Under constant attack for remaining incommunicado during crucial periods, both Congress president Sonia Gandhi and party vice-president Rahul Gandhi are now making a special effort to come out of their cocoons and articulate their views on key issues, says Anita Katyal.
Pushed by media managers and strategists after the party’s humiliating defeat in the recent assembly polls, Sonia and Rahul first came out of the closet last week when they both spoke out on the Supreme Court’s verdict which upheld a 1860 law criminalising gay sex.
While Sonia issued a press statement a day after the apex court’s order, Rahul gave a sound byte on this issue to television news channels.
On Saturday, the Congress vice-president made a rare appearance at the party’s headquarters on Akbar Road where he addressed a brief press conference to appeal to all political parties to support the United Progressive Alliance government in the passage of the Lokpal Bill.
Rahul’s media briefing has been billed as the first of many such interactions in the coming days.
“You will see a more vocal Rahul in the coming days…he will openly identify himself on important issues,” remarked a senior Congress office bearer.
Both Sonia and Rahul Gandhi have been criticised for living in an ivory tower and not being sufficiently communicative. Rahul, in particular, has been at the receiving end for confining himself to organisational affairs and not speaking up on important matters.
Having learnt a bitter lesson, the party is now hoping to “repackage and reposition” Rahul as an approachable leader with definite views on issues.
However, the Saturday press conference let much to be desired. For one, Rahul continues to be in the protective custody of his senior party colleagues. He was accompanied to the media briefing by Finance Minister P Chidambaram, Law Minister Kapil Sibal, Minister of State for Personnel V Narayansamy and Congress communications department chief Ajay Maken.
Chidambaram and Sibal made brief statements about the salient features of the Bill, which has been blocked in the Rajya Sabha by protesting Samajwadi Party members after which Rahul stepped in.
Sticking to the script, the party president maintained that the Lokpal Bill was a “very, very powerful instrument” to fight corruption and appealed to all political parties to support this crucial legislation.
Although Rahul did take a few questions on whether the Congress was rushing with the Bill because of its defeat at the hands of the Aam Admi Party and Anna Hazare’s ongoing fast, the party vice-president was quickly prevented from taking any uncomfortable questions.
On his part, Rahul repeatedly stated that the Congress is committed to the Lokpal Bill and fighting corruption and that it was unfair to suggest that the government had tabled it only because of its humiliating defeat in the recent assembly elections.
While media persons were clearly unhappy at the short duration of the briefing and that Rahul did not deviate from the written script, his media managers were happy that the exercise had gone off well. The party was particularly satisfied with anti-graft crusader Anna Hazare’s statement backing the government’s Lokpal Bill, which came shortly after Rahul’s appeal.
“Now that the Bill has got widespread acceptance… most political parties and now even civil society groups are on board, Vice President Hamid Ansari may agree to pass the Bill in the din without a discussion,” remarked a senior member of the Congress Working Committee.
Ansari has, so far, maintained that he will not allow the passage of any Bill without a debate.
While efforts are on to persuade the SP, it has put the government in a tight spot. It has warned the UPA government that if it attempts to push through the Bill in the commotion, its members in the Lok Sabha will support the no-confidence motion moved against the ruling alliance by Seemandhra members of Parliament, including six Congress lawmakers, to protest the bifurcation of Andhra Pradesh.
While the government is struggling with the passage of the Lokpal Bill, the BJP’s no to legalising homosexuality has also put the Congress in a spot.
The Congress leadership had spoken out against the Supreme Court verdict almost immediately in order to win brownie points with the urban youth. But in the process, it could end up driving away the conservative elements.
“I am disappointed that the Supreme Court has reversed the previous Delhi high court ruling on the issue of gay rights. The high court had wisely removed an archaic, repressive and unjust law that infringed on the basic human rights enshrined in our constitution,” the Congress president had said in a statement.
Rahul followed it up by telling reporters: “My personal view is that these are matters of personal freedom. I think I would agree more with the high court. I think these types of matters should be left to individuals. These are their choices. The country is known for its freedom of expression.”
Although the party rank and file is happy that their leaders have decided to speak out but they are not happy with their choice of subject.
“As a first outing, they should have picked a better topic. The issue of homosexuality might resonate in the urban areas but Indian society is still largely conservative. How will we explain this stand to our electorate in the Hindi heartland?” said a senior Congress leader from Uttar Pradesh.