There are three takeaways from 'The Rahul Gandhi Show' currently under way at a political theatre near you. First, the Congress vice-president has lost a great chance of being a martyr and resurrecting his career by produnova vaulting over RSS shoulders.
Second, U-turns have finally shaken off their stigma. It is now a legitimate political manouvre and we should totally thank Congress, its allies and media minders for it. At the bang of a hammer, the embarrassing retreat has been turned into a high art of realpolitik. U-turn, after what Rahul Gandhi did in court on Wednesday, is suddenly being called 'checkmate'.
Third and most important, blinded by its one-sided, unflinching propagation of 'The First Family', Congress has suddenly woken up to the reality that it is in danger of losing all its icons and their legacy to an aggressive BJP. Rahul's entire RSS 'gaffe' stems from this deep-rooted anxiety. But more of that in a bit.
Let us first consider a hackneyed Bollywood script. Hero woos heroine. But she remains unimpressed. Hero arranges for a classic 'damsel in distress'. The unsuspecting lady would be accosted by some troublemakers and he would — as heroes do — suddenly arrive at the scene, beat them up and earn her admiration. It's all staged but hey, all's fair in love and war. The moment finally comes. To everyone's surprise, instead of taking on the hired ruffians our hero beats a hasty retreat. It is promptly called a 'tactical withdrawal' by his spin-masters.
When the Congress thundered last month that the Gandhi scion won't tender an apology over his "RSS people killed Gandhiji" remark made at an election rally in 2014 and will instead "substantiate" it with "historical facts and evidence before the court to support his claim", it was promptly taken as a sign of an unseen new steel in Rahul Gandhi's backbone.
The Supreme Court, hearing an appeal for the dismissal of a criminal case filed by RSS functionary Rajesh Kunte against the Congress vice-president, had said on 19 July that Rahul Gandhi must either apologise or face trial for making a collective denunciation against the organization.
"Why did you make a sweeping statement against the RSS branding everyone associated with the organization in the same brush?" the apex court had asked Rahul Gandhi during the hearing. "You can't make wholesale denunciation of an organization," the SC bench of Justices Dipak Misra and RF Nariman observed.
Congress took the battering, stuttered and then came out with a 'killer plan'.
The problem with Congress ideology is that it has no ideology. And in absence of an ideological mooring, the party depends solely on the Gandhi capital for unity and bankability. Though fast reducing, the party apparatchiks obviously thought that the optics of Gandhi scion walking towards the court while trying to defend his comments about "RSS people killing Mahatma Gandhi" would serve as a rallying point. The National Herald trial had recently showed that some empathy is still to be gained from footage of Gandhi dynasty members answering a court summons. It was used marvelously by the Congress to repeatedly adjourn Parliament sessions last year.
So Congress spokesperson Randeep Surjewala's reaction on the very day that the Supreme Court made its observations, was understandable.
"On a suggestion of Shri Rahul Gandhi expressing regret or apology, the question does not arise. Such a suggestion has been made in the past and not accepted by Rahul Gandhi… He is a mature politician with intimate knowledge of historical facts. Congress party and Mr Gandhi will defend these remarks at appropriate forum."
However, for a "mature politician with intimate knowledge of history", it is curious how Rahul Gandhi made a spectacular climbdown before the apex court on Wednesday.
Did he undertake a crash course in history in the interim?
Gone was the boldness, the chest-thumping of testosterone-fuelled machismo. Seeking refuge in a legal technicality, Rahul Gandhi's lawyer Kapil Sibal told a bench of Justice Dipak Misra and Justice RF Nariman that "The petitioner (Rahul Gandhi) never accused the RSS as an institution for the crime… it is clear from my affidavit before the (Bombay) High Court."
What is this Bombay high court affidavit that Gandhi's counsel referred to?
In December 2014, the year Kunte took Rahul Gandhi to court, the Gandhi scion filed an affidavit before Bombay HC saying that though he "did mention RSS in the course of his speech at one place" but a "careful reading of the relevant part of his speech indicates that as per the petitioner the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi was a result of (the) destructive philosophy of the persons associated with the RSS".
"It was also clearly suggested that the assassins were associated or affiliated with the RSS. He never accused (the) RSS as an institution of the crime," the affidavit had said, according to a report in The Telegraph.
Simply put, Rahul Gandhi's grand demonstration of bravado was meant for outside-the-court consumption. Once inside the premises, the Congress vice-president was trying to wriggle out of a defamation case filed against him. And that is fine.
But even the legendary Shane Warne would struggle to do what the Congress tried to do with a straight face on Wednesday — spin Rahul Gandhi's chickening out as a "checkmate" of the BJP/RSS.
There is a strong possibility, though the next hearing has been scheduled for 1 September, that the Congress vice-president might be cleared of the charges. The court seemed amenable to the idea and the complainant, whose lawyer asked for Rahul Gandhi's clarification to be put on record, may drop the charge.
But let there be no doubt that Rahul Gandhi has secured a pyrrhic victory. He may have avoided a protracted court battle — which ironically could have served to boost his image and rally the grassroot workers — but has taken a heavy beating in terms of perception.
Once the Congress vice-president refused to give a "decent burial" to the case by expressing regret and took the battle to the RSS by saying that he will fight on the basis of on-record evidence, merit and judicial precedence, the ante was upped and the bar placed high. From there, the denouement was a letdown of such epic proportion that it will be difficult for Rahul henceforth to pick up the topic again.
And yet he must. Because India's Grand Old Party can only helplessly watch as BJP, in their stated goal of making Bharat Congress-mukt, tries to appropriate the one thing they lack in their armoury — national icons. The BJP has a dominating present, a promising future but not much to show in terms of a glorified past. Laying ideological claim to the legacy of prominent leaders lends BJP the history it lacks, compared especially to the illustrious past of the Congress.
Hence there has lately been an untiring effort to appropriate the legacies of stalwart s such as Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, Subhas Chandra Bose, BR Ambedkar, icons who have been carelessly cast aside by the Congress which has been too busy promoting The Dynasty to notice anything else.
If we look at the excerpt of the speech, which Rahul Gandhi had delivered during a public rally in Maharashtra in 2014, the anger is obvious. In the short clip posted below he appears indignant that “RSS ke logon killed Gandhiji and today their people talk of him… They opposed Sardar Patel and Gandhiji.”
The appropriation of Congress icons by the BJP lies at the heart of GoP's heartburn. And its anointed prince, by refusing to take RSS head on in a court battle, just lost another chance to stem the tide.