Prem Shankar Jha

The fact that the planned joint opposition in Patna was postponed has created rumours that such unity may not be achieved before 2024. This fear, however, is almost certain to prove groundless.

Rahul Gandhi at Roosevelt House, New York. Photo: Twitter/@RahulGandhi

The postponement of the the grand opposition meeting that had been scheduled for June 12 in Patna to June 23 has revived anxiety in India’s civil society that this could signal second thoughts in the Congress on the terms on which the unity need to be forged. This is in spite of Congress president Mallikarjun Kharge having stressed the importance of uniting to fight the BJP in 2024, in his inaugural address to the AICC in Raipur three months ago, where he had advocated the formation of an alliance based on the ‘UPA model’ of 2004–2014, and had cautioned the rest of the opposition against forming a ‘Third Front’.

Since then, however, talk of a UPA-type alliance has almost disappeared from the Congress’s political  lexicon, but no alternative proposal for government formation in the event of an opposition victory has taken its place. It is not surprising therefore that the postponement of the grand opposition meeting scheduled to take place in Patna on June 12 to June 23, has once again aroused dormant fears that a formula for unity might still elude the opposition when decision time arrives.

This fear, however, is almost certain to prove groundless. The evidence for this, if any were needed, is to be found in the speeches of Rahul Gandhi during his six-day interaction with the Indian diaspora in the US, and question-answer sessions that followed. Thanks to Youtube, all of these can be seen in their entirety by those who were not physically present. So we are in a position, unique in human history, of being able to judge a speaker’s sincerity and character in a way that was unthinkable even half a century ago. And ever since he began his Bharat Jodo Yatra, Gandhi has been passing this eyeball test with flying colours.

In his speeches in the US, Gandhi displayed a palpable sincerity that is the polar opposite of the dissembling and compromise that characterises Indian politics, and for that matter most democratic politics in the world. In all of them his theme was the same – India’s innate strength, its durability and its pride has rested, throughout its history, upon its unquestioning acceptance of, and comfort with, its ethnic diversity and religious pluralism. This comfort, he told his audiences in California, Washington DC and New York, is the secret of the phenomenal success of the Indian diaspora in integrating themselves with their adopted countries. Gandhi reinforced this message through his unaffected display of pride in their achievements in the US .

But the message he hammered home most consistently is the one that is most relevant to India’s future. This was that while the BJP and RSS were constantly harping on a largely imagined  past, the need of the hour was to chart India’s path into an uncertain future. In a graphic phrase that bids to rival his ‘nafrat ki bazaar’ aphorism, he likened Modi  to  someone driving with his eyes glued to the rear-view mirror of his vehicle.

He illustrated this by referring to the train accident in Odisha. Within hours of the disaster, the BJP’s spokespersons were busy pointing out that there had been similar, serious accidents during the Congress’s rule too, and in highlighting a train collision at Ariyalur in November 1956 that had claimed 140 lives. What they chose to ignore was the response of the Nehru government whose railways minister resigned, taking constitutional responsibility for the tragedy. Even though the technology for avoiding such tragedies that the world has today had not even been dreamed of then. By contrast, no minister in Modi’s government has done so today, even though that technology has been in general use for decades.

What makes this omission inexcusable is that at the tail end of the UPA government’s rule, a committee headed by Sam Pitroda had recommended installing an anti-collision system on all of the 65,000 kilometres of railway lines in India. But till the time of the Odisha accident an entire  decade later, the Modi government had installed anti-collision digital equipment on only 1,000 km of railway lines.

In 1956, the Congress minister who took responsibility and resigned was Lal Bahadur Shastri. The party remembered this and made him India’s prime minister after Nehru’s death.

Perhaps the most striking feature of Gandhi’s speeches in the US was their tone. Narendra Modi’s speeches, both at home and abroad, are designed to create awe and fear. Gandhi’s speeches have reflected a desire to start a dialogue. In all of them he has emphasised the need for joint action by political parties in India – not to win an election or throw out a rival political party, but to save India’s ethnically diverse and religiously plural democracy from crashing in ruins.

If there had ever been any doubt left in people’s minds about his motives, this tour of the US should have erased them. For Rahul Gandhi, saving India’s democracy comes first. His personal status within it comes a long, long way second.

