Leadership is demonstrated in unique ways. For me Rahul Gandhi’s decency shone through in his reply to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s despicable comment on his late father Rajiv Gandhi.
Modi said: “Your father’s life ended as bhrastachari [corrupt] no 1”. Clearly Modi has never heard of not speaking ill of the dead. But even in new India, now habituated to daily new lows in public discourse, this was a jibe too far. Rajiv Gandhi was killed in a terrorist attack in May 1991 leaving a huge void in his young family’s life. Rahul Gandhi was 20 years old when he lost his father.
Rahul Gandhi chose gentleness in his reply to Modi. A day after the Modi attack, Gandhi tweeted: “Modi ji, the battle is over. Your karma awaits you. Projecting your inner beliefs about yourself on to my father won’t protect you. All my love and a huge hug. Rahul”.
This was Gandhi gently contrasting his repeated claim that he has no personal animus towards Modi with the prime minister’s coarse jibes. And it truly sounded more convincing than when Gandhi walked across Parliament and gave an unwilling Modi a hug.
The hug ambush by Gandhi in his “love guru” avatar was somewhat diluted when he followed it up with a wink to Congress party leader Jyotiraditya Scindia.
Gandhi’s tweeted response to Modi today was far more convincing and actually underlines how much he has come of age as a leader after a reluctant and slow start.
Gandhi seems to have now got the measure of Modi. As is his wont, Modi doubled down on the trash talk saying the senior Gandhi who, had died 28 years ago, was using Naval destroyers as “taxis” for his family holidays. The then captain of the aircraft carrier denied Modi’s claim and stressed Rajiv Gandhi never used the ship for “family holidays”.
A memo from the desperate BJP went out as the BJP’s pliant gang of embedded panna pramukhs went to town on the story. Modi challenged the Congress to fight the elections in the name of Rajiv Gandhi in Punjab, Madhya Pradesh and Delhi citing the 1984 riots and the Bhopal gas tragedy.
The polling today is in Punjab, Madhya Pradesh and all the seven seats of Delhi.
Certainly, the image of global statesman that Modi was assiduously cultivating, is smashed to smithereens. Modi is now seen to cuddle up to and defend the fielding of terror accused Pragya Thakur in Bhopal. Modi these days makes coarse jibes at the Opposition and serial dog whistle speeches on the stump post the fourth phase of polling.
Rahul - 2, Modi - 0
What was considered a walk over for the BJP has turned into a hotly contested election perhaps explaining the daily new lows.
As Sam Pitroda, adviser to Rahul Gandhi made an incredibly insensitive comment on the 1984 riots saying “hua to hua” (it happened so what) Modi latched on to it to attack the Congress.
Gandhi did two things. First, he said publicly he would not be provoked by Modi and the second he publicly asked Pitroda to apologise, saying he would not tolerate such comments. Gandhi again underlined the difference between him and Modi.
Consider some recent Modi quotes:
“Congress and its allies are contesting the Lok Sabha elections to give a free hand to terrorists”
“Rahul Gandhi is washing the sins of his father every day”
It is unimaginable that the prime minister of the largest democracy in the world would explicitly talk about us and them. But Modi did. Addressing a rally in Maharashtra, Modi attacked Gandhi’s decision to contest from Wayanad in Kerala besides his traditional seat Amethi saying: “Gandhi did not dare contest from a seat where we (Hindus) are in majority, but chose to contest from a seat where we are in a minority”. This was crossing a red line in othering already beleaguered Muslims, but it did not give the prime minister pause.
Modi needed to attack Gandhi and show him as a “minority appeaser”.
Game of name-calling
Arun Jaitley, Finance Minister, took a cue from Modi and called Priyanka and Rahul Gandhi “chunavi Hindus” (election Hindus). Jaitley also mocked Gandhi’s claims of being a janeu (sacred thread) wearing Brahmin saying the Gandhi family was frequenting temples now, but did not do so in 2004, 2009 and 2014 elections.
Modi’s dog whistle attacks are not remotely a surprise for as Gujarat chief minister he had attacked the then election commissioner as “James Micheal Lyndoh” to ostensibly make his Christianity an issue. He had also called the Muslim relief camps post the Gujarat 2002 riots as “baby producing camps” and held forth on “hum panch hamarey pachees” (we five our 25).
Modi has also called Sonia Gandhi a “jersey cow” and Rahul Gandhi a “hybrid calf”. Modi had earlier called the late Sunanda Pushkar a “50 crore girlfriend”.
The embedded panna pramukhs in the media who went to town on Mani Shankar Aiyar’s crude jibe of calling Modi a “chaiwallah” (tea seller) just before the 2014 election, and a “neech” (low person) in the 2017 Gujarat assembly elections are silent today.
The jibes dominated prime time news cycles, endless debates were held, the BJP-dominated social media outraged for days. Post the “neech” jibe Gandhi expelled Aiyar from the party, but Modi milked it for all it was worth in the Gujarat assembly election.
The same media, which amplified and helped along the outrage, is silent today. Even the Election Commission which is now divided two to one, is handing out serial clean chits to Modi and Shah on the vituperative personal attacks and using the armed forces.
Priyanka Gandhi was recently forced to say that no one in the Opposition had raised Modi’s “caste” after Modi said he was attacked for being an “OBC”.
Lesson learnt, lesson taught
Gandhi and his party have taught Modi a lesson in civil discourse with their reaction.
The Modi-led BJP government had also tried to reopen the Bofors case against Rajiv Gandhi, but was snubbed by the courts.
Gandhi seems to have learnt a lot from his long vipassna retreat for 60 days when he took a sabbatical from his party in February and April 2015. It has certainly rebooted his politics. His reaction to Modi’s intemperate attack on his father is proof of that.
Modi may even win elections 2019 with one phase of voting left to go, but all the careful brand endorsement – from actor Akshay Kumar asking does Modi eat mangoes and if so how – seem to fall flat as most of India sees Modi in his true colours.
If you are a bhakt it may not matter that Kumar came clean on his Canadian citizenship after claiming he had “honorary Canadian citizenship”. But, smoke and mirrors, dog whistle and vulture politics show the depths to which Modi can descend to in his desperation to win.