Miliband to Burns — validation by foreigners gives Rahul Gandhi a kick but hurts his politics

Congress leader Rahul Gandhi | Praveen Jain | ThePrint File Photo

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Rahul Gandhi has done it again. The Congress leader has pandered to his need for validation from, and the desire to confide in, foreign intellectuals with zero stake in India, at the cost of very poor political optics domestically.

In his virtual interaction with former US Under Secretary of State and Harvard University professor Nicholas Burns last week, Rahul Gandhi criticised the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) for “wholesale capture of state institutions” and questioned the US for its silence over what was happening in India. Why is this problematic, some may ask. Picture this: The top leader, the face of the main opposition party openly trashing the state of democracy in his country and seeking foreign intervention in the middle of very crucial and hotly contested assembly polls. All this, when the pitch of his very powerful rival is an amplified idea of nationalism and glorification of the country’s values.

This is hardly the first time Rahul Gandhi is allowing his desire to be heard by an international audience overpower the need for smart domestic politics. Back in 2009, Gandhi, who was then an MP from Amethi, had told then British Foreign Secretary David Miliband during a visit to a Dalit family’s home in rural Amethi that this was the ‘real India’ — as if there was nothing more to India than raw misery.

Rahul Gandhi seems to be drawing his inspiration from the likes of Mani Shankar Aiyar who, during a panel discussion on a Pakistani news channel in 2015, had sought the removal of the Narendra Modi government, drawing much flak for his usual foot-in-mouth syndrome. And anybody, with even a remote understanding of politics, can tell you why Aiyar should be absolutely nobody’s inspiration.

Also read: Rahul Gandhi’s liberal supporters do him great disservice

Rahul’s flawed approach

The question is not whether one must be allowed to air her or his views openly, the answer to which in a democratic set-up is an obvious yes. The point, however, is that politics is far more complex, and requires a delicate and nuanced approach. And like it or not, Narendra Modi has changed the rules of the game to an extent that it is near-suicidal to give him full toss deliveries to smash sixes, one after another.

By taking to international platforms to convey his views and draw some pats on his back, instead of trying to speak the language voters in India would want to hear, Rahul Gandhi has constantly given Modi that extra leeway.

Narendra Modi has made ‘nationalism’ the fulcrum of his politics. One doesn’t need to necessarily compete with that or imitate it, but given how voters are lapping Modi’s politics up, it is important to not fall into the trap of giving him a reason to question your commitment towards the country. Rahul Gandhi must resist the urge to take the bait, and fail Modi’s nationalism test, time and again.

Ahead of the 2019 Lok Sabha election, for instance, Modi sold the retaliatory air strikes in Balakot as his big achievement, something the voters quite happily bought. But Rahul was busy picking holes in this theory, questioning Modi’s ‘chowkidar’ skills over the Rafale deal. The results were there for all to see.

In 2017, as Congress vice-president, Gandhi addressed students at the University of California, Berkeley, and criticised the Modi government for its economic policies and its handling of Kashmir.

His interaction with Burns is the latest in the list of ‘how to harm your politics’ moves.

Look at the optics and messaging of this. Essentially, he’s telling his domestic constituency — which is what should matter to the Congress and him the most — that your government isn’t good enough and hence, you need international involvement to save you. Leaders spend considerable energy and time trying to fend off outside influence or involvement in matters internal to their countries.

And here you are, targeting a PM who is hugely popular, carries immense goodwill and is able to sell his story extraordinarily well on international platforms. You may detest Modi’s politics and his party’s communal fibre, but you cannot deny the grip he has established over the electorate. To deride such a PM and his government on international platforms can hardly going to look palatable to the voters, and will only boomerang on Rahul Gandhi and his already floundering party. And all this when elections in five states are on, in three of which, at least, the Congress has got serious stakes in.

Also read: Assam’s wave of ethnic anxieties now just an undercurrent. That’s what Modi-Shah achieved

The need for international approval

At what point do you stop feeling exasperated with Rahul Gandhi? He has got almost nothing right since he stepped into active politics, and more glaringly, since he began to lead his party (whether as president or de-facto chief). From being erratic to non-focused, disconnected and quite self-absorbed, Rahul Gandhi has stumbled his way through. As well-meaning as he may be, realpolitik isn’t quite his strength, which is precisely what is reflected in his inexplicable obsession for validation from international audiences.

Many in the country don’t take Rahul Gandhi very seriously, as impolite as that might sound. But international platforms are where the Congress leader is heard, and hence, he takes them more seriously than he perhaps should — putting his heart and soul into these interactions and sidestepping all political correctness, prudence and pragmatism. The fawning by foreign listeners gives him the same kick that one extra vote on the EVM gives to other politicians.

Rahul Gandhi operates at an esoteric level. He thinks his beliefs and roadmap are all that matter, and winning and losing elections is not the point. Which is precisely what he wants to convey through Miliband or Berkely or Burns. Unfortunately, however, for any political party to survive, let alone thrive, winning elections is imperative, and international attention or platforms to speak purely incidental.

Some other politicians may still be able to pull this off without much damage being caused, but for a leader who is already the weakling, this is complete harakiri.

There is no bravery in waxing eloquence against all that you perceive as being wrong with your country on international mediums. But there is every bit of bravery in resurrecting yourself, doing the necessary course-correction, playing it smart and developing the wherewithal to win elections and take down the Goliath. It would do Rahul Gandhi well to remember this. It isn’t his country he is letting down by censuring it internationally, but his party, its members and every dedicated voter of the Congress.

Views are personal.

Edited by Anurag Chaubey

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