Rahul Gandhi’s press conference showed how cocooned he may be, that he does not brainstorm with a large enough group of party colleagues and senior leaders. But it also showed how difficult it is going to be to reform an entrenched organisation like the Congress from within, says Neerja Chowdhury.
There were two mistakes Rahul Gandhi made during his interview to Times Now’s Arnab Goswami, which is the first freewheeling media interview the Congress vice-president gave since he came into parliamentary politics ten years ago.
The first was to avoid apologising for 1984. He had a point when he said that he was not in politics at the time. For, after all -- though he did not say this -- questioners are not asking Modi to apologise for the demolition of the Babri Mosque in 1992, or for some other Bharatiya Janata Party-related event that took place three decades ago, which had nothing to do with him.
And yet Rahul’s response was surprising, since his mother Sonia Gandhi, as Congress president, had called 1984 ‘unfortunate’ and Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh had apologised for the killing of Sikhs in the wake of Indira Gandhi’s assassination by her Sikh bodyguard. So, it was not as if, by apologizing, Rahul would have gone against the Congress’ proclaimed line.
Had he apologised for 1984, and even said that he would do it a hundred times if required, if that helped to lessen the pain of his Sikh brothers and sisters -- for after all, as Rahul said, he believes that riots and the killings of innocent people, are horrendous events -- he would have shed the baggage of 1984 in one swift stroke. What is more, it would have helped Rahul -- and indeed the Congress -- reach out to the Sikh community once again in the run up to the Lok Sabha elections. In any case, he had admitted that “some Congressmen” may have been involved and legal cases were anyway going on to decide their culpability or otherwise.
Either he was unable to think on his feet, or he was not briefed properly. That is difficult to believe, given his position today. For he would have had all the resources and experience of senior leaders, at his command, on the questions to anticipate, the googlies to avoid that were likely to be thrown at him. He would have had brainstorming sessions, may be even a mock press conference to get ready for battle.
Those who should know will tell you that Dr Singh’s press conferences, rare though they have been, used to be preceded by hours of briefing the PM on every conceivable issue on which the media might grill him. Referring to one of these press conferences, the PM’s media advisor at the time had said that there was only one question which they had not anticipated and readied him for!
Narendra Modi, who has over the years set up a slick system of getting briefings, is supposedly given feedback of what to say till five minutes before he gets on the stage so he is fully updated and can counter-attack the Congress for the latest statement it might have made.
Some will say that but for the 2002 versus 1984 comparison -- he said that the Gujarat government had “abetted and pushed” the riots in Gujarat, while in 1984 the central government had helped to control them -- Rahul Gandhi managed to avoid all the pitfalls and controversies during his 80 minute interview.
This brings me to mistake number two, which was to come to the press conference without being armed with the headline for the next day. When politicians meet media persons for an interview, they usually have a very good idea of what they should say which would hit the headlines the next morning. When he speaks, Modi gives the media half a dozen headlines; so does Arvind Kejriwal, who is hogging headlines day after day; so for that matter Digvijaya Singh, for right or wrong reasons, and that is how he has stayed in the news for the last ten years.
A desire to change the system, to empower youth and women, in general terms -- which was Rahul’s answer to most questions, to such an extent that jokes about it have gone viral on the social media --did not make for headlines.
For an interview to crackle, Rahul had to flag off statements which dealt with current concerns or controversies. After all, Goswami was looking for “breaking news”, but he only managed to get not so bland a statement on 1984/2002, 30 or 12 year old events, tragic as they were.
Even if we were to believe that it was part of a “strategy” not to get tripped by Goswami, that Rahul chose not to answer awkward questions, be it on corruption, Adarsh or dynasty, it was bad strategy.
If a politician suddenly gets accosted by journos and is quizzed by them about a tricky issue, and he manages to sidetrack it, it would be seen as a “political skill”. And it could be lauded as an ability to say something and yet reveal nothing.
An interview, however, is not like a blog, or twitter or a speech at a party conclave or a rally, which is a one way communication, and sadly politicians are increasingly resorting to this way of getting across what they want to say without being counter-questioned about their claims. Even Modi has shied away from interviews and given only a couple of them in recent times, one to a foreign journalist and earlier to Urdu journalist-cum politician Shahid Siddiqui who was incidentally expelled from the Samajwadi Party for doing it.
But when you have accepted to give an interview, and you are seen as the prime ministerial candidate of your party, which is no fledgling outfit, but a 128-year-old organisation, and it is your first political interview, and the country has waited for ten years to hear your views, surely you owe it to people to come out with your opinions on major themes before the nation.
As it is, Goswami did not even get around to asking questions about the economy (growth versus rights), foreign policy(relations with US, Pakistan, China) or internal security (Naxalism, terrorism).
Rahul obviously meant what he said -- that he is a serious politician who is in politics not for power, but to bring about systemic changes. But answering virtually every question, no matter what the subject, with the ‘system change’ answer created an impression that Rahul Gandhi came ill-prepared for the interview.
A leader is not expected to be a repository of all wisdom. But Rahul Gandhi’s press conference showed how cocooned he may be, that he does not brainstorm with a large enough group of party colleagues and senior leaders, on a daily basis, on issues of the day. But it also showed how difficult it is going to be to play the ‘insider’ and ‘outsider’ role simultaneously -- or to reform an entrenched organisation like the Congress from within.