Taking a dig at looks, stoking fire with words

When Himanta Biswa Sarma compared Rahul Gandhi’s face to Saddam Hussein’s it was clear that he had not forgotten the alleged ill treatment meted out to him at the hands of Congress scion

When Assam Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma compared Congress scion Rahul Gandhi’s face to Saddam Hussein’s he was clearly settling a score.

Sarma’s angst with Rahul goes back to his days as a Congressman. He has, perhaps not forgotten the alleged ill treatment meted out to him.

If Sarma’s version is anything to go by, back in those days, Gandhi had preferred to play with his dog Pidi rather than paying attention to what Sarma was saying: “Still remember you busy feeding biscuits to him while we wanted to discuss urgent Assam issues” Sarma had then tweeted.

If that was about behaviour, this time around it is about Gandhi’s looks. To quote Sarma yet again:

“…there is no problem with Rahul Gandhi’s new look. But if you have to change your look, then at least make it like Vallabhbhai Patel or Jawaharlal Nehru. Even better if you look like Gandhiji, but why do you look more like Saddam Hussein now?”

Currently on his mammoth Bharat Jodo Yatra, Rahul Gandhi dons a bearded look.

Quick to hit back, the Congress said that when Prime Minister Narendra Modi grew a beard, the Party said nothing.

It may be recalled that Prime Minister Modi had sported a full grown beard during the pandemic. Some had then compared him to Santa Claus and others to a yogi. Some went as far as saying he looked like Babur or else a character straight out of the Harry Potter series.

Looks and dogs apart, there are substantive issues involved. So if Sarma advised Rahul Gandhi to don the Mahatma’s looks, he was only whipping up a nationalistic fervour: “Rahul Ji, your face should be such that people can see Mahatma Gandhi, and Sardar Patel, but not that in which Saddam Hussain can be seen,” Sarma said.

While Sarma hammered Gandhi, Rahul Gandhi chose Savarkar. During the peaceful yatra which had camaraderie as its theme, Gandhi stoked a fire.

Talking to media persons, Gandhi said that the Hindu ideologue helped the British and also sought mercy from them.

Dangling a paper that claimed was written by Savarkar to the British, Gandhi said: “I will read the last line”, which says, “I beg to remain your most obedient servant”.

Worse still, Gandhi said that his view is that Savarkar signed the letter out of fear and in doing so betrayed Mahatma Gandhi, Sardar Patel, Pandit Nehru and other leaders of the freedom movement: “When he signed this letter…it was fear. He was afraid of the British”, Rahul said.

This was enough to create a furore. Knives were out and Rahul was charged with insulting Savarkar. Critics and political allies said that there was no reason for Gandhi to kick up a storm. If a defamation case was filed against him, threats were hurled on grounds that his remarks on Savarkar’s soil as Maharashtra is seen to be, could adversely affect the alliance.

The Congress, it may be recalled, has formed a political alliance in Maharashtra along with Sharad Pawar’s Nationalist Congress Party and Uddhav Thackeray’s Shiv Sena. Formed in 2019, the state-level coalition is known as Maharashtra Vikas Aghadi.

Having said that, there was enough support that poured in for what Rahul Gandhi had said. If the Mahatma’s great grandson Tushar Gandhi agreed with Savarkar being subservient to the British, there were others decrying Savarkar and Jinnah for introducing the two nation theory. State leaders in the Congress went as far as saying that Savarkar used to draw a pension from the British: some 60 rupees back in those days.

However there is a difference in perspective between the old and new Congress: Indira Gandhi had issued a postage stamp to honour Savarkar; Sonia Gandhi shot off a letter urging the then President of India not to unveil Savarkar’s portrait in the Central Hall of Parliament.

If Sonia Gandhi was not aware of her mother-in-law’s generosity, Rahul Gandhi is perhaps equally ignorant.

But is this about ignorance or politics? Was this an off the cuff remark or part of a strategy to grab eyeballs?

Either way, it has put the Congress in a spot. In September, it ran for cover when Savarkar’s photo found place in a banner on freedom fighters. Once that went viral, state leaders of the Congress covered his photo with Mahatma Gandhi’s. Significant given that the Congress has always given precedence to the Mahatma over Savarkar.

To say that this was a goof-up by Rahul Gandhi may be an overstatement. The fact that he carried a copy of the letter that he showcased to the media substantiates that it was a pre-planned move. That it backfired is another matter.

Having said that, it did bring Rahul Gandhi back in focus. The yatra was grabbing eyeballs but was fading away from memory after its initial impact. That perhaps was the reason why the Congress roped in film stars. Pooja Bhatt joined in Hyderabad, Amol Palekar, Sushant Singh and Riya Sen in Maharashtra: not the top notch but a slice of Bollywood certainly.

But Savarkar did what even Bollywood could not: helped Rahul Gandhi grab headlines. With the BJP guns blazing in on him and critics slamming him, he perhaps touched a chord with the apolitical segments particularly those who had either walked with him or were hugged by him. For optics too, a man walking allegedly selflessly helps people warm up to him and if he is targeted, rightly or wrongly, then there is a natural sympathy that is generated. So also with Rahul Gandhi: irrespective of facts vis a vis Sarvakar, the hit-out and name calling which the Opposition is indulging in, gives him an advantage  which the Congress could well cash in on. That is if they play their cards right.

And this is where the problem lies.

Even while one cannot deny that the Bharat Jodo yatra is a masterstroke, the Congress has not been able to cash in on it the way it could or should have. Unlike the BJP they are not masters of spin so to say. So even if Rahul Gandhi had a trick up his sleeve, the Congress could not match up along expected lines, the Savarkar imbroglio being one such. Having initially raised it, Rahul Gandhi avoiding all reference to the ideologue while touring Maharashtra substantiates this amply.