Will Rahul’s remarks undo hard work of Bharat Jodo?
Had Rahul Gandhi chosen to say, for instance, “My views are on record on multiple platforms in India. …. I don’t wish to be drawn into that conversation here,” chances are the headlines would have been different
Did Rahul Gandhi err in speaking about his perception of India’s democracy while on tour to the United Kingdom (UK)? The answer to that question depends on whether you see it through the prism of free speech or political craft.
Citizens should be able to have a robust argument without every articulation becoming a test of nationalism. Our TV news channels have often reduced the patriotism debate to puerile hashtags; our public discourse should be more adult. Every disagreement is not a national betrayal. In any case, India is too important, self-confident and strong to be slighted by words.
But for a politician — and any public figure — the more relevant issue is whether what you say, or take a position on, enhances your value in the larger, collective imagination.
In this case, while there is no evident upside for Gandhi in talking about politics and the state of the nation while abroad, there is definitely a downside. Especially as Rahul Gandhi made it clear at one of his London sessions that any solutions to the concerns he raised “would have to come from within India”.
Digitisation may have blurred the lines between the global and the local. Most Indians buy into a broad belief that you can fight bitterly at home but must present a united front while dealing with outsiders. The government’s ministers who have been leading the charge in Parliament have used this to their advantage to build a narrative of the Congress kowtowing to foreigners. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)’s clever mix of tapping into anti-colonial pride, exasperation with western hypocrisy and populist rhetoric has made for a potent political cocktail.
Of course, the noise will likely fade with the next headline in the next news cycle. But the question persists: Did Rahul Gandhi gain anything by deconstructing democracy beyond India’s shores? His cousin Varun, who doesn’t appear to be much in favour with the BJP establishment these days, obviously calculated that the benefits are strictly negligible, turning down an invite from Oxford University to discuss Prime Minister Narendra Modi and India.
It doesn’t especially help the Congress argument that these comments about weakening Indian institutions were made in the UK. Quite apart from its imperialist history with India, the UK government’s new, hostile policy towards refugees hardly places it on a liberal pedestal. Moreover, the country’s leading broadcaster, BBC, has been entangled in the crosshairs of an unseemly free speech controversy after it temporarily pulled out Gary Lineker, a sports anchor, for his tweet criticising the government’s refugee policy.
And then there’s the small matter of the BBC documentary on India that created such a furore. Even if you believe, as I do, that both the blocking of some online links to the documentary and the subsequent tax survey on BBC’s office in Delhi and Mumbai were wrong, chances are that most Indians are not in the mood to be preached to on democracy and rights by BBC, especially after the handling of the Lineker issue (the management eventually retracted the decision) and a host of other controversies that have shown it up.
Yes, constitutional patriotism and a reductionist definition of nationalism are not the same. Yes, there are more significant issues that Parliament should spend time on rather than discussing what Rahul Gandhi did or did not say. And yes, from the BJP’s point of view, this might well be the perfect deflection from the Opposition’s demand for a joint parliamentary committee to look into the allegations against the Adani Group levelled by Hindenburg Research. All the more reason for the Congress not to have handed the BJP a generous offering on a platter.
In this past year, Rahul Gandhi succeeded in repairing his political reputation with the hard work that went into the Bharat Jodo Yatra. Even sceptics gave him points for being on the ground and for the affable, smiling, touchy-feely side to him, instead of the emotionally distant persona most had seen earlier. So why undo that with public comments outside India on a trip which, other than a short break, added nothing to your political repertoire?
An elderly gentleman at one of the interactions reminded Rahul Gandhi of his grandmother, who famously refused to discuss India’s internal politics while travelling abroad. Had Rahul Gandhi chosen to say, for instance, “My views are on record on multiple platforms in India. I’m away from home and don’t wish to be drawn into that conversation here,” chances are the headlines that followed him back would have been different.
It is wrong to make this about Rahul Gandhi’s patriotism. But it is right to say that his comments in the UK certainly showed a lack of political instinct.
Barkha Dutt is an award-winning journalist and authorThe views expressed are personal