When you are down and out in politics, it pays to be combative: it tells the world you may be down, but not out of the fight, that you are not dispirited, nor are you going to let your troops become demoralised. But when you are down and out in politics, you also cannot afford to score self-goals.
Rahul Gandhi, after the debacle he and his party suffered in the 2019 parliamentary polls, is both combative and prone to unforced errors. He is sometimes casual and careless to the point of looking downright immature. Moreover, he often fumbles against a powerful opponent like Narendra Modi who is out to finish both his party and his family's legacy in Indian politics.
What can one make of the following witless words of the former - and likely future - president of India's oldest party, spoken at an election rally in Delhi earlier this week? "Yeh joh Narendra Modi bhashan de raha hai, 6 mahine baad ye ghar se bahar nahi nikal payega. Hindustan ke yuva isko aisa danda marenge, isko samjha denge ki Hindustan ke yuva koh rozgar diye bina ye desh aage nahi badh sakta (This Narendra Modi, who is giving speeches, will not be able to come out of his house after six months. India's youth will give him such a beating with sticks that they will make him realise that the country will not progress unless India's youth get employment").
It's bad Hindi, bad manners, a bad political argument...bad everything. Even the well-wishers of Rahul and his party - and I unhesitatingly count myself among them - were aghast at his choice of words in his tirade against the Prime Minister. Howsoever justified may be one's reasons for fighting Modi politically and ideologically - and his government is daily giving more reasons why it must be combated - it was downright wrong on Rahul's part to have shown such disrespect to India's democratically elected PM. By doing so, he did not lower Modi's dignity but his own. Criticism must not be expressed in a manner that is against the spirit of democracy, against India's ethos of cultured discourse, and also against the fine traditions set by the Congress party's own great leaders of the past.
Predictably, and true to his style, Modi did not lose the opportunity to hit back at Rahul. His counter-attack during his speech in the Lok Sabha, replying to the debate on the President's address to Parliament, was an exercise in banality. "Current" (now a favourite word of both Modi and Amit Shah, who wants Delhi's voters to administer it to Shaheen Bagh protestors). "Tubelight". "I will do more Surya Namaskars for the next six months so that my back becomes stronger to endure the beating of sticks." And yet another white lie on Nehru - "Someone had to become Prime Minister, so a line was drawn in India and the country was divided. (Inconvenient truth: Sardar Patel, BJP's borrowed nationalist icon, was the first Congress leader to accept the British proposal to partition India.)
Modi didn't even bother to respond to the substance of Rahul's criticism - namely, the unemployment haunting crores of India's aspirational youth. He simply poured ridicule on Rahul, and that was enough to rouse his own raucous rabble on the social media. Rahul has been saying, rightly and repeatedly, that the PM has mastered the art of distracting the people's attention from the government's gross mismanagement of the economy. Sadly, he himself gave Modi yet another chance to display that art.
The problem we are discussing here goes well beyond the etiquette of electoral speeches. The real questions are these: Why is Rahul failing again and again to sway the minds of India's non-party or neutral voters, whose number is large enough to be decisive in an election? Why has he failed to make an impact even on that section of BJP supporters who are now getting disenchanted with the Modi government's poor performance, especially on the economic front? (Remember Modi succeeded in 2014 in luring a significant section of Congress voters with his tall promise of replicating the 'Gujarat model of development' nationwide.) Why has he remained a distant figure of no great inspiration to millions of brave young Indians opposed to CAA who are currently staging the largest-ever nonviolent protests all over the country since Independence? Why hasn't he so far made a single well-studied, comprehensive and noteworthy speech, in or outside Parliament, on CAA, the economic slowdown, unemployment or Kashmir, not only stating the problem but also presenting practical solutions? Why is it that a Mahua Moitra of Trinamool Congress or Manoj Jha of Rashtriya Lok Dal of the opposition benches is far more impressive in parliament than Rahul has ever been?
My intention in posing these questions is not to corner the Congress or its leader. But as one who fervently hopes for the early revival of the party that not only led India's freedom movement but also laid the foundation of a secular, democratic and modern India in the initial decades after Independence, I sincerely believe that Rahul needs to expeditiously overcome his many weaknesses. Just about everyone who has interacted with him avers that he is a good-hearted, incorruptible, honest, fearless and idealistic politician - a rather rare specimen among top-level political leaders in today's India. His advocacy of a caring, tolerant, united and non-discriminatory India, rooted in the deepest humanistic principle of love for all and hatred for none, is one that our nation sorely needs, all the more so since it stands in defiant contrast to all that Modi's government is doing. Yet, sadly, Rahul has allowed his own many enduring shortcomings to mask his good qualities. As a result, neither he nor his party have been able to seize the many opportunities presented by the Modi government itself to effectively confront it, both in parliament and in the streets. This is also the reason why Rahul has not so far emerged as the rallying point to mobilise and unite the large but splintered opposition against a blundering BJP government.
Rahul, here are a few suggestions for your consideration. You will surely profit if you heed them:
1) Do not make personal attacks on PM Modi.
2) Do not deliver your speeches casually, as you so often do. Prepare them carefully, with well-researched material on a wide range of subjects but delivered in a manner that makes a favourable impact on both common and educated people.
3) You speak from the heart, and that's good. But your speeches are very monotonous. They lack depth and breadth. You've got to be more creative, substantive and persuasive if you want to enter the mind space of Indians of all ages, especially the youth.
4) You come across most of the times as an angry and aloof leader and out of that anger stem inelegant words like "Yeh joh Narendra Modi bhashan de raha hai, 6 mahine baad ye ghar se bahar nahi nikal payega...."
5) Lastly, smile. A natural and authentic smile is the adornment of a self-assured and inwardly strong person. People do not like a leader who is all the time angry and complaining. Have you listened to that Nida Fazli song sung mellifluously by Jagjit and Chitra Singh, which says, "Har waqt ka rona to bekar ka rona hai"?
Rahul, you still can take on Modi. But for that, you must know that successful leaders are those who constantly learn, unlearn and re-invent themselves.
(The writer was an aide to India's former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee.)
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