Rahul Gandhi, the politician India loves to loathe

Congress party supporters hold placards with the face of Rahul Gandhi during a rally in Chennai, India on March 28. (Arun Sankar/AFP/Getty Images)
Congress party supporters hold placards with the face of Rahul Gandhi during a rally in Chennai, India on March 28. (Arun Sankar/AFP/Getty Images)

In a quiet corner of Twitter, away from the din of trolls and paid trends, someone shared a video showing a girl on the street, standing with her mother wearing a hijab, waving a rose at the motorcade of Rahul Gandhi, India’s de facto opposition leader and the former president of the Indian National Congress party. Unlike what is expected of politicians when they are not within range of a television camera, Gandhi, 50, is seen stopping the car as his guards surround him to take the rose from the young girl.

It was a rare moment of grace in Indian politics. Sadly, Gandhi has not convinced most Indians that compassion and empathy are the qualities our leaders should demonstrate. As the country continues to slide toward authoritarianism under Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Gandhi is struggling to present himself as the real alternative to a divisive and toxic administration.

To be sure, Gandhi has been making the right noises. He has criticized Modi’s dismal mishandling of the pandemic (the country is facing severe vaccine shortages and record numbers of coronavirus infections), has been consistently vocal about the fascism enabled by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) party, the ideological fountainhead of the governing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), and has spoken up on international forums about the decline of India’s democracy.

When a young Dalit girl was gang-raped in Hathras, in Uttar Pradesh, Gandhi called for justice for her and her family. He has also decried the government’s relentless attacks on the media and the judiciary, institutions that have guarded Indian democracy for decades.

For years Gandhi has also led a spirited campaign against corruption in the acquisition of Rafale jets from France in 2016. Recently his campaign gained credence when an investigation by a French publication alleged that the jet manufacturer agreed to pay 1 million euros to an Indian middleman just after the signing of the contract.

But despite his principled stands and justified criticisms, Gandhi is the constant subject of mockery in India’s urban living rooms, where the Modi PR blitzkrieg that labeled him a “pappu” (Hindi for an idiot) has found a receptive audience.

Many people still see Gandhi as an elitist politician who does not mean business. When he is not being ridiculed for being single and unmarried in family WhatsApp groups, he is criticized for his sudden disappearances and unannounced vacations after every electoral defeat.

A senior Congress leader who has worked closely with Gandhi’s mother, Sonia Gandhi, the current Congress president, told me that he finds Rahul Gandhi a well-meaning man but that his politics are often dictated by his moods. He said his inner circle also shields him from the real world. “His heart is in the right place, but politics needs a 24/7 politician; it needs you to get your hands dirty, it needs you to be consistent in your fight,” the Congress leader told me.

There’s some truth to this criticism of Gandhi. While he has remained a thorn on Modi’s side — effectively pointing out the slow procurement of vaccines or the shamefully high rate of covid-19 infections — India is in urgent need of an opposition who could take on the prime minister head on every single day and demand accountability for leading the country into an abyss.

The helplessness is palpable — the prime minister has no vision for the country and has been incapable of delivering on his promises. This has been made apparent not just by his inept handling of the farmers’ protest, but also in the ill-planned demonetization that led to a massive economic strain on the poor.

And yet, Gandhi has not been able to channel the diverse voices of dissent and give hope to those who feel excluded and forgotten. Gandhi’s popularity is nowhere close to that Modi’s. India’s youth do not find him inspiring enough because he is too “Anglicized” — he is seen as closer to intellectuals and economists than to the average Indian citizen.

Despite his engaging conversations with world leaders on global economy, many back home believe he is ill equipped to take on Modi’s fraught economic programs. Indian economist Kaushik Basu begs to differ. “I believe his economic intentions are right. He believes in economic growth but growth that is inclusive and good for ordinary people. Does he know how to achieve these ends? Maybe not but he has the advantage of knowing what he does not know.”

Twitter trends routinely diss him as a loser. He is a constant target of stand-up comedians and college students who resent him for failing to embody a real alternative against Modi, whose nationalistic and dictatorial government presents a real threat to religious minorities, the lower caste and farmers. When it comes to taking a strong stand, Gandhi has faltered. For example, he did not show up to the Shaheen Bagh protests in Delhi, led by Muslim women against the discriminatory Citizenship Act.

As India’s democracy deteriorates under Modi’s relentless attacks, as journalists are censored and TV stations bend over backward to please the government, and as nationalism and majoritarianism remain on the rise, India needs an opposition with a resolute moral conviction.

Gandhi’s political positions often lack clarity, and this stands in strong contradiction to Modi’s strongman style. Gandhi’s heart and ideological leanings might be in the right place, but unfortunately, he has not risen to the challenge. He represents a faltering and diffuse opposition that is no match for a country where the politics of hate and polarization have become the more acceptable model.

Rana Ayyub is an Indian journalist and author of “Gujarat Files: Anatomy of a Cover Up.”

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