This is the understanding of the Congress’s motives today, with which the major opposition parties need to assemble at  Patna on June 23.

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The one thing that anyone being interviewed on television should not allow is for his interviewer to take control of the interview. This is doubly true for the head of a government: it is quadruply so for an aspiring head of government facing a general election in three months. But that is precisely what Rahul Gandhi allowed Arnab Goswami to do from the first moments of his hour –long interview. Television is not about what people say, but how they look and how they behave. Unlike the print media and radio, less than 20 percent of its message is carried by the spoken word. Eighty percent is conveyed by gesture and expression, and this 80 percent is not received by the cognitive 10 percent of the brain but the more primitive 90 percent, where intuition and reflex reside.

Arnab Goswami knows this for he spends half his waking life in front of the camera. And he used every trick in the book to establish his total dominance over Gandhi—the relaxed, sitting-back stance, the white pencil held negligently close to his eye ready to swing down as he asked his next question; the gentle, respectful tone and the condescending smile as he relentlessly repeated questions that Gandhi could not answer. Goswami left nothing to chance. As for Rahul, it became painfully apparent within minutes that he had come to make a campaign speech, not to engage in a candid exchange of views. It was apparent that he had been coached to death on what to say and what not to say; that he had been instructed never to show any doubt, to concede any mistake by his party, and never, never, to admit the possibility of a defeat for the Congress, inspite of the growing mountain of evidence of its loss of support in the country.

As a result the ‘debate’ became a dialogue of the deaf in which Goswami and he spoke but did not hear each other. Rahul was determined to speak about the future. Goswami was determined to keep the debate firmly anchored in the past. Rahul kept repeating set piece remarks about the closing of democracy to the people, of the entrenchment of corruption, about the need for deep structural reforms in order to save not only the Congress but democracy itself and what he was doing and wanted to do to bring the youth fully into politics. But Goswami kept asking him questions about what the Congress had said about Narendra Modi at various points in the past, how its allegation that Modi had abetted the communal riots in Gujarat in 2002 had been disproved by Judgements of the Gujarat High court, and how the Congress, had abetted the anti-Sikh riots in 1984 in Delhi.

The mutual declamation would have turned into a debate if Rahul answered Goswami’s questions, or Goswami had chosen to follow up Rahul’s leads into the future. But this is where the innocence, not to mention inexperience of Rahul Gandhi and the utter cold-blooded cynicism of Goswami came starkly into view. Goswami was not interested in the future, only in the present ratings. Also, having made up his mind that Modi was likely to become the next prime minister, he was intent only on safeguarding his eat in the next Rajya Sabha.

As for the difference between Rajiv Gandhi’s response to the Delhi riots and Modi’s response to the Godhra train burning it can be summed up in a single contrast: On hearing, during the afternoon of February 28, 2002 that the Vishwa Hindu Parishad had called for a bandh to protest the killing of kar sewaks in the Sabarmati express, Modi promptly announced that the State would sponsor the bandh. This immediately tied the hands of the police and prevented them from arresting VHP and Bajrang dal activists as a precautionary measure. As a result, on the night of the 28th, while the neighbouring governments of Andhra, Maharashtra, and Rajasthan put tens of thousands of “history sheeters” in jail for the next few days the tally of the Gujarat police was just two, and both were muslims! What can be said in Modi’s favour is that he probably did not realise what the full consequences of his action would be, because this was the first communal carnage shown live, every hour on the hour, by India’s rating –hungry TV channels. He could not, therefore, anticipate what TV’s impact would be. But this is at best a mitigation, not an exoneration.

By contrast, whatever individual Congressmen may have done after Mrs Gandhi’s assassination, on the night of October 3 while Delhi was burning after her funeral, a grief stricken and jet-lagged Rajiv Gandhi, exhausted by walking for miles behind his mother’s cortege and then lighting her funeral pyre, got into a jeep and spent most of the night driving from one riot-struck area to the next, directing the police, chasing the rioters, and angrily exhorting them to stop their murder and pillage. That is the difference between Delhi and Ahmedabad; between Rajiv Gandhi and Narendra Modi; between secularism and communalism, between democracy and fascism. Rahul Gandhi could have destroyed Arnab Goswami if only he had known what to say. But it seems that along with its capacity to govern the Congress has also lost its collective memory.

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