The Rajya Sabha Secretariat on Wednesday sent out two press releases with partisan language, singling out one political party for being “isolated” and eventually being forced to “fall in line.” The secretariat later emailed asking reporters to not consider the press releases as “official”, but said they could be attributed to sources.
On Wednesday at around 6pm, the Rajya Sabha media unit sent out an email with the subject line being, “Press Releases pertaining to the functioning of the first day of the 246th Session of Rajya Sabha.” The email, signed by Ratan Kumar Sahoo, Additional Director (Media) of the Rajya Sabha secretariat asked reporters to give due publicity to the four press releases that were attached.
The secretariat is controlled by Vice President of India, who also serves as the Chairman of the Rajya Sabha.
One press release spoke about how the Rajya Sabha got off to a smooth start and mentioned that Question Hour was taken up in full after a long break. The other claimed that Vice President Venkiah Naidu had set a record of sorts by speaking in 10 languages in the house.
The other two releases were more unusual.
One was titled, “TDP isolated”. The release, printed like the others on the Rajya Sabha Secretariat’s letterhead, said that the Telugu Desam Party was “which was in the forefront of disrupting Rajya Sabha for most of the last session does not seem likely to be able to do so this session.” The release said TDP’s “predicament” became clear after Naidu called a meeting of leaders, right after he had adjourned the House, only to find that other Opposition leaders wanted the Rajya Sabha to function. The report concluded by saying TDP leader “YS Chowdary conveyed his resentment but his party is clearly under pressure from other opposition parties to stop disrupting the proceedings of Rajya Sabha”.
The other press release, titled “Rajya Sabha to discuss Andhra Pradesh issue next week” also took aim at the TDP. It said that a discussion on the issue of the bifurcation of Andhra Pradesh would take place next week, after a decision on this matter had been taken by leaders of different parties in the Venkaiah Naidu’s chamber after the House had been adjourned for lunch.
“TDP again found itself in a corner when the opposition leaders again asserted that TDP members cannot go on disrupting the House session after session. The reluctant TDP had to fall in line sensing the feelings of other opposition parties and demanded adequate time for discussing their demands.”
Political journalists say that this sort of language, calling one party “isolated”, saying it has a “predicament” and that it has found itself in a corner, is unexpected. The secretariat’s job is to treat all parties equally and according to the rule book.
“The Rajya Sabha secretariat usually tries to be formally as non-partisan as possible,” said Ajoy Bose, a senior political journalist. “So I’m quite surprised they sent this out as an official press release. Obviously somebody got carried away.”
He added: “I can’t remember the Rajya Sabha itself making a comment on a political party, over the last 30 or 35 years, so it is quite unusual, quite unprecedented.”
About two hours later, another email came from Sahoo, the additional director (media) at the Secretariat, with the subject line “corrigendum to the earlier mail”. In it, Sahoo clarified that only two news items from the previous email may be considered official Press Releases.
“The other two Press Releases titled “TDP isolated as all Parties want Rajya Sabha to function; Opposition parties say let us discuss TDP concerns and corner Government” and “Rajya Sabha to discuss Andhra Pradesh issue next week” are not official and may be attributed to the sources. Inconvenience caused is regretted.”
This email meant that the release was not exactly withdrawn, it had just been made “off record”, similar to the briefings that politicians or their press officers will frequently give reporters. The difference is that off record briefings are almost always in person, or over the phone.
“To have it done formally like this is curious and very unusual,” said Neerja Chowdhury, a senior political analyst. “On the Rajya Sabha secretariat paper, that too. The fact that they swiftly withdrew the document shows that they realise they made a faux pas.”
Bose said the same. “I’m surprised they sent it by mail. You call people and brief them off the record, and say these comments are attribute to sources. That’s normal. I’m surprised they actually put out a mail that can be quoted back at them. To my mind that is quite unprecedented... and the fact that the Rajya Sabha quickly tried to correct it that itself speaks further.”
In a reply to queries about Scroll.in, Sahoo said, “It was an error and same had already been regretted by the Secretariat.”