Learning to communicate

ARATI R. JERATH

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IT was a bizarre tale but sadly, one that most journalists half-believed. The story surfaced during the Gujarat assembly elections with allegations that Congress leaders were distributing envelopes of money to correspondents to have their public meetings covered. There was a twist in the tale too. The envelopes were said to have contained one hundred rupees less than the sanctioned amount because middlemen had siphoned off a cut for themselves! It doesn’t matter that the story was never proved. It gained currency (it was actually published in a leading daily) as a cruel affirmation of the images that have come to be associated with the grand old party of Indian politics. Corruption, arrogance and the misplaced belief that favourable publicity, like votes, can be bought.

Tragically for the Congress, it continues to be haunted by the credibility crisis that dogged it in its dealings with the media through its long stint in government. Despite being out of power for seven years now, it has somehow failed to establish the bonhomie that marks the relationship between an opposition party and journalists. At best, there’s a mutual wariness; at worst, they are antagonists. Neither has sought to make common cause as anti-establishment voices raised against the government of the day.

Journalists can perhaps be accused of clinging to old biases. However, there seems to be a strange reluctance on the part of the Congress to try and change its perceptions. Although the spokesman’s office was expanded into a full-fledged media department a few years ago for better information flow, the party seems to have forgotten the vital art of political communication. If at all it has a message to convey, it doesn’t know the idiom any more. In an age dominated by sound bytes, the Congress has lost its voice.

 

 

It isn’t as if the party has failed to take political initiatives or respond to challenges. But somehow it has been unable to capitalise on its strengths and showcase itself as a combative opposition. There are innumerable occasions on which the Congress missed the bus because it lacks the necessary image building skills. The most glaring is the beating it took on the Godhra incident. Congress President Sonia Gandhi was actually one of the first national leaders off the block to condemn the gory attack that killed 64 kar sevaks travelling on a train through Godhra in Gujarat. She issued a statement the same evening, before Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee and Deputy Prime Minister L.K. Advani.

The next day, it was Vajpayee and other government leaders who pleaded with Members of Parliament not to disrupt the Lok Sabha over the incident so that the Union budget could be presented. Yet, in public memory, Sonia and the Congress have gone down as the villains of the piece for not expressing proper outrage over the massacre. BJP leaders repeatedly criticized her and her party, obliquely blaming them for the subsequent mob violence against Muslims because of their lack of sympathy for the Hindu pilgrims. Despite the facts of the case, the Congress inexplicably failed to counter these charges. Either it did not know how to respond or it did not understand the ramifications of the BJP’s propaganda. It behaved like an ostrich and buried its head in the sand.

Similarly, the party did nothing to publicize the shamelessly political nature of the riots that followed the Godhra carnage. Local Gujarat Congress leaders did extensive studies on the pattern of the riots and had plenty of evidence to show that most of them occurred in their strongholds, lending credence to the theory that the flames of communal violence were deliberately fanned to divide the Congress vote bank. Instead, the party chose to keep quiet, not just officially but unofficially too. No effort was made to share data with the media or organise selective leaks to push the point. And this is when the media, at least the national media, was almost unanimously critical of the BJP-RSS role in the communal violence.

 

 

It is surprising that the Congress has done little to correct its shortcomings on this score. It is pitted against a party like the BJP which not only has an overdeveloped talent for spin doctoring, but also a well-oiled propaganda machine to carry its message across the board. Even in government, Union ministers take time out to spin a line on behalf of the party to the media, which then faithfully reports a new BJP strategy, a fresh political offensive or the latest thinking on a controversial issue.

Not so the Congress. For instance, Sonia was the only national leader to campaign during the Jammu and Kashmir assembly elections despite the heightened security risk during that period. Neither Prime Minister Vajpayee nor Home Minister Advani addressed public meetings or even visited the state although the BJP had high stakes in Jammu.

Yet, the Congress did not try nor seemed to want to play up this bold gesture by the party chief. As it turned out, it did exceedingly well in the polls but there was no attempt to link the victory to Sonia’s visits or indeed package it in a larger political perspective. It was as if the Congress was not bothered about building up its leader’s image and was content to let the facts speak for themselves.

