Statements are Not Narrative

Congress leader Rahul Gandhi delivering a lecture at Cambridge Judge Business School as a Visiting Fellow early this month

Rahul Gandhi has shown some assertiveness about pursuing an inclusive political agenda, but a proper ideological narrative is far from taking shape 

CONGRESS leader Rahul Gandhi’s remarks in London have become a topic of intense media and political discourse within the country. Gandhi is accused of seeking international intervention to arrest the alleged democratic backsliding in India, something he has denied doing. Clarifying his position recently before the parliamentary advisory committee chaired by Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) S Jaishankar, Gandhi said he had only “raised questions” about India’s democracy during his London interactions.  However, is this the issue that should have become a national topic of discussion over the course of a week or so? This is debatable.Gandhi did mention the erosion of democracy in India in his meetings in the British capital, but when asked directly if he wanted international pressure to make the Indian government uphold democratic standards, he flatly denied it.

The facts, however, don’t usually come in the way of a political debate. Or for that matter, in the way of a  media debate. More so, in an era, when such debates are not organic, evolving naturally out of a day to day news cycle, but are carefully choreographed and pushed to the centre stage. Intrinsic truth doesn’t matter. What matters is what twist you want to give it by pushing a certain narrative determinedly across all available media over a certain period of time. And this ,by and large, invariably succeeds in manipulating public opinion in sync with intended goals. So, it is immaterial what Gandhi said or didn’t say. Yet it is also true that his remarks in London provided a tempting opportunity for the BJP to twist them to make a convenient political argument.

Who prevailed this round of the political battle royale between the BJP and the Congress? Any off-hand conclusion will be a self-fulfilling prophecy.  But, yes, a government has always an edge as it exercises a certain degree of control over institutions, including over media. It can get a certain message across to a largest mass of people. This makes opposition a loser from the word go. Yet some imponderables can still nuance the situation: for example, how people process the information fed to them and whether they want or are able to critically assess it. And this does happen occasionally In 2003, the then prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee lost general election despite his popularity and the blitzkrieg of Shining India campaign.

Rahul Gandhi at Ambedkar House London on his recent visit

That said, a lot is at stake for both parties in the run up to the 2024 national elections.  And the BJP expectedly seems to be way ahead of Congress. The saffron party’s effort now seems to undo what Gandhi may have gained during his 4000 kilometre long padyatra. True, the yatra seems to have breathed new life into an otherwise moribund party. Gandhi drew reasonably good crowds. But mobilizing crowds doesn’t necessarily guarantee a good electoral performance as was clear in the last Assembly polls in Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh, where Congress performed miserably in the former state,

There will be more tests ahead. Around ten Assembly elections are scheduled to be held before the general elections. Among them, the elections in Karnataka, Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Telengana will be very crucial. The BJP will hope to win all of them. But should the party suffer reverses in the majority of these states, this may not bode well for its 2024 chances. The elections in these five major states represent the last chance for the opposition, especially Congress,  to hurtle back into the reckoning. For now, the party can take heart from the victory in Himachal.  It can put some wind in its sails as it prepares for the upcoming Assembly elections.

As for Gandhi’s makeover, it still seems to be a work in progress. Many political observers remain skeptical about his ability to generate a public groundswell in favour of the Congress.  And they may be right. A year ahead of the general elections, Congress activities show little promise. Gandhi’s yatras and speeches have so far only served to promote his image as a good boy. His  statements are largely about some of the BJP’s governance failures, not about the overarching ideological challenge posed by the saffron party. Hence the persisting absence of a cogent political narrative.

Will the tide turn now? It is difficult to tell. The yatra has certainly generated some goodwill, and things look potentially set for a change. Congress has finally shown some assertiveness about pursuing an inclusive political agenda, but a proper ideological narrative is far from taking shape. So is the unity of the opposition, which is critical to any political effort to dislodge the BJP.  As things stand, only a combined opposition could be expected to take on the BJP. Gandhi has also been trying to forge opposition unity, but there are only feeble indications that he has had any success in this endeavour. It won’t be easy to bring all the opposition parties together on one platform, especially, with several regional leaders nursing their personal ambitions. But for now, Congress can bank on the gains of Gandhi’s successful yatra and hope to build on them.  There’s also an expectation that some sort of loose political alliance comes along in the near future.  And if it doesn’t and Congress also fares badly in the upcoming assembly elections in some major states where it boasts of a significant support base, then there is little that can stop the BJP from returning to power.

  • Views expressed in the article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the editorial stance of Kashmir Observer

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Riyaz Wani

Riyaz Wani is the Political Editor at Kashmir Observer

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