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Rahul Gandhi's 'hugplomacy' approach to countering BJP will neither win votes nor opponents' hearts

Rahul Gandhi’s speech in Parliament on Friday shows he is trying to make a personal journey from ‘Pappu’ to ‘Munnabhai.’ In an age where the original proponent of the idea has moved from Munnabhai to Sanju Baba, Gandhi’s quest appears a little outdated and quixotic. But then, you can rarely accuse Gandhi of pragmatism, or getting his timing right.

Let us try to understand what Gandhi is trying — actually dreaming — to do with the help of his closing argument during his speech and his jadoo ki jhappi to the prime minister. After attacking the BJP on unemployment, GST and the Rafael deal, after announcing that the prime minister doesn’t have the courage to look him in the eye, Gandhi promised to convert every ‘angry’ BJP person to the Congress culture of love and tolerance. And then, à la Munnabhai of the eponymous film franchise, he went to the prime minister’s seat and gave him a tight hug. The intended message: Get well soon. And I will help you with my hugs and speeches.

Congress president Rahul Gandhi speaking in Parliament on Friday. PTI

Congress president Rahul Gandhi speaking in Parliament on Friday. PTI

The problem with Gandhi’s Munnabhai approach is that instead of addressing the malady within his own party, he is trying to heal his opponents. Instead of politics, he is dabbling in pop psychology; instead of trying to become a leader, he is dreaming of becoming a healer; instead of trying to be Rahul Gandhi, he is striving to become Mahatma Gandhi. It is not going to work simply because politics is the art of using saam, daam, dand and bhed (diplomacy, money, punishment and secrets) to win elections and decimate rivals, not the art of changing the hearts of opponents. It is about the ability to say that if you call me ‘Pappu’, my wrath shall fall upon you, not about saying, "I will hug you for ridiculing me, calling me names." Because, unless you are respected and feared, you can’t be taken seriously.

The Opposition is craving for a leader today. It is crying for someone who can gather the scattered headwinds of disappointment and inchoate anger against the NDA government and convert them into a storm to blow away the BJP. But, with his abstract speeches and recycled, hackneyed one-liners, Gandhi is just adding to the Opposition’s wait and frustration.

Consider his political speech — the part that preceded the Munnabhai act — in Parliament. It was a rehash of all the things he has said over the past few months — suit boot ki sarkar, chowkidaar nahin bhagidaar; the same old charges on the Rafale deal and Doka La. His speeches, like the Congress, just refuse to grow. On GST, he argued that people in Surat were upset with the government, without realising that the same 'upset people' had upset the Congress' calculations by wiping it out in Surat’s Assembly constituencies.

Gandhi needs to understand that if you say the same thing over and over again, you can either be called Goebbels or a speaker without a new narrative. In this age of social media and constantly-changing news cycles, the same anecdotes, one-liners and allegations just don’t help you win new followers, or convert the fence-sitters. Every time he gets up to speak, he needs to add new facts, every time, he needs to say something new that would make the audience take him seriously, not smile condescendingly at the end of his outburst.

The debate on Friday was tailor-made for Gandhi to reach out to the fence-sitters, convince those unhappy with the BJP but still not enamoured with the Congress. In a dull season, the debate had revived the interest of Indians in political debate, and to listen to arguments on both side of the divide. He had the audience, he had their attention. However, he ended up just making them smile and laugh at the end. And that’s not a good sign unless he thinks he is participating in the great Indian laughter challenge.

The next few months are going to make or break the Congress. In a few months, elections will be held in three key states—unless the BJP decides to hold simultaneous elections for Lok Sabha. The BJP is not too confident of winning Rajasthan, it is a bit wary about anti-incumbency in Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh. Even the electorate is looking at the Congress with hope and optimism. However, Gandhi needs to convince voters that his party has the ability to dislodge the BJP. He needs to show a killer’s instinct and go for the BJP’s jugular.

By pulling instead at the BJP’s heartstrings, dispensing hugs and slushy speeches, he is projecting himself as an outdated idealist for whom politics is about romantic notions of winning hearts of his opponents, not votes. He will end up winning neither.

Follow live updates on the Monsoon Session of Parliament here.


Updated Date: Jul 20, 2018 19:04 PM

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