Again, A Huge Missed Opportunity For Rahul Gandhi

As campus after campus joins the protests over the deeply flawed Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), the comments from the Modi government have been limp. Amit Shah today appealed to students to study the act and said they are being misled. Worse is the response from India's main opposition party - the Congress.

Priyanka Gandhi Vadra (PGV) led a two-hour demonstration at India Gate accompanied by senior Congress leaders such as Ahmed Patel, A K Antony, Ambika Soni and K C Venugopal. No young leader of the congress such as Jyotiraditya Scindia, Sachin Pilot and Milind Deora was present. Worse, Jagdish Tytler, Congress leader who is tainted by the 1984 anti-Sikh riots joined Gandhi in her silent protest. Tytler's controversial presence was highlighted by many including union minister Harsimrat Kaur Badal of the Akali Dal.

Rahul Gandhi, Priyanka's brother and former Congress president, was absent - he is abroad. A red-faced Congress party said he is away on a pre-scheduled parliamentary delegation.

Considering that it is a matter of political priorities, Gandhi could easily have dropped out of the delegation to lead his party's expression of support to students.

PGV's two-hour sit-in seemed pretty badly organised as it drew an audience smaller than the average flash mob that any product launch attracts. The party Congress has virtually reduced itself and its opposition to a social media handle. Before he left, Rahul Gandhi tweeted criticism of the CAA. If interim Congress president Sonia Gandhi had a Twitter handle, perhaps she would also have typed her protest.

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Priyanka Gandhi Vadra led a two-hour demonstration at India Gate.

The Congress is currently a party top heavy with Gandhis, yet lacking in effective leadership. Supporting students who are demonstrating against and fighting baton-charging police would normally be a political non-brainer. The Gandhi family would not even have had to stir themselves too much - the agitating students were at Jamia Millia Islamia which is barely five kilometres away from their Lutyens' Delhi residence.

Yet, they did not show up. And with this inexplicable reluctance, the Modi government and union Home Minister Amit Shah, to whom the Delhi police reports, did not have to face any legitimate questions.

Some questions which the top leadership could have asked were about the excess use of force by the police who entered the university without the Vice-Chancellor's permission, police entering the library and letting off tear gas shells and injuring students who were forced to march out with their hands up in the air - none of this has been effectively raised by the party which fancies itself the main opposition to the Modi government.

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Jamia Millia Islamia students protest after Sunday's violence.

Take a moment to imagine if the BJP were in opposition. It would have brought Delhi to a stop with public protests and demonstrations. Instead, all the opposition could manage today was a listless pre-lunch presser and Gandhi's two hour protest.

Senior Congress leader Shashi Tharoor tweeted, yes ,you read it right, tweeted, that "#BJPBURNINGBHARAT Congress must lead the resistance". Tharoor got the hashtags right but, really what stops him and his party from doing exactly what he suggests?

On Saturday, the Congress finally managed to hold a rally in the Ramlila grounds which the party had postponed three times. Yet, instead of pinning the Modi government to the mat on the wobbly economy and growth, Rahul Gandhi self-aggrandizingly made it all about himself, declaring his name is "Rahul Gandhi, not Rahul Savarkar" and that he would never apologize for telling the truth.

His declaration was in defense of another ill-judged comment about "Make In India" being replaced with "Rape In India." He was referring to the heinous cases of rapes and murder recently in states like UP and Telangana. Smriti Irani, Women and Child Welfare Minister, immediately asked Gandhi to apologise for his comment.

The sophomoric Savarkar rhetoric from Gandhi immediately put the alliance government in Maharashtra led by Shiv Sena's Uddhav Thackeray in the danger zone.

A delighted BJP was extremely happy to make it all about Savarkar and immediately taunted Thackeray to pull the plug on the unlikely alliance government between his party, Sharad Pawar and the Congress.

Gandhi was making an involved reference to V D Savarkar's written apology to the British government to be released from jail in the Andamans. Savarkar, considered the intellectual father of Hindutva, is a touchy subject for the Sena which swears by his ideology. Gandhi's ill-judged comparison led to serial red faces in Mumbai and a public warning from the Sena asking the congress to respect Savarkar the way the Sena respects Jawaharlal Nehru and Mahatma Gandhi.

Devendra Fadnavis, leader of the opposition in Maharashtra, wants the assembly to pass a censure motion against Gandhi. And, you thought that Gandhi was supposed to be attacking the government on its governance track record. Senior government sources tell me that a posthumous Bharat Ratna for Savarkar is now a near certainty with the Modi government hoping to use it to widen the gaps in the Thackeray Sarkaar.

Gandhi seems to be locked in a deeply personal rivalry with Modi and Shah which sees him repeatedly miscalculate his political attacks. Recall his ill-judged "chowkidar chor hai" (PM is a thief) attack on Modi on the Rafale deal. Even his party leaders refused to follow him and echo the slogan.

The Congress party's tentative and uncertain leadership was earlier showcased in its response to Article 370 (welcomed individually by senior leaders), the building of the Ram Mandir in Ayodhya and a weak response to six quarters of the failing economy.

While the BJP and its infamous IT cell has made attacking Gandhi a cottage industry, Gandhi keeps walking into their trap. The BJP would like nothing better than to have Gandhi positioned as Modi's main rival. Which is why Rahul's return as Congress President, which is now a question of when and not if, is a delightful electoral prospect for the BJP.

The contentious nature of the CAA coupled with the National Citizenship Register promised by Shah has even seen BJP allies such as Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar trying, however belatedly, to distance themselves from the legislation. As students turn into the country's collective conscience, the Congress remains active on Twitter. What a colossal letdown.

(Swati Chaturvedi is an author and a journalist who has worked with The Indian Express, The Statesman and The Hindustan Times.)

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed within this article are the personal opinions of the author. The facts and opinions appearing in the article do not reflect the views of NDTV and NDTV does not assume any responsibility or liability for the same.

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