BJP had perfected the art of trolling Rahul Gandhi by borrowing from legendary Times of India editor Girilal Jain, who coined the phrase “Babalog” for Rajiv Gandhi and his coterie. BJP lampooned Rahul as “Pappu”. Rahul landed a rare one on the chin pillorying the prime minister for wearing a designer coat with stripes spelling out his own name.
After Rahul’s over-3000-km Bharat Jodo Yatra, the BJP has been at a loss to corner him. His often naive presentation of complex issues evoked more pity than awe. But of late he seems to be connecting with the common man. The recent fracas over his Cambridge epiphany about endangered Indian democracy has riled the BJP. An attack on prime minister or democratic regression, BJP argues, belittles the nation and taints its honour. Rahul retorted that he did not start this business of domestic Indian politics being bandied about abroad.
What then is the global norm for democracies when it comes to carrying domestic political differences abroad? Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru established the convention about leaving domestic politics at India’s shores when traveling abroad. His non-Congress successors observed that norm. Atal Bihari Vajpayee was even sent abroad when in the Opposition to defend the government’s Kashmir policy. But this presupposes that bipartisan consensus largely exists on Indian foreign policy. Also that the nation is not so polarised that opponents are viewed as implacable foes. Raids by agencies get conducted only against them. Jail becomes the norm when they err whereas, as recently seen in Karnataka, bail is on offer under similar circumstances to party members or allies.
The US case is not exactly analogous as India has a parliamentary and not a presidential system. They have a clear separation of powers between the executive under the president and the two legislative houses, occasionally controlled by the opposite party, Congressmen do not require the executive’s approval to travel abroad. Their committees often visit trouble spots where the U.S. government may have intervened directly or otherwise. Naturally US presidents resent such intrusive tours abroad. Speaker Newt Gingrich during his 1996 China visit told officials there that the US would intervene if China attacked Taiwan. President Bill Clinton was not amused as he was then wooing China, perceiving it as a partner for global peace and prosperity. Similarly, Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Syria, where she met President Bashar al-Assad, was termed by President George Bush as “counterproductive”.
That is so far as a nation’s foreign policy is concerned. The Rahul versus BJP verbal duel has been simmering since he first attacked the Indian government during his September 2017 US visit. He reasoned that it is the prime minister who broke the convention during the September 2014 Madison Square Garden diaspora event. The Prime Minister has repeatedly used the same diaspora format to attack past governments and leaders.
There can be arguments for and against this methodology. Firstly, past prime ministers deliberately kept the diaspora insulated from Indian politics. Many if not most of the diaspora in the Anglo-Saxon world have opted for nationality of the place of their residence. They have to swear allegiance to those nations when acquiring citizenship. Local governments would be entitled to treat diaspora frenzy and sloganeering for an Indian leader as betraying their oath. A line exists between the cultural and religious links of diaspora to the land of origin and their political assimilation in their adopted land. The danger became manifest when the Houston diaspora jamboree, on the eve of the 2018 US presidential election, seemed to have the Indian prime minister almost endorsing Donald Trump. The victory of his Democrat rival Joe Biden left South Block scampering to engage the new dispensation, mindful of lingering hurt. Also the communal polarisation of the diaspora has begun causing clashes at political rallies or defacement of temples.
On the other hand it can be argued that in a world instantly interconnected by social and electronic media words travel across national boundaries from wherever uttered. But audiences still matter. When Rahul Gandhi decries democratic recession in India he is underscoring western hypocrisy. US President Biden is about to hold his third global democracy summit. The Ukraine war has been framed as democracy versus autocracy. But the West is chary to endanger bilateral relations with India and thus avoids forcefully raising human rights and freedom of speech. Instead they let their parliaments, media and civil society to do the nitpicking.
BJP needs to be more tolerant of criticism and realise that intelligent attendees at Rahul’s British events came away more baffled than informed by his cliches and oversimplified ideas. Most liked, as Kaushik Basu tweeted, his “modesty, empathy for people & total lack of pretension”. BJP’s problem is that “Pappu” has matured and grown confident. Thus attacking the messenger is now futile. On balance Rahul is now damaging the government’s image abroad more than opposition bashing at diaspora events affected them in India.
KC Singh is former secretary, Ministry of External Affairs