Friday, October 04, 2013

A week is a long time in politics

By Swapan Dasgupta

Success and failure often depends as much as what one side does right—both tactically and striking the right notes—as what the other side does wrong. In the three weeks since he was anointed the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate, a move that set the terms for the 2014 general election, Narendra Modi may, arguably, have faltered twice and both times at his mega-rally in Delhi on September 29.

First, he laid into Pakistan’s Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif for allegedly referring to his Indian counterpart as a “rustic woman” in what we may presume was an off-camera aside. It is not that Sharif’s comment didn’t warrant a sharp rebuttal: no one would disagree that it was out of order. It is just that the source was dodgy: the Pakistani journalist who publicised the comment had to retract, perhaps after some gentle persuasion.

Secondly, Modi may have gone a bit over the top by questioning the silence of the assembled Indian journalists. Like many ordinary citizens who were incensed when General Musharraf chose a breakfast meeting with Indian editors in Delhi more than a decade ago to insult India, Modi felt that Indian journalists ought to have walked out rather than savour Pakistani hospitality.

To be fair, journalists are not government spokesmen. The good journalist is the one who lets the subject drone on and, in the process, commit indiscretions. Modi’s job description of the media is contestable but corresponds to public perceptions of “India first”.   

However, it is significant that neither of these controversies did Modi’s reputation any harm. His implied criticism of that goes gush-gush over everything Pakistani (including the Hurriyat Conference) went down well in an environment where tensions along the Line of Control and recent terror attacks in Kashmir has negated any residual enthusiasm for Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s peace initiative. After the Radia tapes and the “paid news” scandals, the credibility of the Indian media has taken a nosedive and “unpatriotic” conduct is regarded as among its many sins. In any case, there is no love lost between the Modi fraternity and the English language media which has (unsuccessfully) tried to destroy him with unrelenting vigour since 2002.

Actually, looking back on these all-too-brief controversies, Modi didn’t come out second best. Even those who questioned to wisdom of Modi invoking the alleged “rustic woman” remark to highlight Pakistan’s disregard for a weak Indian government, were left in an uncomfortable predicament: to show that Modi’s approach to weighty foreign policy questions was impulsive, they had to first uphold the sobriety of a Pakistani Prime Minister! Modi couldn’t have asked for a better division.

In hindsight, Modi’s two non-gaffes at the Japanese Garden in Delhi was a less-than-24 hours wonder in the face of the dramatic developments at the Congress’ routine media briefing on September 27. In theory, the desire of the Congress Vice President Rahul Gandhi to distance himself from an ordinance that was widely perceived as protective of corrupt politicians was laudable. Since Rahul, unlike Sonia Gandhi, had little time for Lalu Prasad Yadav and, in fact, was in favour of an alliance with Nitish Kumar, he imagined that in derailing the ordinance (which the President was disinclined to sign without  clarifications) he would kill two birds with one intervention.

One of the reasons why politics cannot be reduced to an MBA programme of an American University is because it deals with human interventions and responses. Had Rahul Gandhi articulated his misgivings over the contentious ordinance in a little more conventional fashion—perhaps asking the Cabinet to “reconsider” its decision in the light of hostile public reaction to it, he would have achieved his objective. Unfortunately, his imperious style—the use of “nonsense” and “rubbish”—and his arrogant unconcern for the embarrassment it caused not merely to the Prime Minister and to the red-faced Ajay Maken who had to eat his words in public, negated the very purpose of the grandstanding.

There were two immediate casualties of Rahul’s intervention which, incidentally, had been planned at least a day in advance. First, the heir apparent came across as a brash young man whose fierce sense of entitlement makes him impervious to the feelings of supplicants. Last Friday afternoon Rahul created the impression that he was no different from the sons of Colonel Gaddafi and Hosni Mubarak—young men intoxicated by their supposed ownership of their countries. Maybe this was an unintended consequence but it was nevertheless real. And this incident will play a part in shaping public perceptions of the man the Congress wants to portray as its leader for 2014.

However, a greater damage was inflicted on the Prime Minister. That Manmohan Singh stood humiliated in public was apparent. But this humiliation evoked little sympathy because the Prime Minister chose to take the beating with his head down. Singh’s former media adviser was being loyal to his former boss when he suggested that Singh should have driven straight to Dulles Airport, caught the charter back to Delhi and driven straight to Rashtrapati Bhavan to submit his resignation.

Yes, that would have meant a political crisis and perhaps even have forced an election this year. But at least he would have left with some dignity intact. Now he has lost all authority and, worse, his entire public standing. No wonder the talk of a strong leader is resonating all over India.

Asian Age/ Deccan Chronicle, October 4, 2013

1 comment:

Vishnu Raghavan said...

Balanced, incisive and articulate. Mr Dasgupta is that rarity, a journalist who can really write impartially. splendid article.