Rahul's TV interview: Congress in damage control mode?

The morning after "THE interview" -- Omar Adullah's tweeted description, not ours -- was telecast, the Bharatiya Janata Party predictably went for ridicule. Equally predictably, Congress spokespersons began to insist that their party vice-president had presented himself as a candid and sincere politician. Neither trajectory has answered the post-interview questions we have: Was there a post-mortem? What were its findings? Had he been coached? By who? Were the questions vetted beforehand? Will there be more TV interviews? Will his answers change? And, most critically, will he actually answer questions?

When you know it as a party of sycophants, curiosity on how Congress insiders reacted to the first television interview of the Gandhi parivar scion are naturally high, especially in an election year that is still being pegged as a presidential style election between Rahul Gandhi and Narendra Modi.

Notwithstanding the widespread criticism that he botched it, and given today's protests over his comments on the 1984 riots in Delhi, one does expect the party's official post-mortem of the interview to be a studied one, setting the stage for future televised media interactions, if any.

Newspaper reports now suggest that the debut television interview by Rahul Gandhi has indeed sparked off a debate within the party. On one side are lined up the yes-men, who believe he successfully exploited the opportunity to showcase the UPA's achievements. But the whispers from those on the other side are getting increasingly audible, and they believe the interview could have critically damaged the party's prospects, especially in urban India where the 9 pm news and debates around it are taken incredibly seriously.

Rahul Gandhi. PTI.

Rahul Gandhi. PTI.

A senior journalist in Delhi told Firstpost that according to his well-placed sources, Rahul Gandhi's coterie is busy assuring him that he did a stellar job. "Perhaps the only person in his trusted circle who can give him negative feedback is Priyanka," he says, noting that she was sitting in the studio -- allegedly right behind Arnab Goswami -- during the interview. "But even she likely doesn't want to say too much and demoralise her brother."

A report in the Hindustan Times suggests that though Rahul's close advisors have mostly maintained within the party that the interview was well-accepted, feedback from the big cities has been negative, leading to the inevitable blame game.

One Congress minister is quoted in the report as saying the interview was a failure of the media department's planning. "Nowhere does a leader give an 80-minute interview. The standard format is 22 minutes," the unnamed minister is quoted as saying. A crisper interview slot would have left the inexperienced interviewee appearing less vulnerable, is the common refrain.

But the sentiment that he botched up may notbe restricted to Congressmen in the big cities. A report from Bhopal in The New Indian Express says Congress leaders in Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh are equally disappointed. It quoted a senior functionary who reportedly told TV channels that the effort was laudable because Rahul showed pluck as admitting in private that the interview had damaged their chances further. "It was like the interviewer was asking him about Delhi and he was talking about Paris," the report quotes the functionary as saying. Both MGNREGA and RTI, the words the party vice-president appeared to repeat at every fumble, are both achievements of UPA-1, he pointed out.  Another party leader was quoted as calling for the sacking of Rahul's media manager.

Then again, it is hardly likely that a media cell or a media manager plans Rahul's media exposure; the blame for that decision has to rest on his inner team. So a vote  of no-confidence in his media-planning team is, in effect, also an erosion of faith in the leadership of party seniors and key figures strategizing for the Lok Sabha elections, a sentiment that can do no favours for the cadres' drooping morale.

And there is indication that lower rung party functionaries too share a despondence about the much-anticipated interview. According to this report in The Telegraph, junior Congressmen believe the interview was a dud for the party. The long-winding expostulations about structural change and systemic change will not bring any electoral dividends, they believe.

And to top it, there was no clear message to the biggest support base for the party -- the minority communities. Instead, the vague admission of "some" Congress leaders' culpability in the 1984 riots and the equally indeterminate message to the Muslims while referring to the 2002 Gujarat violence were a huge betrayal of his political inexperience even after 10 years as a Parliamentarian.

One leader is quoted as saying Rahul must first learn what democracy is before venturing to deepen it. Citing YSR Reddy's mass outreach programmes and, more recently, Arvind Kejriwal's conversion of a street movement against corruption into electoral success as examples of connecting with the masses. "He should have been toiling in Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Madhya Pradesh instead of doing drawing room planning," the report quoted one leader as saying. It also made a reference to Rahul's apparent reluctance to contest the contention that Narendra Modi had been given a clean chit by the courts in the 2002 riots cases.

Even without alleging that Modi is criminally indicted, Rahul could have rejected any attempt to compare the BJP's prime ministerial candidate with Rajiv Gandhi, instead of offering weakly that the interviewer's colleagues in the media had told him of the Gujarat administration's involvement. "That is not a leader's language," the report quoted a Congressman as saying. The mawkishness over the loss of loved ones to acts of violence was not a statesman's language either.

Obviously, Rahul is still to learn that language, so with elections still a few months away, will there be more interviews?

There will be. Retreat is not an option. Possibly, the next interview will be to a Hindi news channel. In fact, some reports suggest  Gandhi’s core team has drawn up a schedule of interviews, one possibly every seven to ten days.

"The end result is that they're going to keep doing this," says the senior Delhi journalist. "The rumours are that Aaj Tak is next. But that raises the issue of what that interview is going to look like. No channel can afford to go soft on Rahul after his grilling on Times Now, but how many times can you ask the same questions?"

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Updated Date: Jan 30, 2014 19:04:35 IST

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