Thank you Mr. PM”. Perhaps, the finance minister’s debut on ‘Hangout’ should set an example for other politicians to follow suit.

(You can follow Aditya on Twitter at @adityayk)

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