Did Brand Narendra Modi take a beating during the no-confidence debate in Parliament on July 20? It certainly did, although BJP leaders are won’t to declare that at the end of the day their party won the vote with an ‘impressive’ 325 Ayes to the Opposition’s 126 Noes. But that victory -- a foregone conclusion much before the voting took place -- is being touted only to camouflage the insecurity that has crept into the party. An insecurity that has been precipitated by the fact that its trump card - the unassailable leader with unmatched oratory - had been upstaged by an ‘upstart’ it had dismissed till the other day as a “Pappu” (dumb kid).
Indeed, like a rock star taking stage at the end of a day when a lesser mortal had already hogged the limelight, Narendra Modi tried very hard to bedazzle his audience. But his laboured 90-minute speech -- during which he read extensively from prepared bureaucratic notes -- had nothing new to offer. His bitter tirade against the Congress and the Nehru-Gandhi family was along oft-repeated lines; his trademark vitriolic humour and jibes did not pack the punch; his boast of `vikas’ and of India being an economic superpower lacked conviction and the data he dished out were the very ones that had already been dissected and disputed; his defence of the controversial Rafale jet fighter deal fell very short of providing any clarity. In short, Modi’s performance was lacklustre and sorely short of panache and substance -- like cola minus the fizz.
What had unnerved the Prime Minister and robbed him off his confidence and cool was Congress President Rahul Gandhi -- the perennial Pappu in the eyes of BJP, the Sangh Parivar and sections of the media. Earlier in the day, he had pulled off a surprise by not only launching a frontal and personal attack on the Prime Minister, but by also raising governance issues which touched a raw nerve. These included: making false claims and tall promises; blatant promotion of crony capitalist friends; the negative impact of demonetisation and GST on the economy; rising unemployment; farmers’ distress; encouragement of hate politics; marginalisation of the poor and the plight of Dalits and tribals.
While Rahul Gandhi’s detractors may fault him for not coming to Parliament armed with conclusive proof to substantiate his allegations, it is not as if Modi’s several claims of progress were backed by irrefutable validation. Moreover, politics in the television age, as any seasoned neta will tell you, is all about optics and perception and Rahul Gandhi scored on both counts because he came through as far more honest and unassuming than the Prime Minister. In fact, his self-depreciating humour seemed to have struck a chord. Rahul also had something to say and articulated his thoughts with a clarity that surprised many in the treasury benches who half expected the Congress President to bumble along.
But that did not happen. Instead came a very sharp indictment of the government at the end of which Rahul Gandhi strode across to where the Prime Minister was seated and gave him a hug. It was a spontaneous and dramatic gesture that took the House by storm. Not only was it historic in that such an event had never happened during a no-confidence debate, but it also caught the unflappable Modi off guard.
The Congress President’s surprise gesture had more than one sub text. At one level it can be interpreted as a philosophical -- almost Gandhian -- act of loving and respecting someone who considers you his arch enemy. At another, it was an attempt to cock a snook at someone who prides himself in being all-powerful and a cut above the rest. It was almost akin to a member of the audience intruding into the dohyo (ring) and daring to tickle a Sumo wrestler.
Modi must have seen the move as an attempt to belittle him. Which is why he reacted so acerbically to Rahul Gandhi and his ailing mother during his reply to the no-confidence motion. His attack of the latter and mimicking her accent was in poor taste, not becoming of the high office he holds. Modi’s angst is understandable, given that the Prime Minister has taken great pains to cultivate the image of a supremo who is not easily accessible and feared even by senior leaders in his own party. His hugs and other gestures of friendliness, it is now common knowledge, are reserved exclusively for world leaders. So, who was this young man intruding into his dohyo?
But through that one act and his elocution Rahul seems to have ruffled feathers. That is what has unsettled the BJP and Narendra Modi. They suddenly see a serious challenger in the Congress President who proved he was no pushover. He demonstrated that he too could spring surprises and think out of the box. More importantly, he proved he was comfortable taking centre stage and could not be taken lightly anymore.
Rahul Gandhi’s performance in Parliament will come as a booster shot for Congress workers who have been waiting for years for their leader to come into his own. That process began during the assembly elections in Gujarat and has now come into full bloom. This portends well for the Congress as well as the Opposition as it gears up for the 2019 general elections.