Rahul is right to obsess about Modi

Updated: Jul 13, 2020, 07:08 IST | Ajaz Ashraf | Mumbai

It is surprising to see the commentariat exasperated at Rahul Gandhi's fixation with the prime minister, for every political person is doomed to obsess over the man who personifies his government and his party

Rahul Gandhi, Prime Minister Narendra Modi. File pics
Rahul Gandhi, Prime Minister Narendra Modi. File pics

Ajaz AshrafCongress leader Rahul Gandhi has been using Twitter to either question or mock or offer gratuitous advice to Prime Minister Narendra Modi for over five years. Yet it is only now that he seems to have got under Modi's skin, evident from his government's decision to investigate the trusts linked to the Nehru-Gandhi family. It is an axiom that anyone who succeeds in nettling Modi has sleuths knocking at his or her doors.

It is, therefore, bewildering why the commentariat, including those who worry over authoritarianism shadowing Indian democracy, sounds exasperated at "Gandhi's obsession" with Modi. Every political person is doomed to obsess about Modi, for he looms large over Indian polity. He personifies his government and his party, of which the most telling illustration was a Bharatiya Janata Party spokesperson failing to name the Union labour minister in a TV debate, that too during the recent exodus of daily labourers from cities.

It is this so-called obsession of Gandhi that we must credit, at least partially, for the collapse of the government's narrative that the Chinese had not encroached into India's territory in Ladakh. Gandhi achieved this by tweeting three-four articles furnishing information contrary to the government's claims — and persistently demanding an explanation. In doing so, he has inadvisably adopted a mocking tone at times, for instance in this tweet of June 21: "Narendra Modi is actually Surender Modi." BJP followers were enraged as they read the deliberately misspelt Surender as surrender.

Yet it was Modi who initiated the mock-and-sneer politics. He would derisively refer to Gandhi as shahzada, an Urdu word for prince, instead of using the Hindi equivalent rajkumar. That was an example of tasteless insinuation falsely assigning Gandhi a Muslim origin. Or think of the BJP's army of trolls referring to Gandhi as "Pappu", a popular nickname for a child that becomes an insult when given to an adult. It certainly requires fortitude to countenance relentless abuse — and still not flee the battlefield.

Nor is Gandhi guilty of mindless attacks against the government. Credit him for asking the government, on April 12, to prevent "foreign interests" from taking advantage of the COVID-19 crisis to establish control over Indian corporates. In just a week, the government amended the foreign direct investment policy, making it mandatory for firms in neighbouring countries (read China) to take its approval before investing in India.

Credit Gandhi for tweeting as early as February 12 that the "Coronavirus is an extremely serious threat to our people and our economy. My sense is the government is not taking this threat seriously…" He was also among the first few who warned that the lockdown will devastate the "poor and weak", and slow the economy. These outcomes may not suggest that Gandhi is a genius, but he is certainly no Pappu, whose clones, in fact, constitute the BJP's troll army.

It is indeed a political imperative for Gandhi to obsess about Modi. Regardless of his faults, he is an MP of the principal Opposition party. It is his duty to wave the red flag at every fumble of the government, which history will remember to have inflicted multiple miseries on the nation because of policies ranging from demonetisation to GST, to lockdown, to sharpening of social conflict.

It is the commentators who seem confused about the Opposition leader's role in democracy. Perhaps their confusion arises from their own obsession with identifying a leader who can match Modi. They think criticism of Modi only bolsters him. This is why they were disapproving of Aam Aadmi Party leader Arvind Kejriwal when he would snipe at Modi. Yet the same commentators now frown at Kejriwal's cloying deference to the prime minister.

The role of mass media in the making and evolution of a nation is why the commentators will be disappointed with every leader they anoint as a challenger to Modi. Only the mass media can inculcate a set of beliefs and sentiments in a people spread over a large area and weld them into a political community. No Opposition leader can hope to succeed as long as the media condones even egregious faults of a government or, worse, lavish praise on it. Modi has acquired a god-like invincibility because media-owners, out of fear or greed or class interests, disallow journalists from critiquing him.

Gandhi's fault is that his obsession about Modi is confined to social media platforms. His future is predicated on creating a channel of communication independent of the mainstream media — and beyond Twitter and Facebook. He can achieve this by persuading the people why his obsession with Modi is legitimate, even desirable, not through just tweets or at pre-election rallies, but by travelling from district to district to hold dialogue with them. It is only by demonstrating his popular support that he can resolve the internecine conflict in the party, as is currently afoot in Rajasthan. For the moment, though, praise him for unambiguously voicing opposition to the government when a good many have chosen to hit the mute button.

The writer is a senior journalist

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