An indefensible Congress tries to defend itself by blaming the media for being biased against it, but wears blinkers when it comes to its own repeated public relations blunders. In a party plagued with divergent views, the absence of consistency is the only constant. How, then, would party vice-president Rahul Gandhi—the to-be president, going by long-time speculation in party circles, with D-Day now expected to arrive by December—take on the ruling BJP, which is rapidly spreading its wings from west to east and north to south?
To take on the BJP’s growing might with collective responsibility, putting things in the correct perspective and avoiding self-goals, Congress president Sonia Gandhi has set up a structured communication strategy group comprising party leaders of the two Houses—Mallikarjun Kharge and Ghulam Nabi Azad—and former cabinet ministers Anand Sharma, P. Chidambaram, Mani Shankar Aiyar and Jairam Ramesh, besides Lok Sabha MPs Jyotiraditya Scindia and Sushmita Dev. Party research head and MP Rajeev Gowda and communications unit head Randeep Surjewala are ex-officio members in the group.
Since cohesiveness and concerted efforts have been missing in the party for quite some time now, individual leaders have been taking initiatives in outreach programmes. For instance, the party’s SC wing is busy organising the three-day international conference ‘Reclaiming Social Justice, Revisiting Ambedkar’ in Bangalore, beginning July 21 and with Martin Luther King III and Rahul Gandhi as chief guests. Similarly, Pushparaj Deshpande, an analyst with the All-India Congress Committee (AICC), is also trying to do his bit.
The idea of a structured group got a definite push when Surjewala, seldom available on weekends for official comments, recently jumped the gun by denying Rahul’s meeting with China’s Ambassador to India Luo Zhaohui on July 8, in the middle of the India-China border standoff. He called television channels that aired the news as “bhakts”. Subsequently, Rahul tweeted about his meeting with the envoy: “It is my job to be informed on critical issues. I met the Chinese Ambassador, ex-NSA, Congress leaders from NE & the Bhutanese Ambassador.”
Nobody knows who lost the plot in this drama, but it surely got the party into an embarrassing situation that lasted many days. Whispers in the Congress corridors suggest Sonia’s inquiries on the episode led to the setting up of the communication strategy group in the AICC. The group has been clearly instructed to meet “on a daily basis and assist” the communication department. Daily meetings may not be feasible, though, as the members are all busy leaders who also need to handle party work in their respective constituencies.
Party insiders are mystified by Surjewala’s denial episode. While some feel he might not have been briefed, other remarks range from “What was the need to rush this” to “God knows why he did what he did”, “He is supposed to have been in touch with RG, then why didn’t he contact him before going public”, “He should have been removed after this major goof-up” and so on.
Errors are not unusual in political parties, but blunders are rare, especially in the context of border tensions with a neighbouring nation. The shift in media focus to the killings of seven Amarnath yatris by militants helped the party avoid a bigger political backlash, according to some Congress leaders.
Congress watchers believe its leaders have long been working in silos and it affects even Surjewala’s department, which is expected to work in coordination with others. For instance, Gowda and Surjewala began to coordinate only when the document on demonetisation, Arthquake, was to be released.
In the past too, Congress teams have often taken stands presuming the leadership’s views to be obviously critical of the Modi government. Sometimes this left them with eggs on their faces. For instance, a couple of months back, youth Congress workers slaughtered a calf in Kerala during a protest. Many Congressmen supported it, tweeting and retweeting with photographs of the incident. But when Rahul learnt of it, he condemned it. The purpose of the new strategy group is to avoid such a faux pas.
Rahul seems keen to put together his team of young people before he officially takes full charge of the party. But how will he handle the issue of leaders in responsible positions speaking at cross-purposes within the party?
A major embarrassment was when Sonia Gandhi went to meet the President on the EVM issue, and Punjab CM Captain Amrinder Singh went to the media with an opposite stand. Having just won an election, he told the media that everything was fine with the EVMs.
On Kashmir, the Congress had to call Mani Shankar Aiyar’s views as his personal opinion because the party’s stand was different. “We keep doing this exercise to keep the party’s identity intact,” says a senior party leader. So is the case with Jairam Ramesh.
The party has been lacking a structured viewpoint and maturity in deciding what and what not to say, and when and how to do it. The media department has been a rocking boat for quite some years. Janardan Dwivedi was not Rahul’s favourite as media in-charge and ran into many controversies. Ajay Maken fared little better and subsequently became the chief of the Delhi Pradesh Congress Committee.
In May, Surjewala announced some new appointments by the high command even before general secretary Dwivedi issued an official note. This was unlike what has been the custom in the party. Dwivedi got so infuriated that he refused to issue the note.
The Congress is now trying to follow in the BJP’s footsteps, with its social media and research offices functioning from different places—mostly from MP quarters. MPs like Deepender Singh Hooda, Sushmita Dev, Gowda and others have opened their doors to accommodate these teams.
Former MP and actor Divya Spandana, popularly known as Ramya, is said to be functioning from New Delhi’s North Avenue, where many MPs from Karnataka have their official accommodation. Ramya, who is popular on social media, is known to have direct access to Rahul. She is planning to put together a team of 20-25 members to take on the Modi government.
Before MEA & IB sources plant news with 'Bhakts', they should reverify that we still have diplomatic relations with all our neighbours.2/n— Randeep S Surjewala (@rssurjewala) July 10, 2017
A wanting to be 'Bhakt' channel will not question 3 Union Ministers visiting China or PM's bonhomie & praise at G20 yet run fake news!— Randeep S Surjewala (@rssurjewala) July 10, 2017
It is my job to be informed on critical issues. I met the Chinese Ambassador, Ex-NSA, Congress leaders from NE & the Bhutanese Ambassador— Office of RG (@OfficeOfRG) July 10, 2017
What happened in Kerala yesterday is thoughtless,barbaric& completely unacceptable to me &the Congress Party.I strongly condemn the incident— Office of RG (@OfficeOfRG) May 28, 2017
Randeep Surjewala and Rahul Gandhi’s tweets clashed embarrassingly
“In politics, moments matter. Our responses to events need to be rapid. With the structured group in place and concerted effort, we can reach out to people with our perspective,” says a young leader. But if leaders sit on high horses, it will be no surprise if the strategy group also meets the same fate as the shadow cabinet committees created before the winter session last year.