Frequently ‘gagged’,never silenced

Congress has long history of gag orders,mostly on Digvijaya,but these have been ineffective and amount to ‘washing dirty linen in public’

Written by D K Singh | New Delhi | Published:June 20, 2012 3:37 am

The Congress’s release on Monday stating that its general secretary Digvijaya Singh is “not officially authorised to speak on behalf of the party” is not the first gag order on a party leader. Yet history shows that such orders have rarely been effective,particularly with Digvijaya Singh,while some Congress leaders feel the effort to gag a leader of his stature betrays a lack of cohesion at the top.

In the past five years,at least eight gags have been ordered in writing or verbally against leaders speaking out of turn in public. Invariably,all were flouted. Union minister Jairam Ramesh and party leader R K Dhawan were served the first of these orders,in 2007,following an attack on then tourism minister Ambika Soni over the controversial Ram Setu affidavit. On most of the other occasions,it is Digvijaya Singh who has been at the centre of the gag order.

“You could have said that it is Digvijaya Singh’s personal opinion but saying that a party general secretary is not authorised to speak on behalf of the party is quite a strong and unusual step,” said a party leader,but added,“Digvijaya Singh too should not become a law unto himself speaking on every issue. One can understand if there is a discussion within the party and he articulates it. But he should not dictate his views.”

Singh told The Indian Express,“All I can say is you watch my interview.” He was not sure which of his remarks — the reference to Mamata Banerjee’s “tantrums” or the support to a second term for Vice-President Hamid Ansari — had invited the party’s wrath. He had not been contacted by any of his colleagues before or after the press release that seeks to gag not just him but effectively all other party functionaries who are not in the panel of spokespersons.

In November 2010,the party had set up this 18-member panel,from which Abhishek Manu Singhvi was dropped recently. The panel met just once,and with less than half a dozen members. When Mulayam Singh Yadav and Mamata Banerjee rejected Sonia Gandhi’s choices for presidential candidate and propped instead Prime Minister Manmohan Singh along with A P J Abdul Kalam and Somnath Chatterjee,all members of the panel seemed to have gone missing. It was only the next day that AICC media department chairman Janardan Dwivedi asserted Manmohan Singh would remain prime minister till 2014.

“While Digvijay Singh may be guilty of having crossed the line once too often,the fact remains that the authorised spokespersons of the party go into a shell whenever there is some controversy to be responded to,” said a senior AICC functionary. “Besides,the Congress president can always step in and ask him to shut up instead of letting intra-party rivalry play out in public. We don’t need to wash our dirty linen in public,” said a senior AICC functionary.

As far as statements made out of turn by Digvijaya Singh were concerned,Sonia had stepped in only once — in 2010,when she had reprimanded Digvijaya Singh for attacking Home Minister P Chidambaram.

Gag after gag

In 2007,following Ramesh’s and Dhawan’s swipe at Soni,Dwivedi issed a strong statement. “The Indian National Congress believes that maintenance of discipline by its members in the party or in the government is of utmost importance… airing such views in public generates unnecessary and avoidable confusion.”

In April 2010,following the attack on Chidambaram in a newspaper article,Dwivedi stated,“Congress is a democratic party. Everyone has a right to express his or her views but such views should be expressed within party fora only.” A month earlier,the Congress had sacked Satyavrat Chatirvedi as party spokesman for attacking NCP chief Sharad Pawar.

That set off a series of gag orders. In July 2010,the party sent out a directive to all AICC office-bearers,CWC members,heads of AICC departments and officials of frontal organisations asking them to “restrict yourself to your area of responsibility and do not speak out of turn”. Digvijaya Singh,however,contended that as AICC in-charge of Uttar Pradesh,he could speak on Naxals,“who are in UP also”,and on the “Batla boys”,who “belong to Azamgarh in UP”.

In November 2010,the Congress asked all its ministers accused of having a hand in the Adarsh Cooperative Housing Society controversy to stop issuing statements on the matter. In December 2010,for the first time,ministers and MPs were also covered by the gag order. “This is to bring to your notice that in future only those persons who have been authorised by the party will participate in debates/discussions in media,” said a Congress circular issued by Dwivedi that December 3.

In April 2011,the Congress cautioned its leaders to follow the official line of the party on matters related to the Lokpal Bill and desist from making sarcastic comments on those nominated to the Lokpal panel. This came in the backdrop of Digvijaya Singh’s attack on Team Anna member and Karnataka Lokayukta Santosh Hegde. In June,at the CWC meet,the Congress president reportedly stated that only spokespersons would air the party’s views.

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