Thousands of TV viewers in India----and possibly in the US too----- watched enthralled on the morning of May 7,2012, what the Americans describe as a Town Hall meeting between Mrs.Hillary Clinton, the US Secretary of State who was on a visit to Kolkata, and some youth of the city in a historic local school moderated by Barkha Dutt, India’s well-known TV journalist.
2.It was an exercise in grass-roots democracy in which sections of the public have an opportunity of questioning a political leader in public about issues of interest and concern to them. It was also an exercise in public diplomacy in which a political leader takes advantage of the opportunity provided by such interactions to explain his or her thinking and views on issues of public concern.
3.The tradition of Town Hall interactions, which was common in the initial years after the birth of the United States of America, was revived during the presidency of Bill Clinton and is increasingly followed by travelling US leaders during their travels inside the country as well as abroad. It provides an opportunity to the public to assess the mettle of the leader.
4. The Town Hall meetings differ from other gatherings and interactions in the sense that the interacting leader, who exposes himself or herself to the public, has to answer their questions and participate in a discussion with them without the help of aides. It is largely an extempore interaction in which only a well-informed and articulate leader can impress the public and carry conviction to them.
5.The format of Hillary Clinton’s Town Hall meeting had an opening statement read out from a prepared script, a warming-up discussion with Barkha and discussions with individuals in the audience moderated by Barkha.
6. The success of a Town Hall gathering as an exercise in grass-roots democracy and public diplomacy depends on the self-confidence of the leader, who chooses to expose himself or herself to the Town Hall, as well as of the moderator. Without a skillful moderator, who prepares himself or herself well for the interaction and who does not allow himself or herself to be overawed by the occasion, Town Hall meetings can prove to be damp squibs
7.I have seen on TV many of the Town Hall meetings of Bill and Hillary Clinton and President Barack Obama and have no hesitation in saying that Mrs.Clinton’s Kolkata Town Hall was one of the best one has seen.
8.The US Consulate in Kolkata needs to be complimented for requesting Barkha to moderate the Town Hall discussion. One cannot think of any other Indian TV personality who would have had the required knowledge and self-confidence to moderate the discussion in a manner that kept the focus on the personality of Mrs.Clinton, her command of facts and the intelligence of the young audience, which did not show any sign of nervousness in questioning the visiting US leader.
9.Both Mrs.Clinton and Barkha are epitomes of panache and poise which were evident throughout the interaction that lasted nearly 75 minutes. I did not notice a single question –however controversial---that was sought to be evaded by Mrs.Clinton. She was inoffensively frank and charmingly diplomatic at the same time. Whenever her replies seemed incomplete – as on the issue of West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee’s opposition to foreign direct investment in the retail trade---- Barkha politely prompted Mrs. Clinton to come out with her mind on the issue.
10.Mrs.Clinton, Barkha and the youthful audience made it into a scintillating exercise. One only hopes that our leaders, who tend to be public shy and tongue-tied, watched it on the TV. Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi were very good in extempore interactions with the public ---whether in urban or rural areas, whether outside their house or during their travels.
11.In my younger days I remember seeing Gandhiji and other leaders of our Independence struggle interacting with the public. Traditions of such interactions have disappeared from our political landscape. Our political leaders of today---baring a few exceptions---- give the impression of avoiding the public which put them in power.
12.It is hoped that the Town Hall meeting of Mrs.Clinton would create in them a desire for more direct interactions with the people. They should come out of their shell and expose themselves to the gaze and relentless questioning of the people.
( The writer is Additional Secretary (retd), Cabinet Secretariat, Govt.of India )