The Rahul Gandhi-Rajiv Bajaj conversation put out in the public domain on Thursday — the latest in a series of video interactions in which Gandhi talks to and/or interviews a guest under lockdown — draws attention for its content, and its format. Take that moment, about halfway down the conversation, when the Congress leader speaks about how the pandemic required a decentralised response to begin with, and how the correct response is happening now, but too late. As a “passing of the buck”, not as strategy, agrees the industrialist, almost completing Gandhi’s thought, if not his sentence. Such moments of strikingly affable agreement, of completing each other’s sentences and thoughts, abound — that this is a “bitter sweet” time more bitter than sweet (Bajaj) and “devastating” (Gandhi); that the lockdown has been “draconian” (Bajaj) and it has “failed” (Gandhi); that India should not have looked to the West for its solutions (Bajaj), but drawn internally (Gandhi); that the economy deserved a greater stimulus and support (both). These sentiments are worthy, the arguments need to be heard, but here’s the problem: By picking a guest he evidently agrees with, and who agrees with him too, the main leader of India’s leading Opposition party defeats the intended purpose of portraying the leader as listener and learner. He sends out a message that he is the host of a scripted, one-sided communication, an echo-chamber, locked down.
The problem, even when the guest is former RBI governor Raghuram Rajan or Nobel laureate Abhijit Banerjee, is also this: Given Rahul Gandhi’s own pronounced and prolonged reluctance, first in becoming Congress president and then in stepping up to the demands of the job, this series of virtual interactions in a time of real hardship for so many, invites scepticism. What’s their purpose, exactly? Admittedly, the pandemic has imposed constraints on politics and political activity of the real kind, but it is also true that neither the Congress nor its leader can now persuade anyone that they are straining to take to the street. In effect, the party came to a standstill long before Covid struck. Having said that, many Congress governments in the states are showing resolve as they mount a fight against the pandemic. Rahul Gandhi would do far better by his party if he were to showcase these efforts, the women and men behind them. Or even mount a campaign more spirited than tweets against the bizarre arrest of the party’s Uttar Pradesh chief.
It is understandable that the Congress leader should chafe at the narrative dominance of the BJP, amplified many times over by the political lockdown induced by the pandemic and fawning sections of the media. He is right when he says, as criticism of the NDA government, during his conversation with Bajaj, that image should be based on strength, not strength on image. But if this apparent bid to join the battle of images shows anything it is this: The Congress must listen to its own advice, instead of giving the impression that it is trying to beat the BJP in its own game. Video meetings may have become de rigueur in today’s work-from-home model, but politics, especially Opposition politics in a time of distress, may need more energy and imagination than a webinar.