Collusion or no collusion?
The stage had been set over the weekend for the Congress Working Committee’s meeting on Monday. A day before the meeting, a letter written by 23 senior party leaders to Indian National Congress president Sonia Gandhi became frontpage news. The letter asked Gandhi to firm up the party’s leadership issue. This “media leak” had several leaders expressing displeasure about letting such an internal matter play out in the media.
Fireworks and a fair bit of drama is de rigueur for internal meetings of the grand old party — more so this time with the letter laying down the grounds for the meeting. The so-called media leak also set the tone for the coverage of the CWC. Sources were all over Twitter, giving us minute-to-minute updates on what was happening and what was being said at the meeting which was supposed to be, well, a private affair.
At 12.09 pm, when the CWC meeting was underway, NDTV put out a tweet — “Rahul Gandhi accuses dissent letter writers of colluding with BJP”— attributing the information to who else but sources. With tensions already running high because of the letter, this set off a volley of angry reactions from senior party leaders. The NDTV tweet also got journalists and commentators on Twitter nodding their heads in dismay over the Congress finally unravelling in full public view.
An ANI tweet at 12.57 pm, possibly picking up on the NDTV tweet, added the “collusion” angle to its previous updates. Again attributing it to “sources”.
The first to respond to the “collusion” allegations was Rajya Sabha MP and senior party leader Kapil Sibal, who was a signatory to the letter to Sonia Gandhi. “Rahul Gandhi says we are colluding with BJP. Succeeded in Rajasthan High Court defending the Congress party. Defending party in Manipur to bring down BJP Government. Last 30 years have never made a statement in favour of BJP on any issue yet 'we are colluding with the BJP!” Sibal tweeted.
Senior leader and Rajya Sabha MP Ghulam Nabi Azad was quoted in the media saying if anyone could prove he was colluding with the BJP, he would resign from the party. Sanjay Jha, who has been suspended from the party for his recent utterances in the media, tweeted: “If Congress leaders are conspiring with the saffron party, then 'Boris Johnson is a fairness cream’.”
The retractions came as soon as the outrage. Both Sibal and Jha deleted their tweets, saying that they had been misinformed on what was said at the CWC. Apparently, there had been no collusion. Meanwhile, Azad tweeted a clarification, saying that he was wrongly quoted in the media. He clarified: “What I said was, yesterday some Congress person had said that we did it at behest of BJP & in that context I said ‘It is most unfortunate that some colleagues (outside CWC) have accused us of collusion with BJP, and if those people can prove this allegation, I will resign’.”
While Azad was present at the meeting, the other two are not part of the CWC and were not at the meeting, which took place over WebEx.
Leaders attending the CWC meeting said the tweets had caused a fair bit of flutter, given the event’s increased significance this time round. A day before the meeting, all 52 attendees of the extended CWC had been asked to ensure they attended without fail. Instructions were sent out that if a party leader was facing issues with the internet or in installing the WebEx platform, the party would provide necessary assistance.
“We were told we could check into a hotel if the need arises, and that the party’s social media team would help us in installing and using the platform,” said a senior CWC member.
So, what exactly was said at the meeting?
Leaders present at the meeting said Rahul Gandhi did not say anything about anyone “colluding” with the BJP at the meeting. They, however, admitted that he did not hide his displeasure over the timing of the letter.
“He questioned the timing as it was sent at a time the party leadership was ironing out the Rajasthan crisis (an internal war between chief minister Ashok Gehlot and his deputy Sachin Pilot). He said that when internal issues in the party are leaked to the media, the party suffers, and through these media reports, the BJP enjoys an advantage,” said a CWC member who was part of the meeting.
Interestingly, this is what ANI had tweeted at 12.40 pm before adding the “collusion” angle.
Sonia and Rahul were among many leaders who spoke about the letter during the meeting, said those present.
While it was also widely reported that Sonia Gandhi had offered to resign from her position as interim president, leaders present said that her son made it clear that he did not want to lead the party anytime soon. “Not now, not in three months or in six months, is what he said,” said one leader.
The party has had a difficult relationship with the media for a while now, especially in the last few months after it lost the 2019 Lok Sabha election. It is only when an internal party matter flares up that the Congress receives airspace and dedicated columns, often with patronising suggestions.
Both on and off the record, Congress leaders said the already tense atmosphere surrounding the CWC was further vitiated with “unverified” media reports and senior leaders reacting to them publicly.
“What the media misreported about Rahul Gandhi’s take on the letter was disgusting and not firm on facts. Senior leaders had to withdraw tweets, and a lot of people fell for the news, which was flashed hours before an official word was out. There should be better standards on reporting on such sensitive matters,” said AICC research department chief and former Rajya Sabha MP Rajeev Gowda.
The party’s social media chief Rohan Gupta said that news items put out during the day had palpable consequences. “It is disturbing that an internal party matter played out in the media, with leaders acting on those reports. The media house did not apologise or take down the tweet, and no acknowledgement whatsoever of the fact that their need for headlines has real-life repercussions,” he said.
While misreporting on the CWC is not the worst when it comes to the sort of stuff TV media gets away with, what is interesting is that the misinformation came from NDTV, a channel perceived to be close to the Congress, a channel whose editor coined the word “Godi media”. Sources tell us there hasn’t been a harsher indictment of sources in recent times.
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