‘Not a virtue but necessity’: What it’s like attending a Rahul Gandhi press conference

At the last press conference in J&K, Rahul Gandhi dodged all direct questions on Article 370.

WrittenBy:Rayan Naqash
Date:
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In a luxury hotel atop a hillock overlooking Srinagar’s Dal Lake, the enthusiasm was evident, and the hall packed ahead of schedule. It was the 13th and final press conference of the Bharat Jodo Yatra, before the march came to an end after travelling over 135 days from Kanyakumari in Tamil Nadu. Dozens of journalists had flown into Srinagar for the event, but they were ostensibly disappointed.

Moments after Rahul Gandhi showed up on stage, senior Congress leader and parliamentarian Jairam Ramesh announced that local journalists – a list of whom he had compiled – would be given preference.

What followed was nearly a 30-minute whack-a-mole with journalists inventing new ways of asking Gandhi his views on Article 370 and him dodging the question with his uninterrupted composure.

Evasive answers

The issue of Article 370, and its aftermath, have dominated the discourse around the yatra in Jammu and Kashmir. Whether through journalists’ questions to Gandhi over his views on its abrogation, or in public complaints around the loss of statehood, reservations in job and land ownership, and the crackdown on dissent.

Gandhi, however, has avoided taking the question head on and has given evasive answers. 

At Sunday’s press conference, Kashmiri journalists, aware of the Congress and Gandhi’s reluctance to confront the issue head on, asked the 370 question without asking it. Of the 13 questions asked, 10 touched the subject.

Senior journalist Fayaz Bukhari asked Gandhi if there were any “differences” between the issues of Kashmir and the rest of the country, to which Gandhi said no one in the region was happy but “the central issues that are being raised here, a lot of them are very similar to the issues in the rest of the country: unemployment, lack of opportunity, corruption; these issues. And then there are another set of issues which are with regards to statehood, representation, voice, which are being raised here.”

Bilal Furqani of Kashmir Uzma, the Urdu sister publication of the Valley’s largest media publication Greater Kashmir, was direct, asking Gandhi for a clear vision on Articles 370 and 35A. Gandhi, however, dodged the question by stating that the issue had already come up thrice in Jammu and gave the same response that the Congress working committee has passed a resolution on the subject. “The Congress has a clear view,” he asserted.

Gandhi maintained composure, despite the repetitiveness of the questions. At times, he spontaneously interrupted Jairam Ramesh, conducting the press conference, to continue his thoughts on a previous question.

He was particularly skilled in deflecting from The Hindu’s correspondent Peerzada Ashiq’s question, subtly reminding the gathering of the promise of plebiscite made to Kashmir by India’s first prime minister and Gandhi’s great-grandfather Jawaharlal Nehru.

Peerzada asked, “It was a historic moment today. Your unfurling of the Tricolour at Lal Chowk today, almost 70 years after Nehru ji did the same thing. Nehru made certain promises from the same platform. Today, when you were unfurling the flag, most of those promises have been broken. So, when you look at those promises made to people of Kashmir and where Kashmir stands today, does it pain you?”

“I am not happy with what I see in Jammu and Kashmir,” responded Gandhi, adding more on his emotions while walking through the region. “I have realised in my life that love and affection and listening is a very powerful force and I intend to do that as much as I possibly can. I don’t want to comment on the historical aspect of it.”

Nazir Masoodi of the NDTV made another attempt, citing Gandhi’s accusation calling the BJP and RSS’s vision as hateful. “Do you think that the decision of August 5, 2019 was born out of that hate-filled vision? And you must be aware of the delimitation process in Jammu and Kashmir, and most of, rather all opposition parties have said there was extreme gerrymandering. Do you think the parameters which were employed to determine the new boundaries of assembly seats other than population, if this template is employed in other states, would you be comfortable with that?”

Gandhi responded, without mentioning 370, “I think it is what the RSS and BJP are doing across the country, attacking the institutional framework of this country – whether it is parliament, assemblies, judiciary, the media. All institutions are being attacked and captured by the BJP. What you are seeing in different parts of the country and in Jammu and Kashmir is a result of that assault on institutional framework.”

Some more questions later, Gandhi was again asked about his stand on Article 370, this time by Imran Naikoo of the Kashmir News Bureau, who asked Gandhi if the 164 state laws scrapped and about 800 central laws extended to J&K on August 5, 2019 would be rolled back by a Congress in power. Gandhi turned to Ramesh, who reminded him of his answer to similar questions in Jammu.

“So one of the main issues that is coming up here is the fact that people’s land is being taken away from them. We have been very clear on those issues,” said Gandhi, hinting at the course of corrective action. “As far as restoration of democratic structures here, we are very clear, and once the assembly is in place the assembly will take those decisions.”

After exhausting the list of local journalists, Ramesh announced that the press conference was over. When the disappointment of non-local journalists, particularly those associated with television channels, took the shape of a ruckus, Ramesh stood up to assert that “this is not a free for all press conference”. 

