Days after a prominent news channel presented Congress leader Rahul Gandhi’s comment on the activists of the Students Federation of India (SFI) as his views on the killers of Udaipur tailor Kanhaiya Lal, new head of the media and publicity wing Pawan Khera tweaked the lines of an all-time hit ‘ Every breath you take’ to hold out a warning to the media.
"Every single day. And every word you say. Every game you play. We’ll be watching you". This July 4 tweet of Mr. Khera displayed the new found aggressiveness in the Congress' communication strategy.
The channel had apologised and ran several clarifications about the context of Mr. Gandhi's comments. But the Congress was not impressed; police complaints against the channel, TV anchor and four BJP leaders including former Information and Broadcasting Minister Rajyavardhan Rathore were filed across six States.
As the police from party-ruled Chhattisgarh landed at the anchor's home in Noida to arrest him, the matter reached the Supreme Court that restrained Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan police from making any arrest. But the Congress sent out a clear message — that it will not take things lying down.
"We are aware that many of the liberals are unhappy that police were sent to the TV channel and there are different views within the party as well, but the important thing is that our workers are happy. This [countering the channels] should have been done much earlier," said a Congress functionary who did not wish to be named.
BJP’s alleged ‘links with terrorists’
On Saturday, this new assertiveness was on full display as the party held 23 press conferences in as many cities to expose BJP’s alleged links with terrorists, including one of the Udaipur killers, Riyaz Attari, and Talib Hussain Shah, an alleged Lashkar militant who served as the social media head of BJP’s minority morcha in Jammu.
"One after the other, terrorists are linked with the BJP. What is this relationship called?" tweeted Jairam Ramesh, who is now the general secretary of the integrated communication department.
Moving beyond traditional print and electronic media, the newly created communication department under Mr. Ramesh will also handle digital media, social media platforms and focus on in-house research.
It was the first major organisational change post the Udaipur conclave where the party had admitted its 'weakness' in its ability to communicate.
So, now from holding daily press conferences to issuing multiple press statements, the Congress media department is keeping itself and journalists busy.
"More than the frequency and intensity of press conferences, I think the bigger issue for the Congress’ political communication strategy is its political content. Where does it stand on a particular issue and if there is a broad consensus within the party over it," asked Anand Pradhan, a well known media commentator,
‘Alternative method to communicate’
"Most importantly, does the party have an alternative method and mechanism to communicate to the public instead of over-dependence or reliance on social media and ‘captured’ legacy media,” he added.
A key change in communication style has been to publicly contradict senior leaders if their views do not align with the party line.
For example, when senior party leader and Lok Sabha member Manish Tewari wrote a piece in favour of the Agnipath recruitment scheme, the Communication chief promptly tweeted, "While @INCIndia is the only democratic party, it must be said his views are entirely his own & not of the party, which firmly believes Agnipath is anti-national security & anti-youth, bulldozed through without discussion".
In the middle of the Maharashtra crisis, when Uttar Pradesh Congress leader Acharya Pramod suggested that Uddhav Thackeray should immediately resign and it was put out as Congress' view by a TV channel, Mr. Ramesh tweeted that the U.P. Congress leader was neither an official spokesperson nor represented the party's view.
Explained | The Congress party’s internal administration
Opinion is, however, divided on whether public admonition would discipline party leaders or deepen the fault lines.
A section of the party argues that it is important to send a message to the media, especially TV channels, that they can no longer pass off individual opinions as the party’s view on ‘sensitive’ issues.