“Thousands of crores of media money have been spent in trying to shape me in a way which is untruthful and wrong,” Congress leader Rahul Gandhi said on October 8. “That machine is financially backed. People who care to look carefully will see what I stand for and what my truth is.”

Gandhi was speaking on the sidelines of the Bharat Jodo Yatra, the Congress’ party’s march from the southern tip of India to its northernmost region of Kashmir. Covering a distance of 3,500 km over the course of five months, the yatra will highlight, in the Congress’ own words, “social polarisation, economic inequalities and political centralisation”.

Much of this is, of course, aimed at the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party. But as Scroll.in walked with the yatra in Karnataka, it was clear that Congress was possibly even more bitter about another entity: India’s mainstream media.

Much of the yatra is laced with anti-media messaging. In fact, many senior strategists argue that the Congress had to resort to devices such as the yatra precisely because the media is hostile to them. Ironically, it seems that the Congress’s direct attack on the media is having the effect of making it somewhat less critical of the party than before.

Attacking mainstream media

“When we were student leaders, we saw the role of the media as strengthening Opposition voices, correcting government failure,” general secretary of All India Congress Committee and key yatra strategist, KC Venugopal, told Scroll.in. “Even in the UPA [United Prgoressive Alliance] period, we saw that we never got good press.”

Now, however, Venugopal says the situation has changed. The reason, he believes, is the “misuse” of central agencies such as the Enforcement Directorate. “If you say a good word about Rahul Gandhi, you will get notice tomorrow,” he said. “If you say a single word against BJP, you will get a notice.”

Pawan Khera, chairman of the Media and Publicity department of the All India Congress Committee, argues that the mainstream media’s attacks on the opposition have damaged its credibility. “Actually people are now ridiculing television media,” he told Scroll.in during the yatra. “That there is no credibility left of mainstream media is bad news for India overall.”

Venugopal draws a distinction between local and big media. “I am not talking of all media,” he said. “Vernacular media is of a different mould but corporate driven media is of a different mould.”

A poster at the rally attacking the media for allegedly discussing communal topics over bread and butter topics. Credit: Shoaib Daniyal

‘Going directly to the people’

Priyank Kharge, head of communications for the yatra in Karnataka, explained that this seeming media hostility is why the Congress had to hit the streets. “We have only two places to speak, Parliament, or assemblies in the state, or the fourth pillar of democracy, the media,” he said. “But our voice is being throttled in both places.”

Kharge’s thinking has been mainstream in the Congress for some time now. In May, speaking at Cambridge University, Rahul Gandhi argued that media capture has hamstrung the party. “In a 21st-century environment, where your means of communication is media, social media, and they [the BJP] have total dominance over those, of course it will affect the [electoral] mandate,” he said. “The only way to face it, is by going directly to the people.”

The Bharat Jodo Yatra is the outcome of this Congress line of thinking. “The only way we are able to reach the people is by bypassing the media,” Kharge told Scroll.in, explaining the thinking behind the Kanyakumari-to-Kashmir march.

Bottom-up push

This anti-media critique is not only considered strategy from the top but viscerally felt among the rank and file Congress workers taking part in the Bharat Jodo Yatra. Jawaharlal Nehru University student leader-turned-Congressman Kanhaiya Kumar rejected several requests to talk to Scroll.in, eventually angrily arguing that the media was interested only in “dhanda” – literally “business” in Hindi, but often used with negative moral connotations.

Syed Allah Baksh, a Congress worker from Karnataka repeated Kharge’s formulation. “Media is not with us, thus we need direct outreach, that’s why we need to reach the people in the village,” he said, arguing that the yatra was the solution.

The Congress is taking this hostility online as well. Much of Wednesday, for example, saw the Congress’ social media cell run a campaign against Saurabh Dwivedi, the editor of the Hindi news website, Lallantop for off-colour jokes on Rahul Gandhi dating back to 2015. By Saturday, Dwivedi put out a video apology for those tweets, mentioning the online attacks he had received.

On October 6, Republic TV, one of the most prominent television channels seen to be pro-government, aired a video of a reporter shouting out to Rahul Gandhi as he walked in the yatra. On Twitter, the channel captioned it with the words “Rahul Gandhi runs away from the Republic’s questions.” While this aggressive heckling was normal programming for Republic, what was unusual that attacks by the Congress’ social media volunteers soon forced the channel to delete the tweet.

Later, on October 12, the Congress announced an official boycott of Aman Chopra, a senior editor at the Hindi news channel, News18. Chopra had recently been in the news for a show supporting the public flogging of 10 Muslim men by the Gujarat police.

Media critique website Newslaundry has closely tracked national media and found that while communal issues remain the main topic of prime time debates, shows attacking the opposition come in second, going some way in explaining the Congress’ belligerent attitude towards the media.