Rahul Gandhi's comments in Europe may have made allies wary of projecting him as Opposition's intellectual face

Rahul Gandhi is on a roll. He has learnt that in a world of post-truths, facts need not come in the way of politics. Travelling through Germany and the United Kingdom, on a mission to launch himself as a rising star on the world geo-political stage, he fired on multiple cylinders across a wide spectrum of topics, ranging from Islamic State to RSS, Doka La to demonetisation, lynching to women’s rights and farms to factories.

Rahul’s critics will say he was short on both substance and specifics. A few bloopers along the way are par for the course, and Rahul’s image managers would have factored them in. So, he did not balk at denying the role of Congressmen in the 1984 Sikh genocides or comparing the RSS to the Muslim Brotherhood. However, who cares as long as an alternate narrative is being set? So, his fans rejoiced at the media traction it generated.

Rahul’s messages were directed as much at the cherry-picked foreign audience as they were for the commentariat at home, who lapped up everything he did or said, including some very odd photographs that the Congress social media cell posted on Twitter. However, undeniably, he made them feel much more reassured about his capacity to take on Narendra Modi in 2019.

It is not just Rahul’s opponents and detractors who would have been following his discourse on foreign shores, his potential allies too would have been listening with equal interest. In all his public interactions, Rahul carefully underplays his prime ministerial ambitions and acknowledges that the Congress by itself will not have the majority numbers to form the government. However, while admitting the inevitability of a coalition, Rahul Gandhi seems to be taking the mantle of "thought-leadership” upon himself. It is not clear, however, if his allies would be entirely comfortable with Rahul being the intellectual face of the Opposition.

Rahul Gandhi during a press interaction in the UK. Image courtesy: Twitter/@INCIndia

Rahul Gandhi during a press interaction in the UK. Image courtesy: Twitter/@INCIndia

There is nothing to suggest that Rahul Gandhi consults his peers in the Opposition before his frequent overseas forays. It is not known if all parties feel the need to mobilise support among the Indian diaspora and foreign powers for throwing out Modi in what is purely a domestic battle.

It is also doubtful if leaders of other parties have any prior inkling about his likely line of attack on the trips abroad. Rahul Gandhi appears to be going about on the assumption that it is his and the Congress’ prerogative to set the agenda while other parties will supply the numbers to defeat the BJP.

It could have been smart strategy if there was there was a shared understanding that Rahul would provide aerial cover for the other partners to do the laborious groundwork in their respective strongholds. Otherwise, carpet bombing could lead to unintended consequences. That is exactly what happened with the denial of Congress’ role in the 1984 Sikh pogrom or by comparing the RSS with the Muslim Brotherhood.

But, at the moment, all efforts of the Congress are going into building an international profile for Rahul Gandhi to compensate for his image deficit at home. The attempt seems to be to project Rahul Gandhi as a “nice guy” with a progressive liberal outlook abroad, someone who could be trusted by the global community as one of their own. The bogey of “democracy is in danger” and trumped-up (pun intended) scare of the rising right-wing (the new political equivalent of WMDs) is expected to enhance his appeal to westerners.

Back in India, he is being painted in the image of a firebrand rebel for all causes and every season, the new messiah of the poor, downtrodden and minorities. Both are pretty old formulae, coming from a position of privilege and entitlement. This is in sharp contrast to most of the other leaders in the fray, including Narendra Modi, who claim to have themselves come up from the subaltern classes. This contradiction (that Modi pithily captured as “naamdar vs kaamdar”) is bound to haunt any pre-poll Opposition alliance.

“Secularism” is ostensibly the common plank on which the Opposition parties are coming on board, though the unstated objective is to unseat Narendra Modi at any cost for their own long-term political survival. Rahul, therefore, may be right in predicting a simple binary construct of a “straightforward” contest between all Opposition parties on one side and the BJP alone at the other.

However, Rahul is not stopping at that. He has gone a step further by directly attacking the RSS. He is positioning himself as the knight in shining armour leading the ideological charge against the RSS, which he portrays as a fascist organisation on a mission to change the idea of India by capturing every democratic institution.

Rahul is trying to give an ethical dimension to the fight. He is billing the elections as a classic clash between good and evil, a 2019 edition of the battle of Kurukshetra, the favourite war analogy of every Indian, as it were. He fancies himself in the role of a divine charioteer who is destined to rescue the country from the stranglehold of a dictatorial Modi.

Such an extreme position may not suit all his potential allies. They would be wary of greater polarisation which would be hard to contain. Besides, many of them would not like to permanently burn their bridges with the BJP and RSS, which are here to stay. In any case, many leaders such as Mayawati and Mamata Banerjee would not allow Rahul Gandhi to become the prima donna of the Opposition by default. All this might change the contours of the proposed mahagathbandhan.

Meanwhile, the BJP juggernaut seems to be floundering a little. The party and government PR machinery have been bombarding the public with statistics. However, data is not as sexy as drama. So, no one seems to be listening. Even the prime minister’s Independence Day address presenting a report card of sorts failed to make a strong enough impact to turn the narrative. After four years, the monthly “Mann Ki Baat” addresses are beginning to sound tired and strained. It is difficult to gauge the efficacy of Narendra Modi’s other digital outreach programmes such as the NaMo App.

In such a situation, Rahul has done a great favour to Narendra Modi. By his intemperate and ill-advised comments, he has managed to fire up the RSS cadres who would now go all out to ensure Modi’s victory.

He deserves an advance thank you note from Narendra Modi.


Updated Date: Aug 27, 2018 16:56 PM

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