Thou shalt not speak, Congress tells its leaders

The buzz in the AICC was that the directive was targeted at former Information and Broadcasting Minister Manish Tewari and former party spokesperson Rashid Alvi.

By: Press Trust of India Written by Manoj C G | New Delhi | Updated: September 16, 2014 3:16:23 am

In an unprecedented move, the Congress on Monday gagged its leaders from airing their views in public. But hours after the party said only the designated spokespersons were “authorised” to speak on “behalf of the party”, two of its visible faces — former union minister Manish Tewari and Rashid Alvi — hit back, saying they would continue to interact with the media.

Hours after the party’s communication department chief Ajay Maken tweeted that “only the spokespersons… are authorised to speak on behalf of the party”, general secretary and spokesperson Shakeel Ahmed drew another red line at the AICC briefing. He said there was no bar on general secretaries talking to the media on issues related to states, implying that they should refrain from talking on issues which do not fall in their domain. He, however, said the direction was not aimed at any particular leader.

Maken even tweeted the list of 18 spokespersons. This list, released in January this year, comprises five senior spokespersons and 13 spokespersons. Alvi is not in the list, and Tewari ceased to be a spokesperson in October 2012 after becoming a union minister.

The move clearly indicates the simmering tension and tussle within the Congress after its crushing defeat in the Lok Sabha elections. On one hand, its leaders have been speaking in different voices on key issues, and on the other, there has been open criticism against the leadership.

In fact, a group of young AICC secretaries went to the extent of asking the elders to refrain from making negative comments in public.

They were upset with general secretary Digvijaya Singh’s suggestion that party vice president Rahul Gandhi should be seen and heard more and the debate triggered by his colleague Janardan Dwivedi’s demand for fixing an age limit for holding active party posts.

Ahmed said it was not a gag order, but a reminder that the 18 designated spokespersons were the only ones authorised to speak on behalf of the party. It is another matter that many of them, including P Chidambaram, Ghulam Nabi Azad, Mukul Wasnik, Jyotiraditya Scindia and Sandeep Dikshit, have hardly addressed more than one press conference at the AICC office after the poll defeat.

Sources said Maken’s missive was aimed at Tewari and Alvi who began their mornings with “television bytes”. This eroded the media department’s utility and at times their comments too were not in congruence with the party’s views, they added. Both Tewari and Alvi are former party spokespersons. For instance, Tewari contradicted the party line on the issue of former Chief Justice P Sathasivam’s appointment as Kerala Governor earlier this month, when he said there was “no constitutional or legal bar” on his appointment.

The immediate provocation, sources said, was Tewari and Alvi’s reaction to BJP MP Sakshi Maharaj’s allegation that madrasas across the country were imparting “education of terror” and “love jihad”. The communication department, sources said, had decided that the party should not join issue with Maharaj as it felt these remarks were “orchestrated” and aimed at polarisation. It felt the party should not walk into the “BJP trap” and be part of the debate. But both Tewari and Alvi slammed Maharaj and the BJP.

Later at the AICC briefing, the question about Maharaj’s remarks were put to Ahmed. “Who is Sakshi Maharaj? We should not give importance to such leaders and their statements. We condemn all efforts at polarisation. There should not be a debate on the statements of such unimportant leaders,” he said.

When contacted, Tewari told The Indian Express he did not require a “noun or an adjective” with his name to intervene in public discourse. “When I intervene in public discourse, I do so either in my capacity as a Congress worker who has served the party for 34 years or as a private individual if I feel the core convictions of the party or my ideological postulates are assaulted… When they are assaulted, I do not require a noun or an adjective behind my name to intervene in the public discourse… I do not and have not held myself out as a party spokesman ever after October 2012,” he said.

Alvi said Congressmen should fight communal forces and not humiliate each other. “As an ordinary worker, I have been defending my party and everybody has the right to defend. I will continue to defend my party. I call upon all colleagues to be together to fight communal forces rather than to humiliate each other,” he said.

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