Prime Minister Narendra Modi gestures as Congress President Rahul Gandhi walks away after hugging him in the Lok Sabha during a ‘no-confidence motion’ debate in the Monsoon Session of Parliament, in New Delhi on July 20, 2018. (Photograph: LSTV/PTI)

Modi Could Have Deflected Rahul’s Yorker, Instead Of Playing All Over It

BloombergQuintOpinion

The opening game of the Electoral India Cup of 2019 was played on the Parliament’s pitch on Friday, July 20, 2018. And the result? In my reckoning, a draw, which sets us up nicely for the penalty shootout that could continue up to May next year.

Rahul Gandhi, the main striker of the underdog team, jettisoned his mid-field play to streak through the opponent’s defences. While he had given enough evidence of mounting political maturity since the Gujarat polls of December 2017, he finally added the one tackle that was missing from his arsenal, namely the ability to create the big political photo-op and dominate the narrative. His hug ambushed the ‘master’, who sat motionless and unsure on his throne, as Gandhi stole the headlines.

Rahul’s Unconventional Political Symbolism Drew First Blood

Mainstream media, long used to giving a 90-10 skew to Modi on its front pages, was forced to cede half the space to Gandhi. Pick up any credible newspaper; Rahul Gandhi stood cheek by jowl with Prime Minister Modi, drawing even honours. It was an unconventional use of political symbolism to finally draw the first blood against a campaigner who had been getting a walk-over since 2014.

The front pages of national dailies in Mumbai, on July 21, 2018. (Photograph: Kaushik Vaidya/BloombergQuint)
The front pages of national dailies in Mumbai, on July 21, 2018. (Photograph: Kaushik Vaidya/BloombergQuint)

Could this be Rahul’s ‘Belchi moment’ of the 21st century, playing out on social media rather than on grainy black-and-white film, borrowing from his grandmother’s exceptional political instinct? For those not aware, Indira Gandhi, ousted from power in 1977 and politically rudderless, had ridden an elephant through swollen waters to reach Belchi, an obscure village in Bihar where 11 Dalits had been shot and burnt alive. In one fell swoop, that image had restored her political identity.

Clearly, Rahul had gotten under the rulers’ skin. Their responses were singularly humourless. The home minister likened the hug to the massive chipko (clinging to trees) environmental protest, trying to be sarcastic but betraying nervousness; another minister accused Rahul of snorting substance; an MP castigated him for being ‘undignified’; the Speaker of the Lok Sabha went so far as to call it ‘indecorous’. And all Rahul had done was hug the Indian Prime Minister!

It reminded me so much of that iconic Bollywood dialogue: “aap karein toh ishq, aur ham karein toh ‘sex’!” (i.e., “when you do it, it’s ‘love’; but when I, the lesser privileged one, do the same, you call it crude ‘sex’!”)

Modi Could Have ‘Done a Vajpayee’ And Deflected The Yorker

But I was sure that when his turn came, Prime Minister Modi would ‘do a Vajpayee’ and simply deflect Rahul’s yorker off his toes to deep fine leg, with a charming smile and wave to the gallery (I am mixing my football and cricket metaphors, but what the heck, all’s fair in war and politics).

Then outgoing Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee looks on as a  new government under Manmohan Singh is sworn in during a ceremony in New Delhi on May 22, 2004. (Photographer: Amit Bhargava/Bloomberg News)
Then outgoing Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee looks on as a new government under Manmohan Singh is sworn in during a ceremony in New Delhi on May 22, 2004. (Photographer: Amit Bhargava/Bloomberg News)

He could easily have said something like “abhi tak toh mainay keval unkay baarey may suna hi tha, par aaj Munnabhai say yahan mulakat ho hi gayi; arrey bhai, jaadu ki jhappi toh theek hai, lekin zara padh-likh kar MBBS paas toh kar lo pehlay.” (“Until now I had only heard about the popular Bollywood character Munnabhai, who gives magical bear-hugs to people, but today I finally met him here; my friend, these theatrics are good, but why don’t you finish your medical/MBBS studies and graduate?”)

Instead, Modi lit into Rahul with undisguised ridicule. He mimicked him, converting his ‘request for a hug’ into a ‘naked lunge for the prime minister’s chair at such a raw and inexperienced age’.

