A day after the Congress chintan shivir in Jaipur, where Rahul Gandhi made an electrifying speech, reducing many seasoned Congress leaders to tears, TV channels were scrounging around to find Congress leaders to come on their programmes and speak in favour of Rahul.
Had it been Narendra Modi who had made such a presentation, his team would have gone to town in making sure that it — and word about it — was relayed to the far corners of the country within minutes. The Congress, however, had no such strategy, not even to get the Youth Congress leaders on Facebook and Twitter and provoke a roaring debate around their icon Rahul and the change he wanted to bring. As a result, the Internet was full of voices skeptical about the new vice president of the Congress.
This speaks volumes about the inadequacy of the Congress party’s media and communications strategy. When it thinks of “media management”, it is only thinking of how to push the media to echo its line.
It is not as if the Congress does not have bright, articulate, tech and media savvy leaders. But they need to be unleashed, utilized and tasked with specific responsibilities.
It is possible that many Congress leaders were unwilling to face the cameras soon after Jaipur because they were not sure how to handle the subject, particularly as it involved Rahul. And they had obviously not been briefed about the line to take.
It is also possible that they thought it was better to stay off screen at a time when Rahul was about to reconstitute his new team — lest they commit a faux pas, and be sidelined, as a result.
Though many young leaders were called to speak on the Jaipur Declaration at the AICC session, very few went beyond singing paeans of Rahul.
Rahul has many tasks confronting him now. He has to put together his team, and there is speculation on whether he will go in for his own “political secretary”, or a team of four-five mass-based leaders, from north, south, east and west, who give him feedback and act as his think tank.
From all accounts, however, it may be “continuity with change” for Rahul, rather than “change with continuity”, let alone a complete break from the past. Rahul likes to move cautiously, like his mother, and has given enough hints that he will continue with senior leaders, many of them in his mother’s team, and “learn” from them.
It is interesting that though his formal anointment as the party’s number two had been decided 10 days before the chintan shivir, only a handful of leaders, and that includes the party’s old guard — Ahmed Patel, Janardan Dwivedi, Motilal Vora and AK Antony — were apparently privy to it, apart from the Gandhi family!
At Jaipur, Rahul laid out a vision of the systemic change in the party that he would like to move towards, but that is a long term project. More imminent, he has to beat the Congress into some kind of a shape in the 2013 poll-going states.
In normal course, the party should have been able to put the BJP on the defensive in Madhya Pradesh and Chhatisgarh, but neither state looks easy for it, thanks to the absence of a clear leadership in both states. Rajasthan and Delhi are suffering from anti-incumbency, though Karnataka does provide a window of opportunity for the Congress.
The longer term challenge of reviving the Congress in the large states — UP, Bihar, Tamil Nadu, West Bengal — remains unaddressed and with the party deferring the decision on Telangana again, the situation does not look good for it in Andhra Pradesh, which propelled it to power in 2004 and 2009.
Though the Nehru-Gandhi family has been known to keep the Congress united, party members accept the stewardship of the family because it is able to deliver votes to the party. The situation could start changing the moment Congressmen get a sense that the Gandhi family is unable to garner votes.
Though Rahul had managed to create a new connect with his party workers at Jaipur, they are carefully watching to see whether the hitherto aloof and inaccessible leader is going to metamorphose into a 24x7 politician, available to them.
The most important task before Rahul, however, is to create an environment in which his team feels free to speak out without fear of making mistakes, because he has created a sense of confidence in them that even if they do, he will stand by them. For, what bedevils the Congress today is not a lack of talent or ideas, but the party’s inability to distinguish between sycophancy and loyalty.
The writer is a political and social commentator