Misfiring again?

Rahul Gandhi’s two recent video performances offer little hope — the first fell flat in attacking govt ‘strategy’; and the second showed him in a position unbecoming of a leader — writes T N Ninan

T N Ninan, Business Standard
12th May

Any government needs a good opposition — to act as a check by presenting the threat of an alternative. For the last six years, India has not had one. The regional parties have been marginalised, coerced into silence or bought over, and the Congress has had poor leadership from Rahul Gandhi. His mother, also his predecessor and successor as party president, appears to be preparing the ground for his return by side-stepping one set of ageing, unelectable advisors to appoint another younger set of the same. And so Mr Gandhi, like Robert Bruce’s spider, may try yet again to project himself as a serious, thinking politician. But, as in the 2019 and 2014 election campaigns, are he and his party misfiring again?

As a backdrop, the prime minister’s ratings in a couple of opinion polls (assumed to be reliable) have soared to unimagined levels. Many country leaders elsewhere have also seen a bump in their ratings in recent weeks, as did Donald Trump too until very recently, but none of them on the scale seen for Narendra Modi. Only George W Bush enjoyed something similar, immediately after 9/11. People tend to rally round the flag during crises, but the imbalance between Mr Modi and the rest is extraordinary. That is not entirely Mr Gandhi’s fault; Mr Modi’s skills as a politician devoted to image-building and to presenting failures as successes are formidable. Nevertheless, as Mr Modi approaches the first anniversary of his second government, what price a good opposition in the foreseeable future?

Take a look at Mr Gandhi’s two video performances recently. His press conference, conducted remotely, has been trolled for repeated use of the word “strategic” (and its variants), but his reasoned attack on the government’s “strategy” for tackling Covid-19 was easily countered: Increased testing has not raised the percentage of positive results, the government has already become “strategically” selective by demarcating red, orange and green zones, and the recovery rate has improved while the death rate remains low. There could be a second wave of infections after the “pause” of the lockdown, as Mr Gandhi has warned, but we have to wait for that to happen.

Mr Gandhi’s second video outing saw him in conversation with Raghuram Rajan, with Mr Gandhi asking most of the questions and Dr Rajan responding. This was an odd position in which to place the putative leader of the largest opposition party, as someone seeking wisdom rather than providing answers or solutions. Dr Rajan has been an informal advisor to Mr Gandhi for some time, but a leader does not present himself publicly in a shishya-guru relationship. It is hard to imagine the leader of the opposition in any other large democracy choosing such optics.

As for the Congress, it scored an own goal by criticising the government’s decision to temporarily freeze dearness allowance payments to government employees. The party runs the government in Rajasthan, and is a coalition partner in Maharashtra; both state governments have announced pay cuts. And Manmohan Singh (who voiced the party’s criticism on the DA freeze) forgot that he was chief economic advisor back in 1974, when Indira Gandhi froze half of DA increases and placed them in compulsory savings that would be fully reimbursed only over six years.

The real problem, though, is that the Congress leadership shows its privileged bias by voicing its opposition in English, to a relatively minuscule audience, while Mr Modi speaks in a mass idiom in Hindi. Jairam Ramesh, Shashi Tharoor and others like them (including a senior leader like P Chidambaram) may come up with sharp arguments and valid criticisms, but on the political battleground they are snipers, not the cavalry or artillery. And Mohua Moitra shows Priyanka Gandhi what she decidedly is not.

If the Congress is to score even with the English-speaking, middle-class audience, it has to come up with answers that make sense when everyone can see that government revenue has sharply eroded. If businesses are to survive in a dramatic recession, they have to lower fixed costs, like wages. Is it asking too much of the Congress to offer criticisms and realistic solutions that recognise such realities?

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