Has Rahul Gandhi stolen a march on the BJP?

The BJP found itself on the back foot was when Congress leader Rahul Gandhi was pictured sitting on a pavement, talking to a group of migrants. It was a Haroun al-Rashid moment of a privileged person closely interacting with the unwashed masses, writes Amulya Ganguli for South Asia Monitor

Amulya Ganguli May 29, 2020
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Twice in the recent past, India's ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has found itself being wrong-footed. For a canny, street-smart party, such lapses are unusual. If anything, they show that it is losing its deft touch with grassroots politics, perhaps because of a long, virtually unchallenged stint in the giddy heights of power.

On the first occasion when the BJP was put on the defensive was when the opposition Congress offered to bear the train fares of the migrant labourers travelling back to their villages. For BJP MP Subramanian Swamy, it was “moronic” of the government to charge fares from them. He changed his mind after talking to the railway minister.

The second time was when the BJP found itself on the back foot was when Congress leader Rahul Gandhi was pictured sitting on a pavement, talking to a group of migrants. It was a Haroun al-Rashid moment of a privileged person closely interacting with the unwashed masses. Except that unlike the medieval potentate, the Congress’s "shahzada" (a pejorative meaning prince used for Rahul by the BJP) was not in disguise.

BJP wrongfooted

For the BJP, this was the unkindest cut of all. Having long portrayed Rahul as being out of touch with the hoi polloi, for having been born with a silver spoon in his mouth and, therefore, uncaring and unsympathetic, the BJP was suddenly confronted with a spectacle of humbleness and concern for the downtrodden  which was at variance with its longstanding objective of portraying the former Congress president as a dilettante.

Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman’s ire, therefore, is understandable. On top of her economic “packages” being scoffed for being medium and long-term projects with little succour for the needy here and now, has come the sight of someone visibly reaching out to the indigent. She instinctively realized, therefore, that the BJP would be hard put to replicate Rahul’s humanitarian gesture.

None of its partymen, who are currently full of themselves in the belief enunciated by Home Minister Amit Shah that they are going to rule from panchayats to parliament for the next half a century, will be willing to sit down on a pavement to talk to the down and out, let alone accompany them on their long treks on the highways, as Sitharaman wanted Rahul to do instead of wasting the migrants’ time by talking to them. If anything, such observations show that the party has been taken aback to such an extent that it cannot voice a coherent response.

Not surprisingly, Rahul’s act has been derided as a “staged” photo-op. In a way, it might have been. After all, he did go to meet the migrants accompanied by cameramen who later prepared a documentary on the tete-a-tete. But politics, after all, does comprise photo-ops, whether it is declaiming at a pubic rally or grandstanding on television. This is the reason why virtually all politicians, in fact all public personalities, whether a film star or a sportsperson, spend their lives in front of cameras, either willingly or inadvertently as when the paparazzi try to catch them in their unguarded moments.

It is besides the point, therefore, to accuse Rahul of publicizing the event. What was he expected to do – behave like an unassuming good Samaritan who did not want anyone to see him? What mattered was his intention. Even if it is conceded that he was engaged in preparing the ground for his return as the party president and to buttress his party’s position among the migrants and impress the people at large by reaching out to those in dire straits, at least his “drama-baazi” (theatrics), to quote the finance minister, could not but have served the purpose of highlighting the plight of the labourers who had been left high and dry by the government’s sudden call for a lockdown.

A different Rahul Gandhi

The same purpose of drawing attention to their miseries is also being served by the videos of their long journeys on highways or on trucks and in trains. Some of the videos are accompanied by mournful songs and sarcastic comments on the high and mighty which can have a dramatic impact on the viewers. The impact has been forceful enough to make the Supreme Court take suo moto notice of the appalling situation and call for a report from the government.

However, the real drama of Rahul’s act was to demonstrate a hitherto hidden side of his character – his sense of compassion. Up until now, it was his impulsive nature and habit of shooting off his mouth to the embarrassment of his friends which were in the limelight. But a show of sympathy is different. It is also not something which can be easily feigned. It shows in one’s body language, as it did in Rahul’s case.

In any event, it is hard to imagine anyone of the top honchos of the BJP squatting on pavements with those whose ordinariness can be gleaned from their clothes. No matter how irate are the BJP and its “undeclared” spokespersons like the BSP’s Mayawati (as the Congress has dubbed her), there is little doubt that Rahul has stolen a march over them at least on the issue of the migrants.

(The writer is a current affairs analyst. The views expressed are personal and not necessarily shared by editors of South Asia Monitor)