The Telegraph
Thursday , July 13 , 2017

Team to avoid media slip-ups

Sonia Gandhi

New Delhi, July 12: The communication blunder on Rahul Gandhi's meeting with the Chinese envoy has prompted Sonia Gandhi to set up a high-level committee to decide the party line on vital issues.

The party had initially tried to project the media reports about the meeting as fake, forcing Rahul to intervene as the confusion had embarrassed the party. Senior leaders were said to be livid as they felt that the unnecessary denial could create suspicion and legitimise the BJP's insinuations.

Although Rahul too had for long felt the need for a proper mechanism involving experienced leaders to analyse contemporary issues and decide the party line, the latest misstep hastened the process.

Sonia has constituted a communications strategy group with veterans who have knowledge of politics, economics, strategic affairs and diplomacy to assist the party's communications department, which is run mostly by inexperienced people.

The group will meet daily to discuss burning issues and formulate the Congress's strategy on them.

The members of the committee are Ghulam Nabi Azad, P. Chidambaram, Mallikarjun Kharge, Anand Sharma, Mani Shankar Aiyar, Jairam Ramesh, Jyotiraditya Scindia and Sushmita Deb.

Deb, a young parliamentarian and Congress spokesperson, was included primarily because she works closely with the communications department.

Randeep Surjewala, who heads the Congress communications department, will be the ex-officio member of the group along with Rajiv Gowda, the chairperson of the party's research department.

Although Surjewala is an articulate leader with good command over English and Hindi, his exposure has been limited because his political activities had been restricted to Haryana as an MLA and minister.

Although there are experienced leaders in the communications department as senior spokespersons, there was no structured process of deciding the party line and Surjewala often finalised the stand through informal consultations.

There were several unseemly controversies in the recent past before Rahul's meeting with Chinese ambassador Luo Zhaohui - the enthusiastic support to Prime Minister Narendra Modi's comments on Balochistan being a case in point.

Modi had said last year that Pakistan must answer to the world for its "atrocities" against the people of Balochistan and Pakistan-occupied Kashmir. The Congress had broken from its traditional policy of not interfering in the affairs of other countries and supported Modi's comments.

The AICC's media department used to meet regularly in the afternoon to discuss the day's developments and consulted domain experts on tricky issues, but that practice was discarded.

Now, media coordinators prepare statements in consultation with Surjewala on the basis of research department inputs. They also consult general secretaries on matters related to states.

Sonia's political secretary Ahmed Patel used to ensure clearance from the top leadership on critical issues but the absence of a chain of command in Rahul's system left everything to informal consultations. It was difficult to fix responsibility for mistakes in the absence of a defined system.

The team of young spokespersons demonstrated energy and produced "reactions" in plenty but senior leaders continued to feel that the communications crisis was far from over.

There was a dominant view that the party relied solely on Modi-bashing instead of generating an alternative narrative in the mainstream political discourse. The party often appeared helpless on issues such as nationalism, religion and terrorism. The young spokespersons lacked political gravitas and failed to ensure adequate media coverage.

The constitution of the communications strategy group is being seen as the first step in the Congress's efforts to look for effective spokespersons to bolster its communication system.

Sonia today removed general secretary B.K. Hariprasad and appointed new leaders to look after the states under his charge. While the young R.P.N. Singh will be in charge of Jharkhand, veteran leader P.L. Punia will look after Chhattisgarh. Umang Singhar and Mainul Haque have been appointed secretaries for Jharkhand. Kamlesh Patel and Arun Oraon will assist Punia in Chhattisgarh.

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