Popular South Indian actress Priya Varrier now has competition. And that too from a rather unexpected quarter: Rahul Gandhi, the president of the Congress party! If that one frame from the film Oru Adaar Love, in which Priya is seen winking at her on-screen suitor, stole many a heart, then the fifth-generation Nehru-Gandhi scion’s bear hug to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, followed by a naughty wink at fellow Congress MPs last Friday, was no less a sizzler. If Priya’s wink served up a slice of life, sunny-side up, then Rahul’s marked a watershed in the annals of India’s parliament, introducing something that was always missing from the high-brow ‘culture’ of a point-counter point: Chutzpah.
The Indian parliament, the Lok Sabha (Lower House) in particular, is witness to myriads of emotions – ranging from the beatific to the cataclysmic. From first prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru’s historic speech at the stroke of midnight on August 15, 1947, as India gained independence from British rule, to the infamous floor-crossings and horse tradings of the tumultuous 1970s; from opposition leader Atal Bihari Vajpayee extolling the ‘deity-like’ virtues of the then prime minister Indira Gandhi in the wake of the Bangladesh war to another former premier Rajiv Gandhi haplessly pleading innocence on behalf of himself and his family in the aftermath of the Bofors scandal … the haloed portals of the awe-inspiring colonial-era structure in the heart of Lutyens’ Delhi bears testimony to many a key moment in the shaping of India’s political destiny over the last seven decades.
But perhaps never before had a parliament session -- and that too a debate on an issue as sensitive as a no-confidence motion against the government --seen such a bold act of bawdy politics played out in the full glare of the national media. And full marks to the Congress president for his ‘walk-the-talk’ one-upmanship over his more seasoned political rival.
However, if you really think that Rahul’s charismatic approach to enliven a dry debate with the spices of his new-found confidence over an unprecedented social media outreach will indeed help him score a few brownie points, then think again. In reality, what the Congress president has actually achieved with his hug-and-wink powerplay is a lowering of the bar on parliamentary decorum – a rather unfortunate corollary of that being an unintentional but complete meltdown of his own fact-packed, high-decibel, look-the-enemy-in-the-eye speech on the floor of the House earlier that day. For the first time since walking down the green carpet at the temple of Indian democracy in 2004, Rahul’s speech on the no-confidence motion last Friday was so heavy on confidence and so enormously powerful on content that young Congressmen ought to have found enough ammunition in that nearly hour-long delivery to take on the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party and its mandarins in the days ahead. But the hug-and-wink that followed was an extremely pedestrian parting-shot, a two-penny punchline to an otherwise operatic performance.
Yes, the bear-hug in particular was high on chutzpah, because it took silent but rather audacious pot-shots at Modi’s overplay of friendliness with heads-of-state far and near since he took office in 2014. And yes, the wink was a very tactful but potent play-acting device. It sent out a message of comradeship to not just those Congressmen present on the Opposition bench that day but to millions of ordinary Indians outside Parliament House who perhaps love to see a political heavyweight from the oldest party in the country casting aside the Nehruvian mould that’s high on oratory but low on camaraderie and replacing it with the smart jibe of a hoi-polloi, five-days-a-week TV soap.
But as I have said already, Rahul’s chutzpah, apart from taking the shine off a serious parliamentary discourse, has also made the task difficult for himself. Raising the pitch for any future attack on a wily Modi, both within and outside the parliament, will now be just that wee bit more difficult for him. Having whet the appetite of the man on the street and his party men at the grass roots for more of the hug-and-wink brand of politics, Rahul Gandhi the ‘statesman’ may have unwittingly tagged some excess baggage to his prime ministerial ambitions.
This is also a throwback to a comment that his father, late Rajiv Gandhi, had made while addressing a public rally during his tenure as prime minister. In view of the rising mercury levels in New Delhi’s bilateral ties with one of its nuclear-powered neighbours and referring to the likely severity of India’s response to any cross-border adventurism, a cherubic Rajiv had said in zest: “Hum unko naani yaad dila dengey!” (We’ll remind them of their granny). Foreign policy, like many other facets of state-craft, can scarcely be conducted from the pulpit of a public rally. And Rajiv knew it only too well. Yet, his words were steeped in machismo to appease the demands of rabble-rousing that statesmen sometimes have to stoop to in their bid to placate sentiments at the hustings and convey a sense of kinship. It’s a commitment to compulsions, and almost always it involves a price. Rahul, too, with his hug and wink, has played hostage to a demand for populism that will probably bear down on him in the run-up to the 2019 general elections and beyond. How well he addresses that challenge is for him to sort out.
But good job, Rahul. You’ve at least given us a talking point and assured all sitting and would-be parliamentarians that there’s more to a session in the House than stealing 40 winks!