“I am sitting here and saying, ‘Ask me whatever you want’. I might make some mistakes. I’m not bothered. I’ll learn and the next time I speak I’ll come up with something better,” said Rahul Gandhi at one of three events where I heard him speak in London a week ago.
“I have the guts to sit here with so many journalists, live streaming. It’s risky. I take the risk because I value this conversation. I think this conversation is more important than the risk”.
He got loud applause from the audience, which included members of the Indian community and journalists, at which point he made his main political point: “That’s not how our Prime Minister thinks. I would love to have a conversation like this with the Prime Minister of India on issues like corruption, the Rafale deal and the agriculture policy, but he won’t do it”.
Whether it is wise for a political leader to take such a “Not bothered, I’ll learn” attitude is arguable. But clearly Gandhi’s trip to Germany and the UK brought out some of the Congress president’s best qualities, while revealing failings that made him look like the accident-prone politician his critics claim him to be.
The content of three one-hour question and answer sessions in London was good. It showed that Gandhi is getting his election themes together, that he can cope with a wide range of subjects, and that he has the passion needed by a political leader warming up for general election battle – the passion being to remove Narendra Modi and all he stands for from power.
But Gandhi lets himself down with one-liners that grab the headlines and allow the BJP and its trolls and twitter feeders to mock him. Along with more serious criticism, that diverts attention from his main messages. His image gets reduced, both among those in India who would like to be able to praise him, and among opinion-makers in the countries he is visiting.
Gandhi failed to pitch his remarks with sufficiently anchored policy content and context. He often didn’t spell out his arguments until forced to do so in self-defense. He also appeared to avoid direct answers by referring back to his favorite subjects of India’s traditions of non-violence and compassion, the need to decentralize policymaking and execution, and to protect the lower castes, farmers and minorities.
These are all crucial issues, given the growing instances of lynching’s and other violence, Modi’s over-centralization of government, the denigration of Dalits and Muslims, and the plight of farmers, but repetition needs substance.
This points to a lack of preparation on policy and lines to take. I am not decrying Gandhi’s performance. It was impressive that he was happy to answer questions in unrehearsed, unscripted sessions – with moderators he had not met. The three I attended were at the International Institute of Strategic Studies (IISS), the London School of Economics (LSE) and a lunch event organized by the Indian Journalists’ Association.
It is brave (some would say foolhardy) of a political leader, experienced or otherwise, to expose himself on the record to such an extent, but Gandhi uses it to show he has a wide spread of views – and to contrast it with Modi’s refusal to take questions in public.
However, he should rehearse his points in advance with policy briefs so that he begins his answers with succinct statements that make it more difficult for the trolls. The nearer the general election, the more pertinent this becomes. He should also make key policy statements, as for example he could have done at the IISS on defense and foreign affairs.
The most controversial one-liners were a comparison of the RSS and the Muslim Brotherhood, a link between joblessness, lynchings and ISIS, and denying Congress responsibility for the anti-Sikh riots of 1984. The first two were sound points that he failed to define effectively when he first mentioned them.
On the Muslim Brotherhood, he should have clearly set out his argument about how both organizations’ ambition is “one ideology runs every institution….one idea should crush all other ideas”, while acknowledging the RSS has not been named as a terrorist organization. On the lynchings and ISIS, there is no dispute that joblessness can lead the young to indulge in violence and extremism and to stray into terrorist organizations, but this needed explaining.
On the 1984 deaths, he could have avoided the controversy by referring back to Manmohan Singh’s apology, and then adding his own lines about abhorring violence and the guilty being punished through the courts.
Back in Delhi over the past week, he has shown a similar lack of preparation and consistency in his criticism of France’s controversial Rafale fighter jets deal, and his unexplained allegations that the “biggest aim” of Modi’s demonetization was “to help 15-20 crony capitalists,” saying “Noseband is nothing less than a huge scam”.
This is not an argument about whether Gandhi will, or could be, the next Prime Minister, but how the leader of the Congress party ought to be well briefed and prepared so that his wide range of mostly sound ideas carry weight rather than triggering controversy.
John Elliott is Asia Sentinel’s Delhi Correspondent. He blogs at http://www.ridingtheelephant.com. A shorter version appeared as the “By Invitation” column on the “Sunday Times of India” opinion page