How a blazing Rahul had Modi govt on the mat in his debut as LoP
Rahul presented Shiva as the symbol of composure, tolerance and bravery. PTI Photo

How a blazing Rahul had Modi govt on the mat in his debut as LoP

The Congress leader’s vociferous broadside was met immediately with robust protests by the Treasury Benches, with Modi himself interrupting Rahul on two occasions – a first for the PM since he entered the Lok Sabha in 2014

After a decade of running roughshod over the Opposition in Parliament on the strength of a brute and rambunctious majority, Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his government got a taste of their own medicine, on Monday (July 1) as Rahul Gandhi delivered his maiden speech as Leader of Opposition in the Lok Sabha.

Rahul, who opened the discussion on the Motion of Thanks on the President’s Address from the Opposition’s side, was combative, irreverent and deeply political in his speech. In an over one-hour-long intervention that was constantly interrupted with loud protests from the Treasury Benches, Rahul lashed out directly at Modi, the BJP, and the RSS for “not being the sole representatives of Hinduism”. Lok Sabha Speaker Om Birla wasn’t spared either as Rahul insinuated about the former’s pro-government bias.

It was evident that for his maiden speech, Rahul had chosen to rely not on hard data and statistics to rebut the government’s vision outlined in President Droupadi Murmu’s June 26 address to the joint sitting of Parliament. Instead, he chose to push further his campaign of reclaiming from Modi and the BJP ecosystem the proprietary rights on Hinduism that they had conferred upon themselves over the last decade.

Used Shiva's poster smartly

It is difficult to say whether Rahul’s over-reliance on Lord Shiva, whose poster he frequently waved despite loud objections from the Speaker and BJP members, to drive home his point would become a leitmotif of his future rebuttals of the saffron ecosystem’s rhetoric around Hindutva and Lord Ram (or current favourite, Lord Jagannath) or how it would be received by those who want a truly secular polity. Yet, at least on Monday, Rahul’s interpretations and assertions about Shiva’s iconography, seemed to have done the trick for him by pushing the restive MPs of the Treasury into frequent and furious gesticulation.

Rahul presented Shiva as the symbol of composure, tolerance and bravery; speaking repeatedly of the Abhay Mudra (Shiva’s right palm, held upright as a gesture of reassurance – the Congress’s election symbol is strikingly similar) and asserted that the BJP’s Hindutva was at odds with the virtues symbolised by the Hindu God. Asserting that Hinduism, and all other faiths, preach peace, tolerance, fearlessness and non-violence, Rahul pointed at the BJP leaders to suggest that their Hinduism preached “only violence”.

Taking Modi head-on

The Congress leader’s vociferous broadside was met immediately with robust protests by the Treasury Benches, with Modi himself interrupting Rahul on two occasions – a first for the PM since he entered the Lok Sabha in 2014 – and accusing him of defaming the entire Hindu community. In an indication of how far Rahul has, perhaps, come from his days of shuttling from one gaffe to the next, the LoP hit back at the PM saying, “Narendra Modi is not the sole representative of Hinduism” and clarified that the RSS and BJP’s self-proclaimed custodians of Hinduism “believe only in violence”.

The latter part of Rahul’s speech was meant to be a rebuttal of the President’s Address. Though the LoP, unlike Trinamool’s Mahua Moitra or DMK’s A Raja, did not get into a nuanced autopsy of the President’s Address, he spoke tersely about challenges that various sections of the population – farmers, women, youth, Armed Forces aspirants, small and medium business owners, et al – faced today due to the “anti-people” policies adopted by the Modi government since 2014.

All the while, Rahul kept his guns trained at Modi; repeatedly mocking the PM for calling himself, during the Lok Sabha poll campaign, a “non-biological” entity who “is directed directly by God”. There was, of course, Rahul’s favourite charge against Modi too – that of the PM working “only for the benefit of Adani and Ambani”.

BJP gets the stick

That Rahul rattled the BJP was evident from the fact that his no-holds-barred submissions forced not just Modi to interject him twice but also had Union Home Minister Amit Shah urging the Speaker on not one but three separate occasions to give his “protection” to those on the Treasury Benches. Rahul also evoked sharp protestations from Union ministers Rajnath Singh, Shivraj Singh Chouhan, Bhupendra Yadav, Kiren Rijiju, Arjun Ram Meghwal and others as he slammed the past decade of Modi’s regime for “plunging India into fear and hatred” while “destroying” the country’s economy, its youth, farmers, women, labour force and aspirants for the Armed Forces.

Rahul’s maiden speech also marked a palpable change in the atmospherics inside Lok Sabha. If the past decade had seen a hapless Opposition, relentless mocked by the overwhelming numbers on the Treasury side, brusquely cut short by the Speaker and forced to walk out of the House when its voice was muzzled, Monday saw Rahul lead a strong flock, not just of the 99-member strong Congress but the entire 234+ INDIA brigade, that was in no mood to be silenced any longer.

Allies join the rubbing-in

Rahul’s own stature seems to have been elevated with his assumption of the role of LoP, which is evident in the way the Opposition rallied behind him as he slammed the Prime Minister and his party. Even MPs of the Trinamool Congress, a party known to share a frosty relationship with the Congress and Rahul, joined the Congress and other INDIA bloc MPs in shouting down any Treasury Bench MP who interrupted Rahul.

For a maiden speech, Rahul registered a strong presence. What he, perhaps, needs to do next is to dial down on his ruminations on Hinduism and move from pure political rhetoric to more substantive submissions; countering the government’s penchant for hyperbole and misrepresentation with data, facts and statistics – something that could have made his maiden address all the more stinging but was found grossly missing.

What next for Rahul?

Also, as an ordinary MP on the Opposition side over the past decade, Rahul had the luxury of coming to Parliament, speaking his piece and leaving whenever it suited him, showing scant patience to hear any other view in the Lok Sabha aside from his own. As LoP, that is a luxury he can no longer afford. Rahul mentioned in his address that he now represents not just himself but the voice of the entire Opposition. Rahul’s action of walking out of Lok Sabha soon after concluding his maiden speech as LoP reflected poorly on his own conviction of living up to the standards he had set for himself in his new role.

Nonetheless, what was evident from Monday’s Lok Sabha proceedings was that the Modi government is set for a tumultuous inning in its third term and would do well too, as Rahul offered in a welcome gesture at the end of his speech, to favor conciliation and consensus over confrontation as it moves forward. The Opposition, as a whole, has found its voice after 10 long years – and, as Monday’s proceedings made amply clear, also a leader.

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