The recent block level presidents’ convention, held in the capital, is another telling example of a lost opportunity. It was an innovative move and according to most participants, successfully executed as well. The convention was intended to be a launching pad for next year’s parliamentary election campaign with the Congress leadership giving its rank and file a clear political direction. Indeed, for the first time after Gujarat, the Congress made a conscious effort to move away from the increasingly futile debate on Hindutva and focused instead on bread and butter issues on which the NDA government is vulnerable.

 

 

Unfortunately, the political import of the convention was lost in fuzzy messaging. Sonia’s speeches were widely covered. What the reports missed were the real gains of the event – the mobilisation of grassroots workers on such a large scale, the enthusiasm, the sense of purpose it generated and most importantly, it defined a political agenda for the Congress in the months leading up to the next general election. The convention did not merely mark a return to Indira Gandhi’s garibi hatao slogan, as most of the media reported.

It would be easy to blame this on poor journalism. The truth is the party simply did not bother to brief journalists on the nuances. Virtually no senior Congress leader or office bearer spent any time in the media enclosure to package the convention for public consumption or analyse its political importance. There was no effort to give the event the right spin or put a larger perspective on it. The party seemed quite content to dish out routine stuff to the media.

Contrast this with the BJP. At any gathering, Sushma Swaraj, Pramod Mahajan, Arun Jaitley and Venkaiah Naidu invariably stroll over to the media for a chat. Make no mistake, there is a hidden agenda in these deceptively casual gestures, which is to ensure that the message the party wants to convey gets through. They do it even today when they are in government and many of them are Union ministers. And it’s because, apart from being more media friendly than their Congress counterparts, BJP leaders are also schooled to push the party agenda rather than individual predilections.

 

 

In the Congress, on the other hand, individuals tend to put themselves before the party. A Congress leader wanting to back stab a rival will seek out journalists although, just the day before, the same person may have refused to answer questions related to developments in the party. For example, a spate of critical stories against Sonia’s Girl Friday Ambika Soni found almost as much column space in newspapers as the party president’s speeches at the block presidents’ convention. It was easy to figure out why. The stories appeared on the eve of a reshuffle in the All India Congress Committee and were clearly aimed at cutting Ambika down. For once, ‘debriefing’ was in full swing!

It’s not that the gulf between the Congress and the media cannot be bridged. Today, they are both on the same side of the fence with the NDA government as a common target. The Congress needs to understand this and stop treating the media as an adversary. The media can actually be an ally for an opposition party, which must necessarily be aggressive and utilise every weapon it can to put the government in the dock.

What can the Congress do to use the media more effectively? First of all, it will have to stop behaving like a ruling party. If the BJP is having difficulty in adjusting to the compulsions of a party of governance, the Congress seems to be finding it equally hard to meet the demands of being in the opposition. It has an unshakable belief in its divine right to rule, which colours all its responses. Consequently, it continues to be stiff and aloof with the media and is transparently reluctant to part with information.

It is ironic that Congress leaders emerge even from all-party meetings and behave as if they have been discussing top secret matters of state. Other opposition leaders think nothing of giving a detailed briefing on the proceedings to the press. Not so their comrades-in-arms in the Congress. They remain as closemouthed as if they have just finished a Cabinet meeting.

 

 

Today, the focus should be on the BJP-led NDA government, not the Congress. The party would do well to remember this and shed its arrogant attitude and its suspicions of the media. Interactive sessions with the press need not be seen as a breach of party discipline. In fact, senior leaders could be encouraged to talk to journalists informally and give them a perspective on issues and Congress strategy. This would facilitate more informed coverage by the media and certainly go a long way in erasing the biases that make journalists pounce on reports of infighting and dissidence rather than look for stories with political substance.

