City City Bang Bang, Columns

Beyond the hug?

Much has already been said and written about Rahul Gandhi’s speech during the no-confidence motion debate. Even more has been said about the hug. Perhaps it is a testimony of how compulsively politics in India is seen through the lens of the event and the individual. What cannot be denied is in the non-event called the no-confidence vote, we did see signs that carry important implications for the 2019 elections.

Admittedly, Rahul Gandhi did succeed in a few ways. His biggest win was internal- for a lot of his party leaders who were sceptical about his leadership, he provided a glimpse of what he might be capable of and helped generate greater confidence all around. The congratulatory noises coming from the Congress have more than a touch of relief in them; a lot of leaders would be breathing a little easier after his speech.

The other success lay in the fact that on the Rafale issue, he did manage to put the government under pressure. This is an issue that has been in the public domain for a while now, and it is only now that the Congress has managed to make it an issue of consequence, at least in short run. Much depends on what it does next, otherwise in the absence of media interest, the issue might die quietly.

Qualitatively perhaps, what his speech will be remembered more not for what he said but what he did. What he succeeded in doing was in keeping the other side guessing, and given that the Congress is otherwise driven by a political template that has stubbornly refused to update itself, any freshness in its approach becomes significant. In many earlier attempts, Rahul has tended to sound a little off when he has tried either to be more casual or to take the higher moral ground. This one time, he sounded more at ease with himself, more comfortable in his own skin.

Of course, not everyone thought so. The supporters of the government described Rahul’s performance as being immature and frivolous, little more than entertainment, a piece of amateur theatre that did not quite come off. In a substantive sense, the fact that the BJP received more than 70% of votes helped as did the fact that the TRS abstained from voting, which could arguably turn out to be the most significant event in the whole drama, electorally speaking. However, the speech certainly unsettled the BJP and its supporters, as evidenced by the ferocity of the reactions that it elicited.

A word about the much-discussed hug. To see in it a genuinely new approach to politics is perhaps to give it credit that is not its due. It was a political gambit, a clever one perhaps, but transparent enough in its attempt to inject an element of surprise. The wink that Rahul post-scripted his performance with, said as much. While Rahul has been talking about a politics without personal animus, hugging Mr Modi had more to do with making a point than with showing a rival any real warmth.

Over the last few months, the Congress has repeatedly tried to position itself as a party that shuns the politics of hate as against its rival. Even after the no-confidence debate Rahul Gandhi’s tweet spoke of his party” going to prove that Love and Compassion in the hearts of all Indians is the only way to build a nation.” Welcome as this approach is in today’s climate that is boiling over with resentment

and anger, it is worth asking whether this is capable of becoming the primary differentiating plank for the Congress for its 2019 campaign.

At one level, it has the apparent advantage of taking on the BJP’s attempts to polarise voters without having to take a clear position on its Hindutva agenda. The Congress would find it easier to walk the thin line between opposing the politics of divisiveness and avoiding being labelled anti-Hindu, which has been a matter of concern for it, by speaking about love and compassion in the abstract.  However, unless it gets translated into a more compelling policy proposition, and embraces a larger and more substantive idea, it remains a matter of political style, something of interest only to a few. As an element in the party’s strategy, it has a role to play, but just because it is easy to create a sense of difference by making a few symbolic gestures, does not mean that it is the answer to the party’s search for a compelling counter-narrative.

The danger is that is that it provides a false sense of comfort because there is a constituency that responds strongly to this kind of appeal, and while it may be very visible and vocal, it does not speak for the larger, more electorally significant India. The concerns of this larger group are more grounded, and have to do with dealing with more pressing problems that their everyday lives throw at them. A party conducting itself more decorously is not compelling enough reason for voters to vote for it.

Significant as Rahul’s performance was, the enthusiasm on display needs to be tempered by the fact that because of the low bar that Rahul has set for himself so far, there is a tendency to think of every small step taken towards becoming a credible leader as a great achievement. The tendency to overestimate the importance of Rahul’s performance and Rahul Gandhi himself, comes not only from the Congress, but also from those eager to see some plausible hope of dethroning the BJP in 2019.

The bald truth is that Rahul Gandhi is not significant enough because the party he leads cannot match the BJP on its own. To make this a Modi v/s Rahul contest is in today’s context a strategy that is purely to the BJP’s advantage. Rahul’s emergence as a more credible leader is good for the Congress, but it has many more pressing strategic questions to answer before being ready for 2019.

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