What would otherwise have been dismissed as a routine meeting between Rahul Gandhi and Chinese ambassador to India Luo Zhaohui snowballed into a full-scale controversy on June 10 thanks to the incompetence of the Congress vice-president’s office.

On the morning of June 10, as the media reported that Gandhi had met Luo on July 8, the Congress first stoutly denied that any such meeting had taken place. Later, the party and Rahul Gandhi himself admitted that the meeting was indeed held, at the behest of Luo.

When the news of the meeting first emerged, Congress party spokespersons, who were obviously clueless about these developments, sought to chide news channels instead for not raising questions about Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping in Hamburg on the sidelines of the G-20 summit last week, as well as the visit of three Union ministers to China at a time when the two countries are involved in a bitter stand-off on the border.

The party’s chief spokesperson Randeep Surjewala tweeted:

The party’s social media head Ramya also tweeted about Modi’s meeting with Xi, and then went on to defend Rahul Gandhi, which only made matters worse for the Congress.

Referring to Modi-Xi meeting in Hamburg, she tweeted:

Ramya then followed it up with another tweet, in which she neither denied or admitted to the Gandhi-Luo meeting.

It was only in the afternoon that Surjewala officially conformed reports of the meeting. “Be it the Chinese ambassador [Luo Zhaohui] or Bhutanese ambassador [Vetsop Namgyel] or former National Security Adviser Shiv Shankar Menon, Rahul Gandhi met all three of them. Nobody should try to sensationalise such normal courtesy calls,” said Surjewala.

Rahul Gandhi also weighed in, admitting that the meeting had indeed taken place, adding “it is my job to be informed on critical issues”.

Facing flak for speaking to the Chinese envoy at a time when relations between the two countries are under strain, the Congress vice-president also put out a tweet with a photograph of Modi on a swing with Xi during the Chinese President’s visit to India in September 2014.

Communication failure

Although seemingly a minor issue, this entire episode ended up exposing the lack of communication between Rahul Gandhi’s office and the Congress party. It is clear that Congress spokespersons were not briefed about Gandhi’s meeting with Luo and had to address media queries in this state of cluelessness.

However, the party was quick to insulate the Congress vice-president’s office from any criticism. “If there was any delay in confirming reports about this meeting, it is entirely my fault as I was preoccupied with a personal medical emergency, “ Surjewala told Scroll.in.

The Congress spokesperson’s brave attempt to defend Gandhi, however, failed to mollify party insiders who constantly complain about how the Congress vice-president’s office is staffed by non-political persons and functions as an independent entity. Congress spokespersons often find it difficult to respond to routine questions about Gandhi as they are not adequately briefed. They, in turn, are also wary of checking with his office. Party cadres are in despair over Rahul Gandhi’s inaccessibility and having to deal with the bureaucracy in his office. While communication within the Congress is wanting, the party’s messaging is inadequate and ineffective.

As a result, routine matters become public relations disasters. In this particular instance, the Congress could have used this meeting to highlight the longstanding friendly relations between the Congress and the Chinese Communist Party and underline Rajiv Gandhi’s contribution in breaking the ice with China and improving ties with India’s eastern neighbor.

The party could have also underlined that the Congress has not been rendered irrelevant despite its shrinking footprint and that it was important enough for the Chinese envoy to seek an appointment with its vice-president. In fact, China experts maintain that since the Chinese ambassador had sought the meeting, it showed Beijing’s conciliatory approach and that it is reaching out to other parties on a track-two level.

But the Congress missed the opportunity to project the meeting as such and was instead embroiled in an unnecessary and avoidable controversy.