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RG is indeed discovering new territories. But there is a long way to go in channelizing the discontent... and building bridges

By Anand K. Sahay*
Rahul Gandhi, derided as soft in the head by a committed but unprincipled social media army (directed by an invisible hand), with sniper support from regulars, stunned detractors when he made quite a decent speech at Berkeley recently.
He answered probing questions from the university audience with candour, unlike the devious politicians who are deemed serious and capable because they offer opaque answers with double meanings that send out self-congratulatory messages to followers and mean threats to opponents. Throughout, the Congress leader displayed a lack of rancour, a touch of wit, and due regard for decorum.
This was enough to set the cat among the pigeons. Heavy artillery was deployed to dismantle Mr. Gandhi, although the Congressman is routinely lampooned as inadequate and inept by BJP-RSS. BJP chief Amit Shah made a quick jab below the belt. A cabinet minister aimed poison darts. Smriti Irani, a regime favourite, used her cabinet position to hog television time as she shot missiles dripping venom at the Congress leader.
This comes naturally to Ms. Irani, who made bold to assert that while some people had to work hard to reach where they’d got, the dynast had got everything on a platter. Naturally, people are curious to know in what positions this minister has toiled to bag plum cabinet posts after losing her Parliament election.
It is clear to everyone- even Mr. Modi’s cabinet colleagues- that the PM couldn’t have pulled off the trick that RG did. He is short on intellectual fibre. He is good at something else though, else he wouldn’t have been able to cash in on people’s urge for a “strong leadership”.
He brags without inhibition (Lord Krishna would have disapproved), he calls himself “Son of India”, he says those who preceded him were “against progress”, and he has worn a coat in public that cost lakhs of rupees (betraying a deep-seated sense of anxiety behind the bold facade). These unusual attributes in the top leader were lapped up by the masses. They thought they had found their man. He seemed to attack the elites. They were certain he would look after their interests.
But that time is past. Mr. Modi looks defeated when he takes the stage these days. He proffers jaded propaganda- eg, farmers’ incomes will double in five years; this at a time when more farmers are committing suicide every day across India than ever before. Also, employment is rapidly shrinking
No wonder Mr. Modi doesn’t answer any questions, leave alone searching ones. He has no time for journalists, even less for his own MPs and ministers, who bow and scrape before him as before a sultan of yore, worried that they might be ejected from the gravy train otherwise.
External affairs minister Sushma Swaraj offered a typical example recently. At the UN General Assembly, she covered the routine on Pakistan being the home of terrorism, and then launched into the PM’s fulsome praise for programmes such as Stand Up India and what have you, as she might at an election rally. “Good Luck India! Good Bye India!” One can almost hear that coming. Modi’s India looks badly faded. It is divided and despairing.
In the three years Mr Modi has been around, he has used the state apparatus to intimidate opponents. In his name, thugs have let loose repression on Muslims, the dalit community (although the PM courts Ambedkar flagrantly, hoping to win dalit votes), poor tribal people, holders of contrary opinion, and intellectuals.
The return of state awards by prestigious writers, thinkers, artists and the hit-style murders of rationalists and dissenting journalists inspired nationwide protests, but the bhakts or regime supporters are unfazed. Erdogan’s Turkey has despatched opponents to jail. We are not there yet. But the age of fear is upon us, and the age of attacks on the nation’s poorest. This takes us beyond authoritarianism- to a place from which quasi-fascism does not look so far.
State’s hungry beasts have been let loose on a particular television station, which in recent times has attempted to do straightforward, old-fashioned, journalism instead of keeling over like the rest and becoming a servitor of the regime. The CBI is now a monster unchained. A former IAS officer and now a well known activist for communal harmony, currently touring the country with young people to spread the message of societal peace, is being threatened by the tax brutes.
As for the PM’s ability to guide the country with sophistication and intellect (a requirement in a complex society like India), it will suffice to explore the contents of his ‘Mann Ki Baat’ programme. There is no need to dissect crucial issues such as demonetisation, GST, ‘surgical strike’, Swachch Bharat, Stand Up India, etcetera.
No wonder, every economic metric points to a tired, shrinking economy with little hope of recovery in the foreseeable future. People are seething with discontent. The farmers are in revolt. RSS’ student front, the ABVP, has lost university students’ election across India, although the important tests lie in UP and Bihar. When the PM was in his constituency Varanasi last week, a thousand BHU women students protested life under the regime, including pointing to sexual violence, but Mr. Modi had no time for them. They were lathi-charged. The friendly media looked the other way.
The PM and his cohorts give the call to protect India’s honour and self-respect through militarism. Their way is to pay overt obeisance to the armed forces. The establishment speaks of placing tanks at university campuses to inculcate a healthy dose of patriotism among young people. Any day, one expects ministers to arrive at cabinet meetings wearing jackboots and epaulettes. But can you honour the soldier when you dishonour the farmer? Isn’t the jawan the “kisan in uniform”?
Small wonder the world is eager to hear Mr. Gandhi’s message. People are paying attention partly because he put it across with remarkable ease- and pointed to truths that people already knew. After Berkeley, he highlighted the rising unemployment and falling growth rates at Princeton, besides being substantive on India, China and the world.
RG is indeed discovering new territories. But there is a long way to go in channelizing the discontent and building bridges with the non-BJP parties, besides fixing his own badly suffering Congress.

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