In this context, the Congress needs to take a second look at its media department. With the mushrooming of television channels, magazines and newspapers, it was a good idea to supplement the official spokesperson’s efforts with a special cell devoted to taking care of the needs of the press. Over the years since its inception, the department has facilitated information flow between the party and the media, standardised official briefings across the country so that state units do not contradict the central office and streamlined the availability of routine data such as photo ops at 10 Janpath, Congress Working Committee meetings, and so on.

 

 

What the department lacks is political content. Consequently, it is unable to give a fuller perspective to the day’s official briefing. Although it has a panel of spokespersons in addition to the chief spokesperson, few of them seem to be in the decision-making loop and are therefore unable to add to what has been stated officially. Also, since they are not part of the inner circle and nor are they given detailed briefings, they cannot plan media strategies or management of news.

It is ironic that a department, which should be vital to an opposition party, has seen four different chairpersons since its inception in 1998. The panel of spokespersons has gone through rapid changes too with leaders being shuffled like a pack of cards for inexplicable reasons. The only constant figures have been two non-political persons, Rajiv Desai, whose expertise as head of a communications agency is often utilised, and Tom Vaddakan, who as media secretary has helped to put the information systems in place.

The Congress should really be looking at ways to develop a hand-picked panel of spokespersons into spin doctors on behalf of the party. These should be media-friendly people who are adept at ‘debriefing’ and ‘selling a party line’. They should also have access to discussions and decisions or they should interact with senior leaders on a regular basis to understand what is going on in the party and plan how to tackle the press. And they should have the liberty of hobnobbing with the media without being accused of ‘leaking’ party secrets or being dragged into unnecessary controversies. Between them and select senior leaders, they could certainly bump up the party’s profile in the media.

 

 

There is a widespread belief that Sonia’s aloofness is largely responsible for the bad press the Congress gets. Actually, over the past two years, Sonia has to a great extent shed her diffidence with the media. Today, she is often seen chatting informally with journalists in Parliament House or giving sound bytes to television cameras. However, as the top leader of the party, her role must necessarily be limited to making official statements. The packaging and selling of the party and its president has to be done by the others.

Indira Gandhi’s metamorphosis from a ‘goongi gudiya’ into a saviour for the poor was not just the result of a few good speeches. She nurtured different groups of politically clever young leaders like Mohan Dharia, Chandra Shekhar, Chandrajit Yadav, Mohan Kumaramangalam, among others who were given the task of image building. The controversial decisions she took in those early days, like the abolition of privy purses and bank nationalisation, along with the decidedly socialist turn the Congress took were all given a pro-poor, Left versus Right ideological slant.

Ultimately, this was packaged neatly into the rousing slogan of garibi hatao. It took the media and the nation by storm and swept Indira Gandhi to a spectacular majority in the 1971 elections in which she trounced the Syndicate. Ironically, the Congress managed to achieve this despite Indira Gandhi’s innate suspicions of the media with which she had a fairly hostile relationship till the end.

Indira Gandhi was fortunate enough to have around her a large group of astute leaders with sharp political skills and understanding and above all, the capacity for cultivating the media. Most of them were grassroots leaders and spoke a political language. Over the years, the Congress has lost these people. Many left around the time of the Emergency and soon after. Others have been steadily marginalised and replaced by a set of leaders who parachuted into politics from nowhere and represent what has come to be known as the ‘baba log’ culture in the Congress. Well spoken as they are, they simply lack a fundamental grasp of politics and the idiom to refurbish the image of the party. For instance, even as it was forced by circumstances to liberalise the economy, the Congress has failed completely to package it for political gains the way Indira Gandhi sold her socialist decisions. It remains apologetic and unsure about its economic policies.

 

 

Today, the Congress needs to identify and cultivate another lot of younger politicians who can create and sell a vision for the 21st century. It will have to look for leaders who are well versed not only in political strategy but also in communication, leaders whose roots in mass politics will give them the confidence to tackle the media and win it over. The grey hairs of experience are the voice of caution and must be given due respect. But it is time the Congress made a serious effort to build a second generation of leaders who can mobilise support at the grassroots level for the party and build a movement. The media, which feeds the hunger of an increasingly politically aware people, can be a valuable aide, provided the Congress learns how to operate the levers of news management.

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