Shakeel Ahmed and the woes of being the voice of a party

Shakeel Ahmed isn’t the loosest cannon in the Congress. That honour deservedly belongs to General Secretary Digvijaya Singh, even if that man of steel Beni Prasad Verma regularly contests the crown. But then Ahmed isn’t an organizational honcho or a Cabinet Minister. He belongs to that unique species, of designated party spokespersons, whose words are supposed to mirror the party’s. So, if an official spokesperson blunders, the party has nowhere to hide.

On Sunday, Shakeel Ahmed had his party ducking for cover when he pronounced on Twitter that the Indian Mujahideen, a terrorist outfit, was borne out of the embers of Gujarat, 2002. The party quickly disowned his views. And none less than Rahul Gandhi admonished him when he told party workers on Monday, “Spokespersons and panelists may have their individual views, but as party spokesperson and panelist you have to be within the party line.”

But what is the party line?

Shakeel Ahmed is not a stupid politician. He has been a Lok Sabha MP from Bihar and a Union Minister. Most of all, as a loyal Congressman, he knows that transgression doesn't pay in the Grand Old Party. So when he tweeted what he did – and he continues to defend himself – he must have believed that he was following the party line.

Shakeel Ahmed isn't the only spokesperson found fumbling. AFP

Shakeel Ahmed isn't the only spokesperson found fumbling. AFP

After all, his colleagues in the Congress have spent the last few weeks making several contentious, even communal, statements about Narendra Modi and the Muslim community. None of them was admonished. All poor Shakeel Ahmed did was to try and go one up on them. But he apparently crossed the (invisible) line.

In most modern democracies, political parties have clear ideological foundations. As a party member, you know where you stand on most important issues. In the US, for example, Democrats always favour social liberalism and economic interventionism by the state.Republicans favour social conservatism and free market economics.

In the UK, Conservatives are staunch free-marketers and suspicious of the European Union. Labour, after Tony Blair, also favours free markets but with a redistributionist element and pro-European Union focus. If the spectrum of ideology gets confusing, the party line is usually understood to be the one taken by the party’s leader in public. In the US, for example, Barack Obama represents the Democratic Party’s view. In the UK, David Cameron represents the Conservative Party’s view.

The Indian National Congress has a serious twin problem, of both ideology and leadership. It is completely devoid of firm ideological convictions. It professes to be secular, but doesn't hesitate to exploit the communal card if its suits its purpose. After all, even Rajiv Gandhi, the once modernizing, allegedly secular face, of the Congress allowed the 1984 Sikh riots and used his brute parliamentary majority to enact the infamous Shah Bano legislation, two shining examples of communal politics in India.

Its present leadership, the trinity of Sonia Gandhi, Rahul Gandhi and Manmohan Singh do not engage in the public discourse, almost as a matter of principle. So neither the general public, nor presumably the party’s countless workers, know with any surety where the leadership stands on important matters of national interest. Everyone in the party, including its spokespersons, then plays that uncertain game of “Second Guessing” the ideology and the leadership. Unsurprisingly, the party is hit with a Shakeel Ahmed-type nasty surprises from time to time.

In all fairness, this isn't a problem unique to Congress. The other national party, the BJP is equally afflicted by it. Its ideological foundations, once strongly rooted in right-wing politics and economics, have come undone. Its politics wavers between inclusive moderation and extremist Hindu nationalism. Its economics swings from free-market to Nehruvian socialist.

How is a party spokesperson or party worker to know a priori where they must stand on any issue? On the question of leadership, the BJP’s problem is slightly different from Congress. Its top leaders aren't overcome by silence, but speak ceaselessly in different voices. So Rajnath Singh sounds different from Narendra Modi who sounds different from Sushma Swaraj, who sounds different from Arun Jaitley. Whose view is the party line then? Impossible to tell.

News television only compounds the woes of official spokespersons. They are collared into verbal submission by determined reporters at the very moment of a news break. They must think on their feet without a detailed briefing from someone senior. Of course, there is no guarantee that even if that briefing comes in time it is an accurate reflection of the party line. It all depends on who it came from.

It is convenient for silent leaders or divided leaders of ideologically incoherent parties to thrust official spokespersons into an uncomfortable limelight. But it doesn't always pay. Think Shakeel Ahmed.

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