With all his evasions and repetitions, Rahul Gandhi lost the chance to make a political case for his party.
Congress vice president Rahul Gandhi has long been accused of being rarely seen and almost never heard. His parliamentary presence is negligible, he ignores the media and general public, with the excuse that he is preoccupied with the party alone. So his sudden decision to face a television camera and an unsparing interviewer for an hour and a half of sustained questioning deserves some appreciation. Gandhi submitted to a range of difficult questions, from the challenge posed by Narendra Modi to how the 2002 riots were materially different from the 1984 violence, from the alleged corruption of Congress ministers to his own awkward position as a dynastic leader talking incessantly about inner-party democracy.
But the credit ends there. The interview revealed that Gandhi was not prepared to answer obvious questions about his party or his views on the opposition. In the run-up to a highly charged election, one where Modi’s larger-than-life presence and the AAP’s surprising entry have churned the discourse, forced all political parties to sharpen their pitch, Gandhi is still detached, speaking of faraway things. He spoke of “women’s empowerment” and “opening the system”, to the point that they ceased sounding like the building blocks of a larger vision, but like empty catchphrases, placeholders to cover up a lack of serious thought.
While his reluctance to take Modi on directly may reflect a principled refusal to turn the election into a clash of individuals, he failed even to explain their diverging ideologies, and to present his party’s case. He floundered on the 1984 question, and despite the fact that his PM and party president have apologised for the incident, Gandhi defended the Congress government’s actions, seemingly oblivious to the fact that 3,000 people cannot be killed if the state was doing its job. Later, he said “I wasn’t around then”, and again advocated “transparency” as a solution to riots. There were areas where he scored — defending the UPA’s overall economic record, presenting the array of entitlements it had created. When he said that corruption was not a matter of individuals alone, but of changing the structure that enabled it, Gandhi had a glint of a point that his interviewer chose not to draw out.
Gandhi’s biggest failure, on the brink of a high-stakes election, was his inability to engage with questions that agitate the electorate, whether on secularism or redistribution, employment or corruption. His talk of giving young people access to political structures and empowering women were unobjectionable ideas, but almost apolitical themes in this climate. And if he believes so strongly in inner-party democracy, it is hard to explain why the competition should not extend to his job. Now, in the last lap before the election, each party will produce its own narrative, its unique pitch. As Rahul Gandhi speaks more to the public and media, the least he can do for his party is to provide specifics, build a case, and minimally attempt to persuade an undecided voter.