When will Rahul Gandhi come of age?

by Advaita Kala

Any way you slice it or dice it, the Opposition just didn’t have the numbers to pull off a no-confidence vote. Unfortunately, the farcical no-confidence motion cost too many tax rupees and delivered on low-brow entertainment value — with winks, hugs, allusions to ‘being under the influence’ and a slugfest between two newly formed states.

It was never about the numbers: in a country where Opposition leaders who aspire to the highest office in the land don’t debate each other but instead speechify and lob charges at one another from secure confines with cheering supporters, this was as close as we could get to a Presidential style debate. Pre-2019, this was possibly the only chance that voters would have to gauge the substance in the political noise that constantly assails us.

Unfortunately, Congress President Rahul Gandhi’s forceful moment in his intervention got completely diluted by the theatrics he decided to close it with. After his speech, he walked across to a seated Prime Minister Modi and swooped in for a hug, one that the PM responded to with an almost avuncular pat on the back.

The buoyant Mr Gandhi bounced back to his seat, settled in and winked at his seat-mate — with schoolboy-ish relish, presumably for having pulled one over the prime minister: except it was caught on camera!

And it was evident to all who the grown up was.

Not that it matters at this point: political analysts who observe the Congress say that the new president is gearing up for election 2024, waiting for his team to mature. From the goings-on in Parliament, it seems like a sensible plan — assuming that the growing up will happen.

The Bharatiya Janata Party, which is in constant election mode, marshaled its first speaker to speak on the development work in the election-bound states. The speaker, Rakesh Singh, president of the BJP’s Madhya Pradesh unit, used this free prime-time coverage across TV channels to enumerate the progress made under BJP governments in Chhattisgarh, Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh. Nothing to oppose or support the motion: the taxpayer dime had been put to use to promote the government, but then who in the Opposition had asked specific questions?

So one can hardly blame the member for cleverly using his time to speak directly to the voters of these three states.

Questions were raised at some point by Mr Gandhi on the Rafael deal and the secrecy surrounding it, the Congress president even went on to quote the French President Emmanuel Macron in a private exchange. Now it isn’t every day that a foreign head of state is made witness to a pitched political battle. Of course, the world is becoming a smaller place and it isn’t exactly the alleged Putin-level engagement in the United States, but it is significant nonetheless.

The Defence Minister, Nirmala Sitharaman, was quick to pull out correspondence that challenged this charge, by pointing out that the former Raksha Mantri Mr AK Antony had signed a document that pledged secrecy. The French Foreign Office issued a terse clarification refuting Mr Gandhi, who nonetheless stuck to his guns, or rather missiles, and said he had not been alone with the French President when this comment was made: former prime minister Manmohan Singh and senior Congress leader Anand Sharma were there as well.

If the hug was awkward, this implied accusation that the French President was lying will certainly impact Indo-French ties or, at the very least, make them partisan till Mr Macron is in power.

The coming of age of Mr Gandhi is something his supporters, and those who wish to see a robust opposition force in the country, have been waiting for. After his ascension to the post of Congress president, it was clear that like the Congress party the rest of us must accept his supremacy, and by virtue of that his presence in national politics, given that the Congress is the only other national party.

But television debates after the no-trust motion saw potential allies like the Rashtriya Janata Dal and the Telugu Desam Party attack the Congress president for his behavior in Parliament. The suggestion being that it was un-parliamentary, immature and deviated from the core issues.

In the last few months Mr Gandhi has been trying to assert his ideology — a sort of ‘new age’ politics to counter Mr Modi’s ‘new India’. However, the gimmickry undermines the message and the members of the Mahagathbandhan don’t buy it either.

A newspaper, favourably disposed towards Mr Gandhi, praises him but can’t help but carry the image of an infant in a ‘Huggies’ diaper on the front page – challenging the reader to read between the lines. The ‘infantilisation’ of Rahul Gandhi may be the only generous way to explain his bursts of planned spontaneity.

West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, observes from a distance. Didi, who has climbed her way up the slippery totem pole of politics, is not amused. She probably read this newspaper in the morning: the choice of photograph meant to placate her as well. And speaking just a day after the trust vote projected herself as the potential prime ministerial candidate for 2019, stating she will launch a countrywide anti-BJP campaign from August 15.

Mr Gandhi’s coming of age will have to wait.

Advaita Kala is an author, screenwriter and a columnist.

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