Shehzad Poonawalla’s outburst against Congress president Rahul Gandhi did not happen overnight. Resentment was brewing in him for the past one year after being reprimanded by AICC communication department officials, including a senior spokesperson for his frequent, but unauthorised appearances on primetime TV as a party representative, sources told The Sunday Guardian.
Sources said that Congress’ internal managers upped the ante against Shehzad after he recently wrote to the Chief Minister of Jammu and Kashmir Mehbooba Mufti asking her to grant minority status to Hindus living in the state, a demand which they found not in concurrence with the party line.
The sources added that after Shehzad demanded minority status for Hindus in J&K on 22 November, he was criticised on a WhatsApp group floated by Congress’ “young” leaders and officials. “Shehzad was snubbed in the group. Since J&K has special status, the provisions for the minorities cannot be extended to it. Article 370 takes care of every community’s needs in the state. Shehzad’s statement almost seemed in favour of abrogating Article 370, which is in stark contrast to the party line. When this was pointed out in the group, many leaders expressed their irritation. From this point, we knew he would do something extreme, as he himself said even Rahul Gandhi had not obliged his long request for a meeting,” a Congress source, who is a member of this WhatsApp group, told this reporter.
The source quoted added: “The communication department of the AICC decides who all will represent the party on primetime debates on television, and they are given prior instructions on what to say. But Shehzad would use his media connections and his proximity to Robert Vadra to appear as a de facto Congress spokesperson on TV. He never informed the communication department about his programmes and rarely consulted seniors on the party line. This had become a bone of contention with the communication department.”
The source quoted further said that a communication department member had thrice reprimanded Shehzad over his unauthorised appearances on TV. “In the past one year, a communication department asked Shehzad thrice to follow procedures, but he remained adamant,” the source said.
But Shehzad Poonawalla pointed to the contradiction in the Congress’ stand, while talking to this newspaper: “Just yesterday they have officially said that I have not been a member of the party for two-and-a-half years. Then in what capacity was the media department raising objections on my appearances on TV. If I am a private citizen then what role do they have in guiding me?”
He said he was never asked by any AICC coordinator not to appear on TV debates as the party’s representative. “The AICC did not speak to me on this issue. But the question here again is that are they accepting that Ashok Chavan is lying that I was not a member of the party for the last two-and-a-half years? Because there is no other reason for their objecting to my coming on TV and commenting on any topic under the sun,” he said.
When asked about his status in the Congress, Shehzad said “I am a member of the Congress and my name is still there on the Maharashtra Congress website.”
He forwarded documents—screenshot of Shashi Tharoor’s tweet dated 18 November in which he is commending his “hard work for the party”, letters issued to him by Maharashtra Congress on their official letterheads dated 5 June 2017, 22 June 2017 and 21 April 2016—proving his active membership with the Congress. When asked if he had received any formal communication from the AICC after raising objection to Rahul Gandhi’s speculated elevation as party president, he said, “No, I haven’t.”
Meanwhile, another source said that some time ago, complaint about Shehzad’s TV appearances reached Rahul Gandhi who, in turn, took it up with his sister Priyanka Gandhi Vadra. “Rahul Gandhi was informed about how Shehzad was using his proximity with Robert Vadra to gain media limelight. Rahul discussed this with Priyanka. She said she was hardly in touch with either Shehzad or her husband Robert Vadra’s cousin Monicka who is married to Tehseen, Shehzad’s brother. She advised Rahul Gandhi to ignore him,” the source said.
On Thursday, Shehzad had questioned Rahul Gandhi’s likely elevation as Congress president, alleging that it was a “rigged” and “sham” exercise. “Since the delegate system is completely rigged and manipulated, for a fair fight for the presidentship, will you allow real delegates to get appointed and vote rather than a bunch of handpicked ‘yes’ men? If not, will you at least face your rival in a televised debate to see who articulates a better vision for the Congress party and India? Will you allow yourself to be judged on merit rather than your surname? If yes, let’s have that contest. I am ready,” he had said.
The Maharashtra Congress rebuffed his comments, saying he was not even a primary member of the party and was missing in action in the state for the last two years. State Congress president Ashok Chavan said Poonawalla’s remarks were aimed at getting “cheap publicity”.
Shehzad’s brother Tehseen Poonawalla disowned him publicly. “I formally and firmly declare in front of the media—my wife, my mother and I have nothing to do with Shehzad Poonawalla; we refuse to be associated with him,” Tehseen declared.