NEW DELHI: After winning a mere 44 seats in the 2014 general elections, the Congress under Rahul Gandhi has completely transformed its media policy, giving sleepless nights now to the BJP under Prime Minister Narendra Modi and party president Amit Shah.

Not only has Rahul Gandhi expanded the AICC’s communication team, but he has brought in new and young faces focused on the social media, and increasing the party response time to seconds instead of long hours as it was before, with every statement being ponderously written and then cleared by various top leaders before seeing the light of day.

Today, Congress publicity is in real time. Even as Rahul Gandhi is speaking, tweets flood the social media. And barely has he stopped that videos of the event are circulated. A journalist on the beat today is bombarded with tweets, social media posts, and photographs and details of the event on the email. As is the current case, with the Congress President’s highly successful visit to Dubai being covered by his party with videos, photographs and tweets of specific points. That he is photogenic seems to help with the media and communication cells clearly authorised to hit the ground running. Unlike in the case of PM Modi where the media is kept at a distance, and every photograph released has to go through a clearance procedure.

At the huge public event in Dubai for instance, the Congress coverage was bolstered by the media coverage with Rahul Gandhi giving interviews to select journalists before he arrived in the city. His events were open to the media that recorded his accessibility as he spoke with his usual candour and passion about the ‘intolerance’ of the current regime in India as against the tolerance of the UAE government today. His makeover as written about in The Citizen from a diffident to a more combative approach has helped with the Congress having far more material to circulate, and the media as much to chew over. That helps especially when the king orator PM Modi is becoming repetitive and personal, the contrast standing out amidst the publicity.

Earlier the AICC headquarters used to function as a “post office” --with the express function of releasing official press releases prepared by one of the authorised leaders, and hold a press briefing ---mandatory and boring---once a day every week somewhere around the 1990’s. This was seen as an improvement on the earlier practice of beat correspondents walking through the rooms of 24 Akbar road in search of a leader or two to get a quote, or have a discussion with.

2014 has changed all this dramatically. And apart from the quick response time, Rahul Gandhi has expanded the communication department and created a team of senior spokespersons,media panelists and a communication strategy group. He has also added two important departments, the social media cell and the data analytics cell that have helped make the attack more focused, and infinitely sharper with young people analysing speeches, the impact, and sending in their feedback for the strategists to mull over and factor into the next meeting. For instance this was very visible before and during the Karnataka Assembly elections where strategy played a key role. Strategy, however, was derived from feedback from the ground with many of the right decisions taken by the Congress to allow a coalition government to come to power being influenced by this.

Interestingly Rahul Gandhi’s strict instructions that feedback should be honest regardless has helped these teams who are more afraid of tailoring the content than in sending it back as it is, good, bad or ugly.

Senior leaders who had felt a little left out as the changes came into effect have all found a job, and this interestingly has added to the response time of the party. There is a string of senior spokespersons whose strengths have been taken into account in scheduling briefings on specific topics. The result is that even as a controversial Bill is being passed in the House, the AICC has scheduled a press briefing by one of its expert leaders that then guarantees a spot in the media because of the topicality, and of course the content. Rahul Gandhi, not shy of the media, laces this effort with interactions that buttress the arguments and take these forward.

Team Modi which was confident of getting a second term in 2019.did not expect such an attack from the main opposition in a short time. While Rahul Gandhi’s “Chowkidar Chor Hain,” Gabbar Singh Tax,” and “Suit Boot Ki Sarkar” caught the people’s attention, this has also inspired the old guard, state Congress leaders to use Twitter, WhatsApp,Facebook ,LinkedIn,Instagram to expose the BJP,its governments and leaders without waiting for permission from the party officials. An impressive turnabout as when PM Modi entered the national political arena he controlled the social media space, with the Congress recovering from deep shock to build a strong challenge. As a senior MP said, “we are still a little behind in terms of numbers, but not in terms of strength of impact.”

The BJP’s media managers are Ministers and tend to focus on government schemes. The Congress has the advantage of registering itself now as a people-friendly opposition with now a national television channel actually writing to the party, urging it to end the boycott, and send its leaders for the discussions. This is after long years, and in itself has energised the twitterati into fits of laughter.

The other sharp difference is that the Congress is using humour against the ruling party, as against the ponderous statements and self righteous tones of the BJP spokespersons. Hate and abuse appears to be the BJP’s antidote to humour, with the party appearing old and menacing to the new generation. The Congress on the other hand has worked the late start to its advantage, smiling at itself as it takes jabs at the ruling dispensation. The offensive has worried the BJP that is finding it difficult to build a counter social media strategy. At least so far no signs of even an attempt are visible.

A case in point is the ongoing visit by Rahul Gandhi to Dubai. His youthful, spontaneous approach, with no attempt to censure or rig photographs and videos gives the party publicity team full leeway. There is no brushing off, no cordon by the security that is so tight that the people cannot penetrate, no one in his entourage even tries to stop the interventions, with the cameras clicking from all sides. No prepared questions, no prepared visuals, a free run for the publicity teams and the media.

In fact, as Rahul Gandhi finished his address at the packed stadium of the Indian diaspora he was asked a question by a woman from Andhra Pradesh. He stopped in his tracks, took the mike and answered with the assurance that if voted to power his government would give a special status to Andhra Pradesh. A lasting touch to a successful event.