Rahul Gandhi has made the most impressive speech of his parliamentary career during a no-confidence motion debate in the Indian Parliament, but diluted the serious impact by winking at a fellow Congress MP and laughing after he had astonished the house by breaking convention and crossing the floor to hug Narendra Modi.
Gandhi hit at key negative points in the government’s record ranging from the plight of farmers and broken promises made to them and others, to a spate of countrywide lynchings. He also criticized Modi’s handling of relations with China and alleged corruption on both a French Rafale fighter jet contract and the business activities of the son of Amit Shah, Modi’s henchman and president of the Bharatiya Janata Party.
It was a powerful condemnation of Modi’s leadership and it built up Gandhi’s reputation as a serious politician, but his theatrics at the end enabled government supporters to condemn him for a “comedy show.” The BJP tweeted: “We cannot thank you enough for the entertainment!”
The impression that Gandhi created is important because he needs, at the age of 47, to establish himself as a serious politician and potential prime minister now that he has taken over from his mother Sonia as the Congress president.
Jockeying to Lead Opposition
No one yet knows who will lead the opposition in the general election that is due in nine months’ time. There are attempts to unite the opposition, which comprises mostly regional parties plus the communist CPI(M), but there is no apparent leader. Gandhi has little visible support outside his own party, though he has said he would be ready to become prime minister if Congress (improbably) wins the most votes. This indicated he would not follow the lead of his mother, who passed the job to Manmohan Singh in 2004.
A Gandhi wink
The no-confidence motion was tabled by the Telegu Desam Party (TDP), an Andhra Pradesh regional party, that recently broke away from the BJP’s coalition because the government broke a promise to give the state special development-enhancing status.
Andhra’s development issues were however lost in what eventually became a Gandhi vs Modi contest, with Modi making a long 90-minute boring speech listing the government’s alleged achievements.
The government won the vote by an expected large margin – 325 votes against 126 – but the opposition, and especially Congress, succeeded in staging the high-profile debate.
‘Acting out of Fear’
Most of Gandhi’s speech, which lasted for more than an hour, was in Hindi, but he dramatically switched to English when he said that Modi and Shah could “not afford to lose power because if they did, many forces will turn against them.” They therefore acted “out of fear and that fear causes anger.” The whole of the country felt that anger as they tried “to silence every voice in India.”
This direct attack on the ethics and behavior of the country’s two most powerful politicians echoed the view of critics who say that the BJP is running a harsh regime aimed at turning India into primarily a Hindu nation while, at the same time, refusing to criticize growing mob violence and killings.
Twenty-seven people have reportedly been killed in the past two months in lynchings linked to vigilantism whipped up by WhatsApp fake rumors, some over cow slaughter and others over suspected child abductions. Modi, said Gandhi, had failed to condemn the lynchings.
Attacking Modi’s record on stemming corruption, which the prime minister portrays as a major success area, Gandhi said that Modi worked for “10-20 big businessmen” and had “no place in the heart for weak people.”
In an attack on Amit Shah’s son, Jay Shah, Gandhi said that “Modi’s friend’s son’s property has increased 1,600 times” since the election and asked why Modi had been silent despite widespread media allegations.
He then accused Nirmala Sitharaman, the defense minister, of “speaking untruth” in parliament when she said that the terms of a contract for 36 Rafale fighter jets was confidential, so she could not reveal the price.
The deal was struck by Modi on a visit to Paris in April 2015, when his accompanying businessmen included Anil Ambani, head of one of India’s two Reliance groups, who has a stake in defense manufacturing and stands to benefit from the deal. Congress alleges that the contract, which was finalized on a government-to-government basis without open tendering, was corrupt and it wants the price revealed. Gandhi said that French President Emmanuel Macron had told him he had “no issues in making the cost public.”
Sitharaman then made a statement in parliament during Gandhi’s speech and produced documents that she said proved the need for secrecy. The allegation had clearly rattled the government because, presumably at Sitharaman’s request, the French embassy in Delhi later issued a statement saying the two countries were bound to “protect the classified information….that could impact security and operational capabilities of the defense equipment.” That statement however did not seem to include the price of the aircraft.
Returning at the end of his speech to Modi’s style and Hindu nationalism, Gandhi said, “You can abuse me, you can call me Pappu (dumb kid), but I don’t have a speck of hatred against you. I will take out this hatred out of you and turn it into love. I am the Congress…. to be a Hindustani, to be a Hindu, means to love somebody even if they attack you.”
He then walked quickly across and embraced Modi, who is known for bear-hugging other country’s leaders. Initially visibly startled, Modi then caught Gandhi’s sleeve as he walked away and spoke to him, patting his back.
Up to that point, Gandhi had made his point and maybe had indicated that Congress’s main plank for the coming general election will be that India and Hinduism mean love against hate.
He spoiled the moment when, back in his seat, the television cameras caught him winking at Jyotiraditya Scindia, a friendly ally and adviser, who was sitting next to him, and laughed. What could have been a significant and maybe even impromptu moment looked like a pre-planned stunt.
Modi dismissed it, joking that it was an attempt to get him out go his prime ministerial seat so that Rahul could move in.
John Elliott is Asia Sentinel’s Delhi correspondent. He blogs at Riding the Elephant.