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Rahul Gandhi is finally getting media coverage. But he is losing the message

The Lok Sabha disqualification presented Rahul Gandhi with a great opportunity to play statesman. Instead, he played himself.

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Is Rahul Gandhi a public perception disaster – for himself and for the Congress?

So much so, that Hindi news channels ignored him to focus on ‘Don Atiq’ Ahmed (Times Now Navbharat) Sunday, Monday and Tuesday? Do they rate his ability to interest viewers in the Hindi belt so poorly, that his conviction for defamation, his disqualification from the Lok Sabha, and the ‘storm’ inside and outside Parliament over it, could not rival the charms of the ‘gangster’ (Republic Bharat) in their breaking news or debates?

Atiq Ahmed “feeling sick” during his journey to the Naini jail from the Sabarmati jail, and his inability to sleep at night in the police van (Zee News) elicited more sympathetic coverage than 17 opposition political parties’ show of strength in Delhi, Monday, against ‘the end of democracy’. As they marched in unison outside Parliament, Hindi news channels chased after Atiq’s ‘kafila’; while opposition leaders, led by Congress president Mallikarjun Kharge, made dire pronouncements about democratic values, Adani’s business, and Rahul’s disqualification from Parliament, Hindi reporters interviewed Atiq’s sister Aisha.  That’s the importance they gave him.

And before you counter by saying that Hindi news channels deliberately blacked out the Congress-opposition protests, remember that English news channels have shone the spotlight brightly on Rahul Gandhi, Congress, and opposition parties since last Thursday. Does that mean only the likes of the (in)famous ‘Lutyens’ Delhi’ — the English-walas — are interested in Rahul’s ‘Disqualification Dangal’ (India Today)?

If it’s true that viewers in Hindi-speaking states are indifferent to Rahul ji & Co., then it spells an even bigger disaster for the Congress in the 2024 Lok Sabha election with about 225 seats from Hindi-speaking states up for grabs. As Elie Wiesel, prolific writer and Holocaust survivor, famously said, “The opposite of love is not hate, it is indifference.”

How’s that for a gigantic migraine?

Also read: Rahul Gandhi disqualification poses question. Who owns Constitution: Parliament or courts?

All about Rahul Gandhi

However, indifference is only one side of the public perception headache for Congress and Rahul Gandhi. The other is that the incessant media coverage is harming his image. And could be because the pitch is all wrong: Congress and he, as well as other opposition parties, are projecting themselves as victims of the ruling BJP. This is how their story goes: The Big Bad Wolf is hounding us, they cry, it has let loose the investigative agencies on us, it has got us by the neck, democracy is being choked, institutions obstructed and the media throttled. All true, perhaps, but if you play the victim card, what happens?

People feel sorry for you. Will that make them vote for you? Ahem.

Rahul Gandhi and Congress need more to revive their fortunes than our pity. They could do with a new playbook. Here are some unsolicited ideas for them.

First, they need to earn the public’s respect. They’re not going to do that if Rahul Gandhi’s press conference last Saturday is anything to go by: he appeared by turns combative, surly, sulky. And the smirk after he felt he had put a mediaperson in his place, was a PR disaster.

All the goodwill he had earned during the Bharat Jodo Yatra was wiped away by that nasty smile.

Second, they need more than a ‘Save Rahul’ campaign to save Indian democracy — which they say is the aim of their protests. The messaging is confused here: Congress spokespersons at TV debates, Congress leaders in sound bytes or interviews speak only about Rahul Gandhi, Rahul Gandhi, Rahul Gandhi… Watched P Chidambaram go into the finest combed details of Rahul Gandhi’s disqualification on India Today. For them and for TV news, Congress is Rahul and Rahul is Congress. But Rahul is not India so why should viewers care?

At the Congress ‘satyagraha’ on Sunday, which received extensive ‘live’ coverage by English TV news channels, Priyanka Gandhi spoke passionately but mostly about her brother and his sacrifices — how a “martyr’s son” was being silenced, etc. No wonder ABP News called this ‘Rahul ke liye Gandhigiri’.

Isn’t satyagraha a peaceful battle for ideals, not for an individual whose party members violently flung torn pieces of paper at the Lok Sabha speaker, Monday (Sansad TV)?

If the “ugly scenes” in Parliament (Times Now) had been for a larger than life issue of national significance, if Congress had been able to successfully ‘jodo’ Rahul’s conviction-disqualification with the ‘aam aadmi’ and civil liberties, they may have had an impact. But for Rahul Gandhi? Does that resonate with us?

Thirdly, opposition parties should find a way to make Gautam Adani’s alleged crimes connect with the public good or let him go. Since the Hindenburg Research’s report in late January, the Congress and other parties have disrupted Parliament demanding a Joint Parliamentary Committee (JPC) on Adani; they have taken to the streets on Adani. The most common headline on news channels for the last month has been ‘Parliament adjourned on Adani’. We have heard Congress chant ‘Adani, Adani Adani’ right after ‘Rahul, Rahul, Rahul’.

Have you heard a public outcry against Adani – or for that matter, on Rahul Gandhi’s behalf? Have the streets filled with anti-corruption crusaders as they did in 2010’s Jan Lokpal movement? No.

Why not? There’s been more than adequate coverage so Congress and the Opposition cannot claim the media ignores them. Here’s the thing: It’s not the medium but the message that’s the problem.

Perhaps, Rahul Gandhi should have said he abided by the law, let his lawyers fight the defamation conviction and earned more goodwill by talking about issues he successfully raised during the Bharat Jodo Yatra — a great public relation exercise (literally!). Those were issues that directly concerned the public, wherever he went during his padyatra.

The Lok Sabha disqualification presented Rahul Gandhi with a great opportunity to rise above petty politics, to play statesman. Instead, he played himself. It was a chance for him and Congress to talk about their idea of India, where the individual is not pitted against the institutions of the State.

Instead, they’re talking only about Rahul Gandhi…

Views are personal.

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