Maharashtra BJP President Chandrashekhar Bawankule's advice to party workers "take journalists to drink tea... you know what I mean" has provoked a furious response from the opposition which has accused him and the BJP of threatening journalists to manipulate political, economic and social narratives.
Supriya Sule demands apology
DCM Devendra Fadnavis tried to shield the state chief saying that "sometimes things are said in lighter vein, but it is not right to build a controversy around it." However, NCP MP Supriya Sule maintained that Bawankule has insulted journalists and demanded that he tender an apology to journalists.
Bawankule, who was speaking to party workers at Ahmednagar on Sunday, had said, "...small-time video journalists running news portals sometimes present a minor incident as if some blast has taken place. Prepare a list of such nuisance-creating journalists, and invite them for a cup of tea... so they don't write anything against us... You know what I mean by inviting them for tea." "Take them to dhabas. Treat them well and ensure no negative news comes out against us. There should be positive news about us. Protect your own booths first."
He also called on the BJP's rank and file to make a list of "nuisance-creating journalists" and monitor their activities and reports. In a widely circulated audio clip, he also urges BJP workers to ensure journalists publish only "positive news".
He also declared the Modi government had several notable achievements to its credit but that these were being obscured by journalists who "insist on publishing whatever wrong news they have".
The BJP leader did not name journalists but referred to "those from electronic media or print".
Furious response from the opposition
Bawankule's comment provoked a furious response from the opposition, which has accused him and the BJP of threatening journalists to manipulate political, economic and social narratives.
Congress leader Vijay Wadettiwar, who is also the Leader of the Opposition, while leading the charge, said, "Not all journalists have sold out... do you think journalists accept crumbs? I can understand the restlessness of your leaders... both at top level and local... as they could not suppress the voice of dissent! But now you have started directly making offers?"
Wadettiwar also accused the BJP of trying to offer "crumbs" to voters before next year's election, in which the ruling party is bidding for an unprecedented third consecutive term. The Congress' state boss has ripped into the BJP for making journalists look "cheap". "It is a devaluation of the media fraternity," he raged.
Congress ally NCP has also responded; Lok Sabha MP Supriya Sule accused the BJP of continuing to refuse dissent in what PM Modi's government has hailed as "the mother of democracy".
"Newspapers work as the opposition in a democracy... but the BJP state president is giving lessons on how to muzzle the media. It is a serious matter and condemnable action. It is the BJP's policy to not let journalists function smoothly," she said, "BJP should admit it does not accept democracy."
"Comments were misunderstood": Bawankule
Meanwhile, faced with heavy (and growing) criticism, Bawankule said his comments were misunderstood. "Journalists are also voters. It is not good if you (BJP workers) do not meet... talk to them... or seek their opinion. I gave this kind of advice."
"If the news is negative tomorrow... we (the BJP) don't have an opinion. It is your (journalists') right," he said.
Maharashtra Deputy Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis, too tried to play down the comments. "There is no need to interpret in any other way. Sometimes, when you are talking to your party workers, certain things are said in a lighter vein," he said.
Controversy over the comments came after the BJP slammed INDIA for boycotting 14 broadcast journalists. The opposition alliance refused to appear on their shows as it does not want to "legitimize a hate-filled narrative corroding society".