Sam Pitroda's Mani Shankar Aiyar moment indicates Congress has conceded nationalism space to BJP

If Sam Pitroda, the Congress' overseas wing chief, still doesn't get what the controversy over his remarks is, then one really can't say much.

Sreemoy Talukdar March 23, 2019 18:54:13 IST
Sam Pitroda's Mani Shankar Aiyar moment indicates Congress has conceded nationalism space to BJP
  • During an interview, Congress leader Sam Pitroda questioned the Balakot airstrikes

  • He also appeared to absolve Pakistan of terrorism charges, making the Congress look indecisive on the national security front

  • His remarks deal a heavy blow to the Congress amid the nationalism debate ahead of the elections

It is inexplicable why the Mani Shankar Aiyar syndrome hits the Congress during elections. It was in 2014 when the phenomenon first affected the party when it was battling a spirited charge from Narendra Modi, who spoke of "ache din" and promised a "Congress mukt" India.

An irate Aiyar, during an All India Congress Committee meeting in New Delhi in January 2014, had mocked the then Gujarat chief minister's background and prime ministerial ambitions.

"I promise you, in the 21st Century, Narendra Modi will never become the prime minister of the country... But if he wants to distribute tea here, we will find a place for him," Aiyar had told reporters.

Aiyar's clairvoyance turned out to be inaccurate. His elitist jibe helped Modi launch the "Chai pe Charcha" campaign and the BJP hoist the Congress with its own petard. Already unpopular, the Congress was left reacting to charges of elitism and classism. Three years later, Aiyar repeated the same mistake during the Gujarat Assembly elections, calling the prime minister "neech" — a jibe that could either mean low born or vile. Modi called it a casteist slur, and according to some analysts, that loose remark may have cost Congress the tight battle. Aiyar started trending again on Friday, though for no fault of his this time. His brand recall is so strong that every blunder by the Congress before the elections has become synonymous with his name.

The latest to be hit by the syndrome is Sam Pitroda, the chief of the party's overseas wing, who managed to breathe fresh life into the BJP's nationalism plank with less than a month to go before the polls. Pitroda did several things at once to the BJP's joy — he questioned the Balakot airstrikes, appeared to demean the seriousness of the 2008 terror attacks in Mumbai, gave Pakistan the benefit of the doubt on terrorism, made Congress look indecisive on the issue of national security and seemed blasé about the controversy his comments created. Quite incredibly, the US-based technocrat-turned-politician also managed to sound elitist and classist about Indians.

While questioning the airstrikes carried out by the Indian Air Force (IAF) at Balakot in Pakistan's Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, Pitroda, during an interview to a news agency, pointed out that the government has not released any official data on the operation. However, Foreign Secretary Vijay Gokhale, the IAF and tri-services chiefs have clarified that India's objectives behind targeting the terror infrastructure at Balakot had been met.

Pitroda is correct in his statement that global media has disputed India's claims. It is also true that Pakistan has prevented journalists from accessing the site of the airstrikes at Jabba Top in Balakot, where India claims to have dropped payload and eliminated a "large number of terrorists and their trainers". In fact, Islamabad has prevented a team of Reuters journalists three times from climbing the hill to visit the targeted Jaish-e-Muhammad seminary.

Foreign media's assessment is largely based on commercially available satellite imagery. The Print recently cited "high resolution satellite images in possession of the government" to report that "Israeli Spice 2000 bombs, each of them weighing 900 kilograms with 95 kilograms of explosives, did drop on at least two targets" and "the main training centre" of the JeM were "conclusively hit".

Sam Pitrodas Mani Shankar Aiyar moment indicates Congress has conceded nationalism space to BJP

File image of Congress leader Sam Pitroda. Reuters

As an individual, Pitroda reserves the right to be sceptical about the government's claims and to disbelieve even the IAF's clarification that its mission was successful. But to express that scepticism ahead of the elections, where national security is a big issue, is bad planning that indicates his inability to understand the dynamics of the nationalism debate in the public arena.

Pitroda's comments also contradict Congress chief Rahul Gandhi's own stance of congratulating the IAF for its valour.

But Pitroda does more. In an apparent moment of "inspiration", he also appears to trivialise the 26/11 terror attacks in Mumbai and absolve the State of Pakistan of complicity in the crime.

Pitroda's comments are a study in how political parties should not react. While trying to sound like a pacifist, he also got his facts and terminology wrong. Ten jihadis had entered Mumbai by sea that fateful night, not eight, and they were terrorists, not "people". They also didn't just "do something" but shot to kill hundreds of innocent civilians and take hostages in a macabre drama.

It perplexes one to fathom how Pitroda, who isn't short on intellect, can make such insensitive remarks. It is also naïve in the extreme to suggest that the Ajmal Kasabs were "non-State actors" who had acted on their own and not at the behest of Pakistan's military-intelligence establishment.

During the interview, Pitroda also made Congress look indecisive and weak on the national security front — seemingly verifying the charge the BJP has made against it repeatedly while seeking to contrast the response of UPA-2 to 26/11 with the Modi government's decision to go for "pre-emptive strikes" in response to the terror attack in Pulwama.

If Pitroda didn't really "know much about the attacks", it would have been wiser to keep his counsel. But he ended up pushing the Congress into a deep abyss and ceding the nationalism space in the debate entirely to the BJP. The grand old party tried to come up with a rebuttal and clarify that Pitroda's comments reflected his "personal viewpoint", but this is unlikely to cut much ice.

The BJP has upped the ante with the prime minister and finance minister trying to reorient the party's campaign towards national security. Modi even went to the extent of firing a series of tweets with the hashtag #JantaMaafNahiKaregi.

What may sting the Congress even more is the way Pitroda reacted after his comments had sparked a furore and shaped the national debate.

"I just said as a citizen I am entitled to know what happened. I am not talking on the behalf of the party, just speaking as a citizen. I have the right to know, what is wrong in that? I don't understand what is the controversy here. I am baffled at the response. Shows how people react to trivial matters in India."

If the Congress' overseas wing chief still doesn't get what the controversy is, sounds "literally shocked" and accuses Indians of reacting to trivia, then one really can't say much. His attitude reflects the grand old party's mood that seems bereft of a winning strategy in elections and walks, talks and behaves like an anti-establishment organisation out to corner the far-Left space in political discourse.

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