Even as the first phase of voting of the most crucial Gujarat State Assembly is already over and the second phase is due within next couple of days, Rahul Gandhi showed who the boss of the Congress Party is. Even before taking over the reins of the party officially, Rahul reacted decisively in what can be termed his first decision as the Party Chief – the suspension of Mani Shankar Aiyar for his “neech” comment on Prime Minister Narendra Modi. By taking the toughest action against Aiyar, Rahul has sent out a stern message that he means no non-sense. This style of functioning has won some brownie points for the President-nominated. He proved that he dared to take action quickly and swiftly unlike his many predecessors, including his mother Sonia Gandhi.
Rahul’s tough action – he first demanded a public apology from Aiyar and then threw him out in a bid to damage control – represents a clear break from the way the Sonia Congress did things. Aiyar’s ridiculous and ill-timed jibe that “Modi would never be PM but was free to sell tea outside the All India Congress Committee (AICC)” had virtually wrecked the Congress campaign in the 2014 general elections. Modi and the BJP capitalized on the sneer to the full. However, no punishment was awarded to Aiyar at that moment by Soniaji.
Removed Sawarkar’s Plaque
Readers would surely recall that Aiyar, when he was Union Petroleum Minister in the UPA Government, had removed the plaque mentioning lines of the poem written by Freedom Fighter Veer Sawarkar, fixed on the Martyrs’ Memorial and Cellular Jail at Port Blair, Andaman. This action caused a nation-wide uproar and finally caused defeat for the party. However, there was no action against him.
Quite habitual to his irresponsible comments and knee-jerk reactions, Aiyar was at it again when the Gujarat electioneering had already taken the top gear. Modi quickly used Aiyar’s remarks last week to similar effect and Aiyar who seems to be the gift that does not stop giving to the BJP tried to brazen it out with a perfunctory non-apology. Gandhi was having none of it and Aiyar, who seems to think that he is still debating in the rarefied environs of the Shakespeare Society in St. Stephen’s college, was out. Contrast that with his motor-mouthing when the UPA was in power.
Rahul’s action against Aiyar has come as a shock to the mid and top brass leadership of the Congress. With his action, Rahul put the Congress on notice about the kind of presidency he would run; more importantly, he has exerted new pressure on the BJP which regularly uses uncivil language to attack him. “BJP and the PM routinely use filthy language to attack the Congress party. The Congress has a different culture and heritage. I do not appreciate the tone and language used by Mani Shankar Aiyar to address the PM. Both the Congress and I expect him to apologise for what he said”, Gandhi tweeted. That puts Modi and the BJP in the firing line. Modi has, during his Gujarat campaign, referred to the Congress as ‘termites’ in the past; he has referred to Sonia Gandhi as a ‘Jersey cow’ and the late Sunanda Pushkar as Shashi Tharoor’s ’50-Crore Girlfriend’. Party President Amit Shah called Mahatma Gandhi a ‘Chatur Baniya’ few months ago; earlier this week, BJP spokesperson G V L Narasimha Rao called Gandhi a ‘Babur and Khilji Bhakta’.
Swati Chaturvedi, a noted journalist and political analyst, had exposed in her investigative book, I am a Troll: Inside the BJP’s Secret Digital Army, the BJP, which cottoned on earliest to using social media as a huge electoral weapon, has made a cottage industry of abusing Rahul and his family. “Pappu jokes” and unproven allegations were mass-manufactured by the BJP’s IT cell. This is now flourishing on an industrial scale on WhatsApp. Modi also follows more than two dozen Twitter handles which routinely issue rape and death threats and indulges in communal incitement, a fact which Swati Chaturvedi exposed and which was reported by the international press. Following the gunning down of Bengaluru journalist Gauri Lankesh in September, a handle which allegedly continues to be followed by Modi gloated that “a bitch has died and her puppies are crying”. Rahul with his swift action has issued a challenge to the BJP, which did not ask GVL Narasimha Rao to apologise for his “Khilji” attack.
And after the action against Aiyar, there was a visible drama too. In post-Aiyar comment, Rahul was visible on a Hindi channel with tears streaming down his face at the insult to Modi. While the BJP is right to collectively and individually deride Aiyar’s comments, which smack of elitism and casteism, it seems to see no problem with its overt communalism. Witness Modi’s comment yesterday that the “voters of Gujarat will punish this Mughal mind-set which insulted a son of Gujarat” or his earlier comment welcoming the “Aurangzeb raj” of the Congress when Rahul filed his nomination for Congress president. These comments remained far from media criticism, thanks to the irresponsible jib of Aiyar.
Love Jihad Tragedy Forgotten
What a tragedy that many of the TV channels in the country remained busy in giving the headline of the day in the exchange of insults while real issues such as the burning alive in Rajasthan of a man over fictitious “love jihad” don’t get the attention they deserve. A 50-year-old Muslim was first axed and then set on fire. No one from the BJP condemned the incident though it took place in BJP-governed Rajasthan. Surprisingly, there was no media mention or criticism against the Vasundhara Raje Government there.
In Gujarat, the BJP is back to its tried-and-tested political dog whistles and to claiming insults to Modi who now personifies Gujarat pride. All this shows an uncharacteristic attack of nerves. Rahul, who was entangled in the Congress claiming he is a “sacred thread-wearing Brahmin” when the BJP asked if he was “even a Hindu”, seems to be firmly on message. And the message to his own party is no long rope, no own-goals, stick to the script or head for the exit. His damage control represents a break from the past and his own diffidence about leadership.
However there is a down side to this move also. Rahul’s quick and summarily taken action against Aiyar is also taken as a public admission that the Congress Second-Rank leadership is irresponsible and insensitive about the fallout of their off-the-cuff remarks. The fall-out of this admission, though honest, could prove fatal to the Congress in the Gujarat elections.
The author is a political analyst and former Member of Parliament (RS)