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Breaking news: silence broken

New Delhi, Dec. 14: He came, he saw and he spoke… on the Lokpal bill.

The news is that he came, he saw and he spoke, not once but thrice in a week.

Rahul Gandhi has finally decided to tell his side of some of the stories, breaking out of an invisible — and seemingly impregnable — shell that remained in place despite the best efforts of the party’s spokespersons for the past few years.

The presence of the Congress vice-president at a media conference today on the Lokpal bill reflected the depth of the crisis on this front. There was nothing new to say but the party decided to field him probably because of the apprehension that even a battery of top ministers wouldn’t be able to make the desired impact.

Although finance minister P. Chidambaram, law minister Kapil Sibal and personnel minister V. Narayanasamy were present, apart from communications chief Ajay Maken, Rahul joined the team to appeal to all parties for the bill’s passage in the Rajya Sabha.

This was Rahul’s third appearance before the media since the Assembly election results were declared on December 8, when he came out with Sonia Gandhi to express disappointment. He had again called the media to speak on gay rights last Thursday.

All three passed off without drawing any comparisons with an unscheduled intervention at a media conference in September when Rahul had described as “nonsense” the ordinance to shield convicted politicians.

Today’s media conference, too, was unscheduled but it demonstrated a method in his new approach, which appeared to be aimed at bridging the communication gap that has hurt the party’s politics.

Two new challenges the Congress has to grapple with — Narendra Modi’s widening presence and Arvind Kejriwal’s stunning political debut — took shape over the past few months when Rahul held a series of meetings with party functionaries with the strict warning to keep off journalists.

Sources in the party said Rahul had been convinced by some leaders that there was no point in engaging with journalists who were anyway opposed to the pro-poor policies of the Congress.

But Sonia had identified the problem of perception as a key concern and repeatedly entreated party workers and leaders to take the correct message to the masses. Some corrective measures were taken, such as changing the entire AICC media department headed by the conservative Janardan Dwivedi. A new team was set up to focus on social media.

Information and broadcasting minister Ambika Soni was replaced with a younger and dynamic Manish Tewari, who presumed that “a-tweet-a-day” would cure the communication ills.

Maken, the new communications chief, held workshops for spokespersons and talent hunt for articulate leaders but the dominant view in the party was that the overall situation had worsened.

While Dwivedi used to meet correspondents at least twice a week, Maken stopped that practice, further insulating the party. Among the new general secretaries, one often says: “You can come for tea or coffee, not for discussing politics.”

Rahul has probably realised that this attitude is counter-productive. Today, he met a group of senior editors -- an off-the-record exercise that will continue in the coming weeks. Rahul spoke freely and fielded questions for over two hours.

Hours later, he addressed the media conference on the proposed Lokpal, describing it as an important instrument in the fight against corruption, though not a panacea for all the ills as Anna Hazare and Arvind Kejriwal had projected it to be.

Rahul described the Right to Information law as a bigger tool while explaining the new legal framework that UPA II had put in place, claiming that no other government had ever done so much in bringing transparency and accountability to the system.

“We are 99 per cent there, on the finishing line. Parties should set aside their reservations and complete this job,” he said.

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