The Congress is not making it easy for Rahul Gandhi, whose life sways from one blunder to the next with a bit of power nap at workplace thrown in between. It is bad enough covering the countless goof-ups of the Congress's heir-apparent but it becomes infinitely trickier when party leaders add to his gaffes. The end result is a case study on how India's grand old party is hurtling towards oblivion.
A day after sleeping over a Parliament debate on atrocities against Dalits, Rahul Gandhi woke up to Dalit empowerment like Alice in Wonderland and headed for Gujarat.
The party obviously thought that it will be a great photo-op, a good chance to cash in on BJP's discomfort and may even ensure a slice of the Dalit vote pie if Rahul Gandhi, the son, grandson, and great-grandson of former Indian Prime Ministers, goes and hugs a few affected people or maybe even shares a cuppa with them.
It all went according to the script. In a show of solidarity with the Dalits, who were recently assaulted and humiliated in Gujarat by members of a self-styled 'cow protection group', Rahul Gandhi first visited Mota Samadhiyala village in Una to meet the victims' family members. He then proceeded to Rajkot Civil hospital. Three youths, who were beaten up by the gang, were undergoing treatment there along with 11 other Dalit men who had attempted suicide during the large-scale statewide protests.
The meeting went swimmingly. Pictures of Rahul meeting the recuperating youths and hugging the mother of a victim were widely circulated.
"I met the mother of the victim. She said that she sees no way forward — we are trampled in Modiji's Gujarat everyday," Rahul Gandhi had said, taking a dig at the Prime Minister. It showed how the Congress Vice-President's heart beats for the oppressed.
There was one problem, however. It now emerges that Ramaben, the tearful woman whom Rahul met during his visit to the hospital assuming her to be the mother of one of the victims, was not even remotely connected to any of the youths.
State Congress general secretary Hemang Vasavada has admitted that local party leaders had "planted" Ramaben to make it visually more appealing. The idea was to 'humanise' the story so that Anandiben Patel administration, already under the cosh, could be portrayed in an even poorer light before Rahul and the media. The police has now started an inquiry.
"It was an indefensible and foolish act that has embarrassed the party, giving ammunition to the BJP, which had been on the back foot on the Una incident," Vasavada, a Rajkot-based neurosurgeon, told The Telegraph.
It appears that the woman, Ramaben, is a history-sheeter with a "dubious" background and has faced cases of bootlegging, extortion and attempt to murder. She had also apparently campaigned in elections for Rajkot Congress MLA Indranil Rajyaguru and local councillor Vasram Sagathiya.
In the TV footage, the woman was heard telling the Congress Vice-President that "now we will not go back to Mota Samadhiyala, our village." However, according to the report which quotes police sources, Ramaben lives in Rajkot and is suspected of links with the bootlegging mafia in Gujarat.
Questioned by the media, Ramaben said: "I never said that I am his (victim's) real mother but being from the Dalit community I am like his mother."
"I don't understand politics. These TV-wallahs are unnecessarily harassing me," she told a newspaper.
Under pressure, the party's state unit came up with a fantastic explanation. Congress leader Rajyaguru said he didn't know Ramaben and accused the BJP of "planting her to defame the Congress."
It is still unclear how that may be possible because only those cleared by the SPG, who handles Rahul's security, can meet the Congress Vice-President.
As if the entire incident wasn't embarrassing enough, more details have emerged from the stage-managed nature of Rahul Gandhi's Rajkot visit.
According to a report in The Indian Express, hours before the Congress Vice-President landed in Rajkot, Ramesh Sarvaiya, a victim of the public flogging who had been discharged from Junagadh civil hospital on 18 July, was re-admitted to General Hospital in Rajkot under alleged political pressure so that the Congress scion could meet him.
Doctors at the Rajkot and Una hospitals claim huge political pressure to let the victims stay in hospital even if they are fit to be discharged.
“The four patients from Una are completely normal. They are fit to be discharged any time. Other 11 who have attempted suicide by consuming poison are also fine and can be allowed to go home. But there is a lot of political pressure on us to let them stay in the hospital. The leaders of various political parties are coming to us and telling us that they are very serious and that they should continue to get medical treatment,” the report quoted a senior doctor Rajkot government hospital, as saying.
Beyond the gaffes, which lends a macabre hue to extremely tragic incidents, these instances are a pointer to how political parties exploit human tragedies and use victims as a prop for scoring brownie points. It is unclear whether these 'photo-op politics' or 'tragedy tourism' result in any electoral gains but parties can't be faulted for not trying.
Shortly after Rahul Gandhi's departure, Aam Admi Party chief Arvind Kejriwal, too, flew in to bake his bread in the oven of discontent. AAP intends to contest the Gujarat Assembly polls and the Dalit uprising gave him a chance to get himself pitch-forked into the headlines.
Congress needs to step up its game though. The gaffes put the tag 'paid' to any political mileage it may have hoped for from the Dalit outrage.