Open Diary

Swapan Dasgupta is an MP and India’s foremost conservative columnist
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Rahul Gandhi's parliamentary test

FROM THE MOMENT it became clear that there was no immediate threat to Narendra Modi, the no-confidence motion in the Lok Sabha became a routine exercise, another occasion for all the stalwarts to deliver a speech to a TV audience. I don’t believe that there was ever any danger of the Government being defeated on the floor of the House. The hype on TV bore little connection with the bored, dismayed expressions of MPs as they rescheduled their Friday travel plans to abide by the three-line whip of their parties.

If there was any interest in the proceedings of the Lok Sabha on July 20th, it was centred on the performance of Congress President Rahul Gandhi. He was to lead his party’s charge against the Prime Minister, and all eyes were on this. Both Modi bhakts and Modi baiters were anxious to see him in action because, notwithstanding its steep decline over the past four years, the Congress still has a brand image and the Gandhis are the party’s proprietors. The no- confidence motion ended up being a trust vote on the newest Gandhi to assume charge of the family firm.

I don’t think that Rahul performed exceptionally well. Yes, he oozed self-confidence and was combative in a street fighter sort of way. But his speech was more suited for a modest-sized election meeting than a Lok Sabha debate. The measured arguments that are expected of parliamentary debates were replaced by shrill assertions that suggested an insufficient grasp over governance. His speech was at best cocky and the curious finale made it slightly bizarre. Rahul ensured that his speech would be noticed and commented upon. But he didn’t seem to care if the final verdict was favourable or otherwise. He put a premium on noticeability.

It is one thing to pronounce an individual judgment on the Congress president’s performance. To know the national reaction to it is more difficult. The social media is of absolutely no help since, of late, it has been taken over by journalists, academics, activists and other members of the chattering classes. Others seem to lack the vocabulary to express their thoughts cogently—although they may be far more effective in verbal communication.

Consequently, the responses followed a set pattern. The journalists and academics, an overwhelming majority of whom equate Narendra Modi to the Black Death, thought that Rahul had gone past the apprentice stage and was now poised to assume a leadership mantle. They were overjoyed that Rahul’s pre-determined hug of the Prime Minister had a major element of surprise and was probably unique in the annals of parliamentary history. Now, they gloated—on social media and in the next morning’s newspapers—Modi has at last been confronted with a real challenger.

This flood of compliments from Modi-haters who are desperate for a general to lead them into a famous victory in 2019 must have played an important role in ensuring the subsequent decision of the newly- appointed Congress Working Committee to name him as the party’s candidate for Modi’s job. It was an audacious decision, since it assumed that the Congress would do well enough to claim the top post in 2019 and that Rahul’s face on election posters would ensure the Lok Sabha numbers. And it was almost entirely based on the supposed appreciation of Rahul’s performance in the no- confidence debate.

A more rounded understanding of the speech’s impact is keenly awaited. However, a Times of India online poll—which I don’t entirely discount because it is difficult to attach a political label to that publishing house—did suggest that popular appreciation of Rahul’s insolent hug of the Prime Minister—which Modi was subsequently to mock as a plea to vacate the seat—was limited to just 30 per cent or so of the respondents. Most English newspapers conveyed the opposite conclusion.

How a speech is received by a wider public, many of whom stayed up late to hear the Prime Minister’s post-10 pm reply, is difficult to fathom. In 1996, journalists were happily celebrating the fall of the 13-day Government led by Atal Bihari Vajpayee. What took them a long time to appreciate was the profound impact Vajpayee’s resignation speech had on popular thinking. It made Vajpayee a household name and certainly contributed to the BJP’s sharp rise in seats in 1998.

In 2014, Rahul was faced with the embarrassment of his disastrous interview with Arnab Goswami. This time, he hasn’t quite failed the test. He passed, but it was a 2:2 performance. If India wants a plodder with a sense of entitlement at the top, it will elect him.