rahul gandhi
The issues that Rahul Gandhi is raising have failed to resonate with people so far. File photo

Savarkar is immaterial today; Rahul should choose his battles carefully

Recapitulating political events in the Opposition space since Rahul Gandhi’s conviction and subsequent disqualification from the Lok Sabha provides a sense of the evolving strategy of the Rahul-Gandhi family-Congress combine and how non-Congress Opposition parties have responded thus far.

The big-ticket Rahul press conference was the first response to the BJP’s onslaught. He touched upon several points: that he will not apologise for his “Modi surname” remark, won’t “back down” from asking questions on the Adani issue, keep doing his work regardless of whether he is inside Parliament or not, that his job is to defend the democratic character of the country which means defending the institutions of the country, and that he was disqualified because Prime Minister Narendra Modi is scared of his next speech on Adani (“I can see it in his eyes”, he said for dramatic effect.)

Key issues buried

These points, although important, got buried and two other news-points were played up. The first was his statement of “not being” Savarkar (Vinayak Damodar) but a Gandhi. The other was his verbal lashing of the journalist seeking his comment on the BJP allegation that the statement, for which he was convicted, was “anti-OBC”.

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The Savarkar barb was made a part of this response regarding the query if he would apologise for the “Modi surname” remark. His response was: “My name is not Savarkar, it is Gandhi and a Gandhi never offers an apology”.

This was the second occasion in recent months that he drove a dagger into the public image of VD Savarkar – the first time was in November when the Bharat Jodo Yatra was passing through Maharashtra.

On this occasion too, there was a howl of protest and criticism from several political parties, social organisations, especially from Maharashtra and at least one member of the Savarkar family.

Alienating allies

More importantly, on both instances, Udhav Thackeray’s Shiv Sena objected fervently. Uddhav even stayed away from a crucial meeting of Opposition parties. This resulted in Sharad Pawar, also a Congress ally, intervening and asking Rahul and his party not to any further criticise the contentious ‘nationalist’, the assessment of whom differs from party to party, social groups and communities.

To be an effective Opposition leader and reap the maximum harvest from the situation that he has been presented with, Rahul has to realise that trashing Savarkar’s memory is of little benefit. Instead, it will alienate anti-BJP parties that are sympathetic to the Maharashtrian icon.

Rahul’s assertions on Savarkar are true – his decade-long incarceration in the cellular jail in Andaman was punctuated with mercy petitions to British colonialists. This remains a weak spot for Hindu nationalists and they cover this up by falsely contending that Savarkar wrote these letters of apology on Mahatma Gandhi’s ‘advice’.

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Rahul casts issues which are part of the secular-liberal campaign against the Hindutva ideology and ideologues into the domain of the intelligentsia. Debates over Savarkar are best left inside conference halls, books and articles, historians and other academics. He has to recognise that further endearing himself with sympathetic sections of the intelligentsia serves no electoral purpose, his primary pursuit.

The Savarkar quip served little purpose but angered his allies besides providing fodder to adversaries, now falsely propagating that the Congress denigrates nationalists who were not associated with the party.

Poor ground work

Running down a journalist was tactically worse. Rahul accused the journalist of putting that question at the BJP’s prompt, that he was playing that party’s game. His wisecrack that followed, that the scribe’s balloon had been pricked, not only alienated journalists, but also showcased Rahul as an arrogant, entitled leader.

Obviously, the Congress leader had not adequately prepared for the press conference. Failure to anticipate questions smacks of poor political acumen. Instead of smothering the query by weight of privilege, Rahul should have been ready with a thought-out counter to the BJP charge that he and the Congress are “anti-OBC”.

Watch | Tushar Gandhi: ‘If BJP wins 2024, Savarkar will replace Gandhiji as Father of Nation’

An opportunity to deflate the BJP campaign of being “anti-OBC” was squandered and he reinforced the image of being big-headed.

Days later, Jairam Ramesh took on the BJP charge and argued that “those who have been running away from conducting a caste census are now saying that the current issue is about OBCs.” This could have been Rahul’s counter-accusation hurled at the BJP. It would not only have made headlines but also reminded the OBCs that their long-standing demand has not been met.

