The art of communication is the language of leadership, American author and former presidential speechwriter James C Humes once said. Humes was particularly impressed with British prime minister Winston Churchill whose speeches rallied a nation under unremitting Nazi aggression during World War II. Churchill was not born a silver-tongued orator. In fact, he had a slight stammer and a lisp when he was young. But he spent hours and hours crafting his speeches, practising and perfecting each word. “Continuous effort– not strength or intelligence– is the key to unlocking our potential,” Churchill said.
If you look at the communication strategy of the Congress – which at the moment resembles a rudderless ship caught in a maelstrom – it offers an insight into why the party seems completely directionless right now. Having covered the Congress for over a decade, it is apparent that the party has been imprudent with words and communication. It has failed to see the glaring fact that times have changed. Two recent examples come to mind.
The first was the controversy over defence minister Rajnath Singh placing lemons under the wheels of India’s first Rafale aircraft which he had gone to take delivery of in France. Now this is a belief among Hindus that it helps ward off evil. Soon, social media was littered with posts from many Congress leaders and supporters taking potshots at the minister and ridiculing the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
Senior Congress leader Mallikarjun Kharge criticised the gesture. Immediately, party colleague Sanjay Nirupam called him an atheist and said he supported Rajnath Singh’s act during the “shastra puja” he performed. Now what was the Congress’s official position? By the time that became somewhat clear, the damage had already been done. Sources in the party said the Congress could not support the Kharge line as most Hindus had faith in the tradition and many Congress leaders had practised it too.
This is where the BJP stole a march. The party swiftly tweeted images of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi carrying out a similar ritual. It was almost two hours later that the Congress pulled out an old soundbite of Narendra Modi deriding the “superstitious” practice using lemons. But, by then, the BJP had managed to capture the conversation. When finally the Congress carried out at a press conference, its response was meek and its discomfort evident. “We think such issues are irrelevant and don’t want to engage in them,” said the party.
The more recent fracas occurred when leader of the United Kingdom’s opposition Labour Party Jeremy Corbyn said he had met a delegation of the overseas arm of the Congress to discuss human rights violations in Kashmir. For the BJP, this was a godsend. When the Congress was alerted to the developments, the party appeared clueless about who the members of the delegation were. The BJP tried to clear up the confusion by releasing pictures of Kamal Dhaliwal, who heads the UK chapter of the Indian Overseas Congress (IOC), with Corbyn and also with Rahul Gandhi and Manmohan Singh at different times.
The damage was done and the Congress was left fumbling for a face-saver. Sam Pitroda, chairman of the IOC, stays abroad and it took a while for the party to contact him and find out the facts. The Congress distanced itself from the IOC, but for the BJP and the press another controversy ringing the opposition party was born.
The communication gap becomes more apparent when one considers the fact that the Congress media department has been almost headless for a while, with Randeep Singh Surjewala focused on next week’s Haryana elections. The media wing is now being run by a handful of young, enthusiastic workers but there is no clarity yet on who will head the department which has, of late, had a lot of firefighting to do.
The Congress has come into its own as far as social media is concerned and its aggression is most visible online. But, as a senior Congress leader said: “In politics, it’s important to be heard and seen. The BJP plays mind games and unleashes its best and most aggressive to attack the Gandhis. Congress needs to catch up.”
The boycott of television news channels by the Congress since the Lok Sabha polls in not helping matters. Some within the party feel that this “ban” must be lifted so that the official Congress voice can be heard far and wide. The party has several young and articulate voices, but they are getting lost in the din of confusion.
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