‘Not free for all’

Throughout the yatra, Gandhi has avoided giving one-on-one interviews to the mainstream news media. In Srinagar, Gandhi said there was a gap between the political class and the public owing to the media, and this was one of the reasons why he decided to walk through India to meet the people. 

“Entire communication is through media: interviews and press conferences. My thinking is that this distance should be bridged. This isn’t just a physical distance. One way was to walk on the road and meet people, hug them. There is another way,” he said. “The unbiased communication that we had earlier; and I am not badmouthing you, this is a fact; interviews and press conferences, now there is a bias in them. Media is not giving the opposition the focus it should have. What we say is twisted. So I thought we need a new way of political vision and this was the first step.”

Instead, Gandhi’s media strategy has been capitalising on the popularity of social media influencers, a seemingly mutually beneficial model of clout chasing. His interview with Kamiya Jani, who runs Curly Tales, a food and travel blog, raked up more than two million views on YouTube within a week. Another interview with Samdish Bhatia was viewed nearly four million times.

In all of these videos, a special emphasis is evident on Gandhi’s personality besides his views on a wide range of issues. Gandhi has not only given one on one interviews to YouTubers but also conducted his own interviews with a diverse set of people, prominent personalities as well as the everyday Indian, on issues of governance. 

Last month, his official YouTube channel uploaded a nearly half-an-hour long conversation with former governor of the Reserve Bank of India Raghuram Rajan, who is critical of the Modi government’s economic policies, on the state of India’s economy. His channel also uploaded his conversation with young students in Rajasthan’s Kota, famous for its massive education industry.

In an interaction with YouTubers, when Ramesh prompted Gandhi to elaborate on why he only spoke to YouTubers and not journalists, he said, “[T]hey have their own pressures. They don’t want to listen. They know everything there is to know. They have already made the decision to do whatever they want. So there is no point talking. But if someone is of an open mind, they think for themselves, then one can speak to them. One must be honest as much as they can.”

Gandhi has repeatedly hinted at reasons behind this. “I appreciate the work that you are doing in the media,” he said towards the end of the presser in Srinagar. “[I] would like to thank all of you. You have played a very important part. Of course we do complain that your networks aren’t responsive to the opposition, they don’t raise issues of the opposition, but we do appreciate what you are doing.”

Earlier, at the press conference in Haryana, Gandhi had complained of the media’s focus on local political issues rather than the yatra’s broader message of uniting against communal polarisation.

“I have said this in press conferences multiple times that the goal is the yatra but you [media] are trying to divert it. You don’t show the yatra. You have been told not to show the yarta. There is a storm on social media but nothing is being shown on national media. Then you come to press conferences to [deliberately] create distractions.”

Press conference ‘not a virtue’

“It is hard to believe that press conferences are not free for all,” said Bhasha Singh, a senior journalist with NewsClick. “Press conferences are supposed to be free for all but the problem in the Modi era is that we are not having any press conferences and we feel grateful there is one leader who is holding it.”

Singh, however, noted that there was no attempt at censorship in all the 13 press conferences she attended during the yatra. “There weren't any specific questions that were not asked. Many questions that were problematic of the Congress were also asked,” she said.

In Haryana, Singh said Gandhi’s response to Mandeep Punia, a regional reporter in Haryana, who had asked about the lack of support for persecuted tribals in Congress-run Chhattisgarh, was evident of his “democratic ethos.” Gandhi assured Punia that he would personally visit Chhattisgarh after the yatra to understand the situation and “if there are any shortcomings there, I will try to fix it.”

Sanjay Jha of The Telegraph said it “is a tragedy that a leader holding a press conference becomes the subject of interest.” If Gandhi is holding a press conference, “it is not a virtue, it is a necessity.” 

“In a democracy every leader has to subject [themselves] to scrutiny. Without accountability, democracy means nothing,” he said. “It is sad that our prime minister has set a bad precedent that he is not offering himself to be questioned. What is [worse] is that they are relying on false propaganda to convey their messaging.” 

The comparison between Gandhi and prime minister Modi itself “shows the disturbing rot in our democracy.” Jha said there was never a time in India’s history, not even during the emergency rule, that rulers didn’t take questions. It was a duty of those in power, particularly the chief ministers and the prime minister to take questions, he added. “If they don’t do it, they are not only undermining but questioning the existence and desirability of the fourth estate.”

“As prime ministers' refusal to hold press conferences points to a crisis in politics; the media’s acceptance of this trend points to a crisis in journalism,” he said. “If the media has surrendered its right to ask questions, the media has abdicated its responsibility. It is a collapse of the system.”

When Gandhi called for inventing alternative methods of communication, “he was also commenting on the demise of the media. And this is not an exaggeration,” said Jha. “If the prime minister is not talking to the media and the media is happy about him giving sponsored interviews and monologues, that means the media is in suicidal mode. So the question should not be raised against the prime minister alone, questions should be asked of the media also.”

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