Falling into a trap

The other Congress-Gandhi intervention securing public attention was of Priyanka Gandhi at the day-long ‘Satyagraha’ held by the Congress at Raj Ghat on Sunday, March 26. Besides her, even Congress president Mallikarjun Kharge attacked the government for “trying to silence” a “martyr’s son” for raising the voice of people.

Priyanka did a lengthy recap of events in May 1991, after her father Rajiv Gandhi was assassinated. She narrated how on the day of the funeral, she was behind the cortege with her mother and brother in a car. That they were directed not to step outside for security reasons.

She narrated how defying all orders and wishes of his mother and sister, the young Rahul not just stepped out, but walked all the way from Race Course Road to where Rajiv was cremated, adjacent to Rajghat.

She narrated this story to establish Rahul’s credentials as being brave and committed. “That martyred father is insulted in Parliament, the son of that martyr is called an anti-national…you call him Mir Jafar, his mother is insulted, one of your chief ministers says Rahul Gandhi doesn’t know who his father is,” she stated emotionally.

Personal tragedies are unforgettable. After more than 30 years, the majority of people in the audience, and those watching on TV, have no living memory of Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination. Claiming political rights on the basis of past contributions of ancestors does not cut ice with people; instead, it falls into Modi’s trap.

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Likewise, it made no sense to remind people that the BJP depicted Rahul as ‘Pappu’ or dimwit. To counter this, she referred to his university degrees from Havard and Cambridge. These qualifications give little leverage over BJP leaders. After all, controversies over Modi’s educational qualifications and of other BJP ministers and leaders did not undermine their popularity, even to the smallest extent.

Personalising issues

The Congress has planned a month-long campaign including press conferences by national-level leaders in 35 major cities. It intends to stage what is being called the ‘Jai Bharat Satyagraha’ at district and state levels, and a ‘Jai Bharat Maha Satyagraha’ at the national level.

The objective must be to arouse mass support and reach out to people. This is the need of the hour but leaders chosen to address press conferences in district headquarters must head into these with due preparation.

The issues that Rahul is raising — his disqualification,  especially the argument that he has been disqualified because Modi is mortally scared on his next speech in Parliament, the Adani-Modi nexus and demand for constitution of JPC, democracy being under danger, misuse of investigative agencies against Opposition leaders, erosion of institutions like judiciary, subversion of Constitution — have failed to resonate with people so far.

Additionally, issues have been personalised as evident in the speeches of Rahul and Priyanka. Other Congress leaders are little different and are still seen as being under the shadow of the Gandhis.

For the moment, other Opposition leaders, including the crucial four – Akhilesh Yadav, Mamata Banerjee, Arvind Kejriwal and K Chandrashekar Rao – have rallied behind Rahul Gandhi and the Congress. They are co-petitioners to the 14-party petition moved in the Supreme Court over alleged misuse of central investigation agencies by the Modi government.

But, over personalisation of the anti-BJP campaign and efforts of the Rahul-Gandhi family-Congress to use their relative greater geographical presence to dictate terms during alliance formation, would alienate those parties that are currently not part of a coalition or alliance with the Congress as in states like Bihar and Maharashtra.

Playing second fiddle

The Congress must factor in that in several numerically significant states, it is virtually non-existent and the primary anti-BJP party are regional forces.

It is a Hobson’s choice for the Congress: not demanding a significant number of seats from regional parties in the event of possible talks for an alliance would mean its recovery being delayed further. But asking for more could end possibilities of a pact.

In many states the Congress is the primary opposition. Its prospects would be negatively impacted if a third party enters the fray in a big way, like in Gujarat.

Pragmatism is the need of the hour for the Congress when it seeks alliances with parties that have displaced it as the largest Opposition party in various states. This would mean that the Congress must scale down its ambitions in Uttar Pradesh, West Bengal, Telangana, Punjab and Delhi. Only then can it hope that bipolar states do not witness three-cornered fights to the BJP’s benefit.

The Congress may be the largest Opposition party in the country but it must be realistic about how much heft it carries now. The Tamil Nadu model can be extended to other states. The Congress, after 1967, always played second fiddle to its regional partner here.

The next parliamentary elections are more crucial than any poll in the nation’s history and choices of the entire Opposition must keep this in mind.

(Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay is an NCR-based author and journalist. He tweets at @NilanjanUdwin)

(The Federal seeks to present views and opinions from all sides of the spectrum. The information, ideas or opinions in the articles are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Federal.)

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