He then launched into an unrestrained diatribe against the Nehru-Gandhi family. He called Sonia Gandhi “arrogant”, and wheeled back into deep history (the last refuge of a harried politician) to enumerate how the Congress had ‘betrayed’ leaders like Bose, Patel, JP, Morarji, Charan Singh, Chandrashekhar, Pranab, and Pawar.

So, Modi played his favourite and most potent card, i.e. if I can’t win it, I shall polarise it. Except that this time the polarisation was a bit more even, 50-50 among the headlines, as Rahul Gandhi too had scored with his audacious ambush. So, the match is on.

Even Cold Arithmetic Shows A Draw

If I leave out the AIADMK MPs who sprung to the government’s side (after Jayalalitha’s death, these MPs are effectively disenfranchised, and open game for any poacher – hence I am not considering them as politically accretive for the NDA), Modi lost the support of a few less than 50 MPs (from 336 in 2014 to 290 now), while UPA/Congress gained over 65 members to more than double their strength (from 60 in 2014 to 126 now).

In terms of states, Modi was check-mated in Andhra (TDP) and Maharashtra (Shiv Sena), shown the door by two of the NDA’s oldest/founding parties. And UPA/Congress won over Samajwadi Party, Rashtriya Janata Dal, Trinamool Congress, and the Left Parties, among a few others.

Clearly, it was a bigger scoop for the UPA/Congress, but given the overwhelming numerical strength of NDA/Modi, I would call this only a draw.

How Do The Adversaries Stack Up For 2019?

Finally, with the no-confidence motion done and dusted, how are the two adversaries stacking up before the 2019 General Election? As I’ve consistently maintained, after becoming Congress President, Rahul Gandhi is transforming into a promising politician:

  • He led an energetic campaign in Gujarat, daring to take on Modi and Shah on their home turf. He came achingly close to pulling off an upset win.
  • Then he took an outsized political risk by moving for the Chief Justice’s impeachment. That put the Supreme Court under harsh public scrutiny, nixing the danger of any misadventure.
  • He learned the art of a quick/opportunistic compromise in Karnataka, by agreeing to hand over leadership to the junior partner; you could call it desperation, but a kinder interpretation would be a strategic retreat to build up reserves for the final assault in 2019; therefore, I would call it a smart manoeuver.
Newly sworn-in Karnataka Chief Minister H D Kumaraswamy, Andhra Pradesh CM N Chandrababu Naidu, AICC President Rahul Gandhi, West Bengal CM Mamata Banerjee, Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) leader Mayawati and Congress leader Sonia Gandhi wave after the swearing-in ceremony, in Bengaluru, on Wednesday. (Photographer: Shailendra Bhojak/PTI)
Newly sworn-in Karnataka Chief Minister H D Kumaraswamy, Andhra Pradesh CM N Chandrababu Naidu, AICC President Rahul Gandhi, West Bengal CM Mamata Banerjee, Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) leader Mayawati and Congress leader Sonia Gandhi wave after the swearing-in ceremony, in Bengaluru, on Wednesday. (Photographer: Shailendra Bhojak/PTI)
  • He revamped his top leadership, dropping a few heavyweights, but keeping many others for continuity, and inducting plenty of young talent.
  • Finally, he upstaged Modi, the master of the political photo-op by his daringly unexpected hug in parliament.

As for Prime Minister Modi, he seems to have retreated further into his echo-chamber. He had a great opportunity to reclaim his estranged/disappointed liberal supporters of 2014 (that additional 5 percent of voters that had catapulted BJP’s core base of 26 percent to 31 percent), but he rudely ignored them:

  • He could have taken a vow to stamp out the mob lynching of Dalits and Muslims;
  • He could have unfollowed vicious trolls;
  • He could have made a commitment to dismantle the surveillance state;
  • He could have regretted accusing former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh of treason;
  • He could have held marital rape to be as unacceptable as triple talaq.

So many things he could have done, but silence got in his way! Instead, his singular focus was on demonising the Nehru-Gandhi family. And in repeating, ad nauseam, the same string of statistics, some of which have been soundly challenged, to talk up his government’s achievements.

Net-net then, as we move from the drawn match to the penalty shootout, I would stretch my neck to predict: while Prime Minister Modi is ahead in the 2019 sweepstakes, his challengers are closing in. And 40 weeks is a long time in politics!

Raghav Bahl is the co-founder and chairman of Quintillion Media, including BloombergQuint. He is the author of two books, viz ‘Superpower?: The Amazing Race Between China’s Hare and India’s Tortoise’, and ‘Super Economies: America, India, China & The Future Of The World’.