(The above image courtesy Shashi Tharoor on Twitter)
The ruling dispensation may claim, loudly and often, that it does not care for the world’s opinion; that in all matters it will act as it sees fit.
That stance plays well to the domestic gallery — but is far from the truth. Modi cares; he wants the world to look up to him, to give him the adoration he thinks he is due; he wants to be feted by world leaders. Which is why the media coverage of Rahul Gandhi’s conviction and immediate expulsion from Parliament — both acts done so ham-handedly that even the dimmest of dim bulbs can see it for the vendetta politics it is — is causing some internal heartburn and, the way I hear it, orders sent to the usual loudmouths in the Union Cabinet to go easy with their comments. The reason is obvious — the BJP noise-makers are not the brightest bulbs in the chandelier; when they open their mouths, they tend to stick both feet in it. As for example Ramdas Athavale (can you, without googling, tell what ministry he holds?) who said that if Gandhi had apologized for his UK remarks he would not have been disqualified by Parliament. Oh? So it is not about the court judgment, then?
(One of the loudest mouths, Himanta Biswa Sharma of Assam, did open his mouth and stick his foot right in it when he told the media today that Gandhi was convicted by the court for using unparliamentary language against an OBC community. In Mumbai, BJP leaders and workers took out a procession asking Gandhi to apologize to the OBCs. While that is not what the court adjudged, the broad framing tells you this: The BJP is not sure the “entire community defamed” charge that was upheld by the Surat court will hold up on appeal, so they are floating various trial balloons to see which will work.)
More than media coverage, though, it is this kind of reaction that is going to raise internal alarms:
Ro Khanna is co-chair of the Congressional Caucus on India, the most influential group in Congress when it comes to India affairs. It is the Caucus that MEA S Jaishankar goes to when he wants to pull strings in Congress and the White House; for its co-chair to put Modi in the spot like this is an indication that the regime’s latest actions have not gone down well with India’s well-wishers in Congress.
Given the delicate — admittedly a euphemism for dangerous — situation along the border with China, India needs the US like never before; the stakes have been raised even higher in recent times thanks to Xi traveling to Russia to cozy up with Putin.
That is why the recent report released by the US State Department on human rights, which excoriates India in no uncertain terms, has been met with studied silence. The usual practice, when negative reports surface, is to diss them on the grounds of erroneous data, or label them as part of a global conspiracy to undermine the India growth story, such as it is. And it is MEA S Jaishankar who leads the charge.
Not this time, though. Jaishankar is silent; the only reaction from the MEA is spokesperson Arindam Bagchi’s totally risible comment that “We have not yet received the report”.
The silence is understandable — what, they are going to accuse the US State Department of being part of a global conspiracy to undermine India? For once, the strategy seems to be to stay silent and hope no one notices (which is not a bad strategy, really — how many voters are likely to read it, let alone be influenced by it?)
All told the regime has, with its precipitate action against Rahul Gandhi, bitten off more than it can chew. And I suspect this will ramify over the coming weeks and months, to the detriment of the BJP’s prospects in some key state elections. Worse, it will cast a shadow on Modi’s pet project — to use the G20 Summit to showcase his ‘vishwaguru’ credentials.
Much depends on how the Congress party plays the next few moves. Any halfway decent strategist with a grasp of realpolitik will advise Gandhi to immediately do two things: (1) Hold a public meeting in Wayanad where he apologizes to the people for no longer being able to represent their interests in Parliament — and segues into an attack on Adani, with the problem-riddled Vizhinjam port project as his peg, linking it to Adani’s indiscriminate rock mining in the Wayanad region that has been triggering serial landslides these past few years and (2) Move out of the bungalow allotted to him, taking the high moral ground that as Parliament has seen fit to throw him out, he is no longer entitled to live on those premises. (This, because you can be sure the regime will, when it wants to claim the headlines, serve notice asking Gandhi to vacate — the smart play is to pre-empt.)
Those are merely preliminary steps — the BJP has handed the Congress an opportunity to invert the narrative and to put the ruling duo on the defensive; the coming days and weeks will show whether the party leadership has the wit, and the will, to seize the opportunity.
One way or another, this is a story that will continue to develop over time. So, for convenience, find below a round-up of the most interesting commentary on the issue that I have found thus far:
A starting point is this round-up, by Splainer, that recaps the issue.
For Scroll, Samar Halarnkar’s furious piece connecting up various dots to cast light on the vertiginous decline of democratic norms in recent times. Scroll also talks to various experts about the legalities involved (In sum, how does Gandhi’s statement defame the complainant, Purnesh Modi?)
Gilles Vernier, in The Wire, provides context and nuance.
Harish Khare on how the action against Rahul Gandhi is likely to realign the political landscape. While on which, worth noting that all major opposition parties have rallied behind Rahul Gandhi — and that the first one off the blocks was Mamta Bannerjee of the TMC, the same leader who a year ago was openly saying that Rahul Gandhi and the Congress had become irrelevant.
Suhas Palsikar on why Rahul Gandhi acts as a red rag to the BJP brass.
If you come across informative, well-written pieces on the issue, do point me to them in the comments.
Update, 6.30 PM: Rahul Gandhi held a press conference earlier today. The first question this begs is, why does he even bother? The media gathers such strength that it is standing room only, as seen here. Do they broadcast live? No. (If this were Modi, we would have had a pre-show, then the interaction, then post-show ‘analysis’, then shabashis masquerading as debates — come to think of it, good thing Modi hasn’t held a press conference in his entire tenure as PM).
So, no, none of this is given significant airtime or major coverage in print and mainstream digital. So why bother to turn up? Simple — in the hope that Rahul Gandhi will trip up, say something that can be twisted around and used as yet another stick to beat him with. Yes?
Update, 9.30 AM, March 25: I spent some time this morning checking to see how the Gandhi press conference was covered, and what the talking points were. Turns out I was right — it is not the question of where Adani got Rs 20,000 crore that is the subject of hot debate; what a sizeable chunk of the media is talking about is how Gandhi “insulted” a journalist by saying if you want to do the BJP’s work, at least do it openly. QED.
Here is the PC. Watch:
Interestingly, twice in the course of one media interaction, shills masquerading as reporters asked Rahul Gandhi about his “insulting OBCs”. At one point, Gandhi hits back, telling the reporter that if he is a BJP worker, he should at the least wear a badge as a token of his affiliation.
But the most on-point response to this latest BJP
allegation distraction came from the Samajwadi Party’s Akhilesh Yadav. Asked about Gandhi’s supposed insult to the OBC community, Yadav came up with this:
The SP leader’s reference is to an incident dating back to 2017, when the BJP defeated the Samajwadi Party in the Uttar Pradesh assembly elections and the Modi/Shah duo plucked Adityanath out of nowhere and made him the chief minister.
Before Adityanath moved into 5 Kalidas Marg in Lucknow, the official residence of the UP CM, a bevy of seers and priests were pressed into service to undertake rituals — shudhikaran — to remove any impurities attaching to the premises because it was occupied by a person of a lower caste. The climax of the ritual was the sprinkling of Gangajal all over the house and grounds. And this is the party that accuses others of insulting those of “lesser” caste?
BTW, an amusing sidelight of the Rahul Gandhi presser came when Rajdeep Sardesai, as is his wont, both asked and answered his own question. “Let me speak, Rajdeep,” Gandhi said. “Sometimes you answer for me.”
I will only cavil at the use of the qualifying “sometimes”.