A hug, a wink and a flying kiss

Rahul Gandhi’s speech in Parliament did not pan out the way it was expected to. If anything, the PM demolished Gandhi’s mohabbat ki dukan, in one single stroke and took on the INDIA alliance

The apex court has restored what petty politics tried to destroy.

If the intention was to take away Congress scion Rahul Gandhi’s status as an MP and also keep him away from electoral politics then the saffron Party had kind of succeeded. But it was the apex Court that stepped in and willy nilly turned the tables on them. It put on hold Rahul Gandhi’s conviction in a defamation case.

This also meant that his disqualification as a Lok Sabha member stood revoked.

The Congress danced; the Opposition celebrated and the BJP ran for cover.

The whole idea was flawed from the start.

Gandhi was dragged to the court over his remarks during an election rally in Karnataka in 2019. Rahul Gandhi had then said: “How come all thieves have Modi as the common surname?” The reference was to three well-known Modis: a fugitive Indian diamond tycoon, a cricket executive banned from the Indian Premier League and the Prime Minister.

The Court sentenced Gandhi to two years imprisonment. He was also disqualified as an MP.  

The conviction was, however, stayed by the Supreme Court which also led to the  Lok Sabha Secretariat revoking his disqualification.

Rahul Gandhi finally set his foot yet again in the House which had temporarily closed its doors on him: the House where he had delivered some fiery speeches including branding the Modi government as suit boot ki sarkar,  a government for the rich; his two Indias – one for the rich and one for the poor – remark; the shehanshah and idea of a king coming back and of course walking over to the Treasury benches and actually hugging a somewhat startled Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

It is in that House that Rahul Gandhi has managed to stage a come-back.

His come-back was, however, noisy enough, at least figuratively.

When he chose not to be the opening speaker in the No Confidence Motion that the Opposition alliance had moved against the Modi government, the Treasury Benches charged him with developing cold feet; others labelled him an escapist: “Maybe Rahul Gandhi was not prepared; maybe he got up late,” remarked a BJP MP even as Congress’s Gaurav Gogoi led the opposition charge in Lok Sabha.  

Gandhi opting out as lead speaker could be strategy rather than chance. With all eyes on the Gandhi scion, expectations were high. The fear was not that he would not match up but strategically it was better to bring him towards the end for more impact. That he spoke half way through the three-day debate is another matter.

As for impact, it was unexpectedly a lack-lustre speech. Except for a few punches here and there, Gandhi’s speech was short on content. So even while decibel levels were high, Gandhi was somewhat out of depth.

Gandhi did manage to pull a few punches though, like the one about Raavan listening to only two people, adding that the Prime Minister too only listens to two people: Amit Shah and Adani.

Or the quote about killing Hindustan in Manipur: “You killed the voice of India in Manipur, Bharat Mata was murdered in Manipur…Bharat Mata is my mother…you have murdered my mother”.

These were quotable quotes but they lacked the punch.  

While on Bharat Mata, Union Minister Smriti Irani castigated the Congress for thumping desks over the ‘India being murdered’ reference. But that was only one part.

Gandhi’s head was on the chopper block on another count: a gesture that was dubbed as misogynist.

Even as Irani was speaking, Gandhi is alleged to have blown a flying kiss in her direction: “The person who spoke before me misbehaved. Only a misogynistic man can gesture a flying kiss to female parliamentarians,” Irani said.

This, however, is not Gandhi’s first. He has in the past been caught winking at fellow Parliamentarians.

Rewind to 2018 and the debate in Parliament when Rahul Gandhi took everyone by surprise when he walked up to the Prime Minister and hugged him. On his way back, he winked at a colleague.  

So BJP was not off the mark when its national spokesperson Shehzad Poonawalla said: Last time aankh maari, he winked and this time he blows a flying kiss”.

Even while the jury is out on this one, one must concede that Gandhi’s temporary disqualification did him more good than harm, quite like his being locked out from his official residence post disqualification.

Getting both back has certainly given a martyr-hero status and helped him play the victim card to the hilt. It has also made the BJP dispensation appear vindictive.

Going beyond the hug-wink and kiss persona, Gandhi has led from the front and seizes every moment to attack Prime Minister Modi. He was centre-stage in the multi-party alliance called I.N.D.I.A.

It is the name rather than the combine that is giving jitters to the BJP. Equally it is true that the Prime Minister, in his reply to the No Confidence Motion in Parliament did somewhat retrieve the situation by saying that they broke India into pieces by adding the dots.

That notwithstanding, the name I.N.D.I.A. is, undoubtedly, a masterstroke.

Despite the full stops, it gives a nationalistic feel. It also kind of reduces the BJP to a political party versus the alliance being flagged as country-driven. This, more than anything else, is bound to fire the imagination of the people.

For critics, it is godsent because they will go to town about the dangers India is facing at the hands of the current dispensation be it its divisive and bulldozer politics or its brazenness in destroying or saffronizing institutions.

The nomenclature’s overtones cut across narrow political schisms and in one sense is overarching.

Therefore when Gandhi argued that the elections would be fought on an INDIA vs NDA plank, it had resonance. The game plan: to drive home the point that all those who are against the BJP “were INDIA”.

“The battle”, Gandhi said, “is for the idea of India. That is why we came up with this name. The Indian National Developmental Inclusive Alliance. That means INDIA. The battle is between the NDA and INDIA, their ideology and INDIA. And you know who wins when somebody stands against India”, he told the press.

Add to this, West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee’s challenge: “NDA, can you challenge INDIA? BJP, can you challenge INDIA? Other people, can you challenge INDIA?”

This seems to be the singular strength of the I.N.D.I.A. alliance. The magic, as they say, is in the name

Therefore, the catchline: NDA versus I.N.D.I.A. may work as few things have in the past.

There is, however, a backstory to the I.N.D.I.A nomenclature.

 If reports are anything to go by, Gandhi, in tandem with West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, zeroed in on I.N.D.I.A or Indian National Developmental Inclusive Alliance.

Sources confirm that it was Rahul Gandhi who suggested that the alliance be called INDIA but wanted the clearance of Banerjee. Except for a minor change, she readily agreed.  Apart from what D or N should stand for there was a consensus on the nomenclature with a bit of hiccups of course.

Hiccups may be a minor word to use because alliances and the kind I.N.D.I.A. has stitched up will surely hit a roadblock on the question of seat sharing and leadership. For starters, Arvind Kejriwal’s Aam Aadmi Party has said that the issue of seat-sharing was more important than the name. Ditto Sitaram Yechury who also flagged problems that could crop up in states where the Congress and Left are rivals. The silver lining: Congress stating that it is out of the Prime Minister’s race and is willing to work in the spirit of accommodation.

For the uninitiated, over two dozen Opposition parties have come together to take on the BJP-led NDA in the elections next year. They made it known that I.N.D.I.A. is akin to the “idea of India” which is under attack under the present regime.

With Gandhi’s return to Parliament, there were echoes of India from the Opposition benches: “Garv se bolo INDIA, paschim bolo India, purv bolo India, despite the Chair’s warning.

The sum total: all eyes are on Gandhi; the big question: will he seize the moment and ride the wave?.

His speech in Parliament did not pan out the way it was expected to; nor did his flying kiss grab headlines. If anything, the Prime Minister demolished Gandhi’s mohabbat ki dukan, shop of love, in one single stroke and took on the alliance and the Gandhis. Yet politics being a game of surprises, it is foolhardy to write anyone’s epitaph.