‘Love me, hate me but don’t ignore me’ is the phrase de jour of Rahul Gandhi and his party. The success of any leader lies in his ability to provoke both his friends and foes to keep on talking about him or her. It’s one of the most successful methods to beat the popular belief that out of sight means out of mind. In the slipstream of his frequent disappearances, it is this message that Congress Vice-President Rahul Gandhi leaves behind for both his promoters and detractors. Last week, RaGa once again decided to take a break from his pusillanimous political tourism at home. While Prime Minister Narendra Modi landed in the US for a diplomatic-cum-commercial covenant with the global alpha group, RaGa chose some arcane venue to engage in academic and intellectual acrobatics with a battery of opinion shakers and makers.
Unlike Modi, the Congress scion was not hot news for the American media or establishment. He, however, managed to capture almost the same amount of mind and media space back home as Modi. A leader who’s yet to show his mettle to win a major political battle for his 129-year-old party, Rahul and his cohorts were happily preening in the attention they have got; more for his absence than his actions. The quality of the political narrative and debate has been debased so much that, now, even a private visit of a political leader becomes an instrument to score brownie points. How does it matter to any normal Indian if Rahul or any other leader spreads his carbon footprint, whether it be to Aspen or Brisbane? At a time when most Indian leaders are discussing the implications of the Bihar Assembly elections on the NDA and its loquacious leader, a section of hyper-committed political sympathisers were speculating about the venue, nature and characters who would be dining and wining with a Gandhi 12,000 miles away from the dust and drumbeats of political war.
So it has come to this! It seems that all it takes to be a leader today is to grab prime time spots and make front-page news for something he or she has hardly done or said, which is relevant to the ordinary citizens. Inexplicably, the BJP seems to be obsessed with the idea of Rahul Gandhi as a mass leader. Instead of ignoring his antics, wannabe BJP leaders are fiercely engaged in a verbal competition with each other on how to attack Rahul for his periodic vanishing acts. New-age BJP leaders prefer personality-bashing over beating their opponents ideologically. If Modi is anathema for the Congress, for the BJP, RaGa appears to be the worst thing that has ever happened to Indian politics.
Last week, hardly did a day pass without BJP leaders aggressively asking the Congress leadership about the whereabouts of a leader who barely has any significant role to play in running the establishment. They were accusing his ‘bhagoda’ act from the Bihar electionscape as a betrayal, as if the Congress poses any threat to the NDA. The party has been given 40 Assembly seats as an act of charity by the Nitish-Lalu combo to contest in the state, but is already finding it difficult to identify eligible candidates. The attrition between the BJP and Congress has centred more around the reasons for Rahul’s foreign visit than on the successful sojourn of the Prime Minister to the US. The BJP is convinced that by targeting RaGa incessantly on even inane issues, it can make him the least acceptable alternative to NaMo. From all visible indicators, RaGa is myriad miles behind the Prime Minister in terms of popularity and credibility. If the ferocity and frequency of the BJP’s offensive against the peripatetic princeling exceeds its voltage of venom against the Congress party, then it is evident that Rahul has hit the BJP where it hurts the most.
RaGa habitually makes fun of the Prime Minister at his rallies. Since the Gandhis are not big crowd pullers like Modi, they are restricting their public contact by choosing to engage with only a well-defined target audience. For the past two months, RaGa has addressed students, women, farmers, youth, Dalits, party workers et al. Instead of expounding on the Congress agenda, he has been viciously vituperative against Modi for betraying the mandate of the people. Rahul has been lampooning the NDA government for its failure to bring back black money and tame inflation. He has been repeatedly calling the NDA government a suit boot ki sarkar.
Undoubtedly, RaGa is more focused and confident since his return to active politics from a long sabbatical this year. His strategy appears to be only to provoke the BJP. And the saffron party has obliged by walking into his trap. Fortunately, its top leaders like party president Amit Shah and Prime Minister Modi have refrained from even indirectly naming the Congress princelet in their political speeches. In the age of political marketing, various parties are expected to choose their target audience carefully and create a message accordingly. Modi understood this truth and mastered the art of selling himself. He could get a buy-in from all sections of the electorate because he could reveal many earthy things about himself. In contrast, RaGa is now selling himself without having much to say about himself. If his dismally low popularity is slowly heading north, the credit must go to his rivals and not the Congress or his marketers. Never before in the political bazaar has a leader been so conspicuous by his absence than his presence. RaGa has decided to dump the upper middle class and urban elite totally since they seem robotically mesmerised by the Modi mantra. His focus is on bringing back the traditional Congress vote bank of labourers, marginal farmers, Dalits and minorities, which has spurned it. It is to this segment that RaGa wants to project Modi as a pro-rich leader.
The Congress has been losing elections because it is seen to be an outfit that promotes corruption and crony capitalism. RaGa knows his foreign visits matter little to his highly polarised electorate. In fact, there are many rich and mighty in India who would be admiring him for going on holiday like they do. With Indian elections becoming more and more personality-driven, the GOP would like RaGa to stay on top of mind of the people. It is unable to displace Modi from public space, since his public connect through the Demosthenic power of his words and the novelty of new ideas reigns supreme. Rahul’s unique invisibility should have been the natural victim of Modi’s excessive and choreographed visibility. But by making his periodic AWOL an incessant issue, the BJP is lowering Modi’s cachet by turning the national debate into a NaMo vs RaGa battle for the future.
Follow him on Twitter @PrabhuChawla