You have only one life to live, and one question to ask. One question, one person. And don’t weave multiple questions into one, like the Matryoshka doll. And as any seasoned journalist covering India’s foreign office, better known as MEA, knows by this time that they can speculate endlessly, but he does not respond to speculation. Only hard facts, truth-telling, albeit with a bit of spinning that goes with his job.
Syed Akbaruddin’s pointed one-liners, witticisms and sharp ripostes are now part of folklore in the universe the voraciously inquisitive and intrusive media inhabits. And rightly so, for Akbar, as he is being fondly called by his colleagues in the ministry and journalists covering the MEA beat, set new benchmarks for communicating and batting for the government, regardless of the dispensation in power.
His briefings were a delight to attend – he was factual, not afraid to take a stand, go on the offensive, if the need be, to defend his ministry or the government, not revealing too much, but giving the perennially hungry media enough morsels of information to keep them sated and in good humour. Evasion and equivocation are necessary survival skills for any spokesperson of the government or a ministry, but Akbar did so with a dash of gentle self-deprecating humour. If any ambitious journalist tried to corner him with a tricky question or tried to ferret too much, he will gently fob off saying it’s above his paygrade.
It took a lot out of him to deliver nearly flawless performance in front of an assertive media, day after day, week after week. A lot of hard work, sweat and preparation went into his seemingly effortless encounters with the media. He will check into his office early morning, and will be the last one to leave, even after most of his supporting staff had left for home. Many a time I rang him up at his office at 9 am and called him again at 9 pm, and he will be there, all patience, responding to questions posed. And I was not the exception – he will respond to any earnest journalist regardless of the time of the day. He played no favourites, and was not into self-promotion or holding court. It was all scrupulously professional, understated and forthright, qualities that endeared him especially, among others, to Prime Minister Narendra Modi and External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj.
Akbar also excelled as India’s pointsperson for public diplomacy, and initiated a host of steps to enhance the MEA’s outreach to diverse constituencies by expertly using multiple social media platforms. The official twitter handle of Akbaruddin counts 313 k followers and the official Facebook page of MEA flaunts 845,000 likes.
Batting for Africa
Akbar, the spokesperson of India’s external affairs ministry who makes way for his successor Vikas Swarup on April 18, will be sorely missed by his countless admirers as he moves into his next position, this time around as Chief Coordinator for the Third India-Africa Forum Summit (IAFS-III), to be held in New Delhi in October.
The new interim position, till he gets a coveted ambassadorial posting, reflects the high standing he enjoys with the powers-that-be as the Narendra Modi government was looking exactly for someone like Akbar to be the face of India’s diplomatic outreach to Africa. India is doing a lot of good work in Africa, which is underreported and not getting reflected in the public sphere with the media obsessed only with a few big countries.
Amid the continuing recession in the Eurozone, the ongoing African resurgence and India’s multi-faceted partnership with the continent is an unfolding narrative that deserves better projection and dissemination. In the media-saturated wired world where the medium is the message, telling a good story is as important as what actually gets done. With his proven skills in communication and public diplomacy which he helmed for India for over three years, the government can safely bank on the suave and articulate Akbar to pull off a successful summit and the larger project of building bridges with the vibrant African continent that is set to loom large on India’s diplomatic horizons in months to come.
- Manish Chand is Founder-CEO and Editor-in-Chief of India Writes Network (www.indiawrites.org) and India and World, a pioneering magazine focused on international affairs. He is CEO/Director of TGII Media Private Limited, an India-based media, publishing, research and consultancy company.
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