On July 1, something unexpected happened.
Zee News had broadcast a video of Rahul Gandhi purportedly defending those accused of in Udaipur. – Gandhi had actually been talking about students who had vandalised his party office in Kerala’s Wayanad. BJP leader Rajyavardhan Rathore tweeted Zee’s clip at around 10.45 pm; multiple others from his party shared it with gusto.
This isn’t the unexpected part – this is par for the course.
But about an hour later, Congress leader Supriya Shrinate to delete the misleading clip. “At least protect the sanctity of the uniform you once wore,” she tweeted cuttingly.
Congress leader Pawan Khera , other party members flooded social media with what Gandhi had actually said, and Rathore deleted the tweet. Zee News even .
It might seem like a small victory for the Congress but it was still startling to see the party beat the BJP at its own game. The BJP is known for its aggressive social media strategies. The Congress is, to put it simply, not.For instance, it last April but it only has about 38,000 subscribers a year later.
But the party seems to have finally decided to do something about it.
On June 16, the Congress announced a new media and communications team. Jairam Ramesh took over as general secretary of the party’s social media and digital wing, and general secretary in-charge of communications. Pawan Khera was appointed chairperson, media and publicity, and Supriya Shrinate chairperson, social media and digital platforms. The team in its entirety comprises “around 100” people.
Ramesh’s posts were previously held by Randeep Surjewala, who had held onto these posts for a whopping seven years (the tenure is supposed to be three years). Surjewala had offered to step down a few times, especially since the party saw several electoral defeats during his stint, but his resignation was never accepted.
Three new secretaries were also appointed: Vineet Punia as national secretary, internal communications; Vaibhav Walia as secretary, communications; and Amitabh Dubey as secretary in charge of the communications department’s research wing.
Punia told Newslaundry that during the Congress’s Nav Sankalp Shivir event, where it had introspected on its electoral losses, there were “talks about making changes to the communications and media departments”.
“Keeping that in mind, social media has now been added to the communications department and a research wing has been constituted,” he said. “Furthermore, the communications and media teams of all states will report to the central team.”
Journalist Rasheed Kidwai, who has written a couple of books on the Congress, said it’s about time something was done.
“It has been said inside and outside the Congress that the party has been unable to effectively convey its message to the people,” he pointed out. “Despite this, no changes were made to the media and communications team. On the one hand, the Congress is consistently losing elections...on the other, the party is stuck in its old ways. This causes a rift between what the party preaches and what it practises.”
Things already seem to be more dynamic under Ramesh, as evidenced by the response to the Zee News broadcast. Zee’s anchor Rohit Ranjan had multiple cases , and was then booked by the police.
Additionally, the party now organises daily press conferences to discuss issues of national importance. And while the Congress never really reacted to fake news before, as some journalists told Newslaundry, now the time for inaction is over. The party is determined to be dynamic and take legal action against “those running fake news”.
“The party’s way of responding has changed,” said a member of the party’s media team, on condition of anonymity. “You will see a change in our press conferences. We are keeping an eye on those running fake news against the party and we are responding immediately. After the constitution of the new team, our work is more coordinated and organised.”
As a result, Khera said the party is successfully “reaching crores of people through social media everyday”. “Dialogue is essential to politics,” he added, “which is why we are illuminating the failures of the BJP government. The media has constructed an artificial image of the BJP and Narendra Modi, which we are countering. Now, we are focusing on reactive and proactive dialogue.”
To further this dialogue, the media team has been meeting with editors of various news channels, according to journalists and party leaders. “Jairam Ramesh and Vineet Punia are conducting meetings with editors,” a journalist told Newslaundry. “It is hoped that the results of these meetings will be visible on a few TV channels.”
Khera said, “These meetings have happened in the past also. We have talked about avoiding the broadcast of fake news and polarising content in our meetings with channels.”
The party has also curated a list of aggressive spokespersons to carry forward its message. This includes Gaurav Vallabh, Supriya Shrinate, Alka Lamba, Ragini Nayak, Pawan Khera and Alok Sharma. “The spokesperson is the party’s identity,” Khera said. “People know the party through the spokesperson. The people want to listen to our spokespersons now. Each has a different quality which people are appreciating.”
But some channels are given a wide berth. “We don’t go to Republic, Zee News, Times Now and Anand Narasimhan’s show on CNN-News18,” Khera said. “We present our points on other channels.”
Bumps in the road
There is, however, a crucial issue.
“Our biggest challenge is money,” said a member of the media team. “We do not have a separate fund for our team. Our budget is limited to those on the Congress party payroll. Our team lags way behind the BJP on the financial front.”
Importantly, many senior Congress leaders in the past have not formed ties with the media, save a few. So, a new Congress-media relationship can’t happen overnight.
“Congress leaders like Shashi Tharoor and Kapil Sibal have good personal relations with the media...But Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi never formed good relations,” said journalist Kidwai. “They outsourced it to people close to them...After staying in power for so many years, the Congress party and the Gandhi family did not formulate a media policy.”
He added, “Until you meet the media, how will your relations be good?”
There is also some confusion over government advertisements – the major source of revenue for many media houses. The BJP, as a national party in power, often carries ads in newspapers and news channels across states, but the Congress’s reach is more limited.
“There were talks about giving advertisements to the media but state-level leaders only want to advertise in their state, not at the national level,” said a senior Congress leader on condition of anonymity. “The BJP is in power which is why it advertises on the national level.”
A TV news journalist, who often reports on the Congress, told Newslaundry this is a problem. “Media wants ads, which it gets from the incumbent party,” he pointed out. “It won’t show news favouring the Congress until it gets a fat advertisement. There is also fear of a few government agencies which is why everyone is speaking for the same side. In such an atmosphere, the Congress must remain consistently active to yield results.”
But Vineet Punia is hopeful: “The government will change in 2024.”
This report was . It was translated to English by Utkarsh Sharma.
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