Where is Rahul Gandhi? A tale of two ‘leaders’
While Rahul Gandhi continues to be trolled, the silence of the Prime Minister and his inept handling of the COVID crisis have begun to grate
“Where is Rahul Gandhi” is a rhetorical question India has heard umpteen number of times. It is only in the last few days that a handful of people have started asking ‘where is the Prime Minister’.
During the COVID pandemic, however, Rahul Gandhi has stayed on media headlines for repeatedly putting pressure on the government on various issues.
The very first case of coronavirus in India was reported on January 30, 2020, when three students returned to Kerala from Wuhan in China. Rahul Gandhi started speaking on the issue since February 12, when he first cautioned the government about the impending pandemic and asked them to take it seriously. In contrast, the PM hosted Donald Trump in Ahmedabad at the ‘Namaste Trump’ event on February 24 and showed little concern. Indeed, his cabinet colleague informed Parliament on March 18 that India did not anticipate any adverse impact on the Indian economy.
The same day, officials in the Union Health Ministry dismissed all talk of the pandemic causing a health emergency. Ironically, a total lockdown was imposed barely six days later. But the media’s and of course BJP’s constant refrain since then has been, ‘Where is Rahul Gandhi’!
Even in June the Home Minister asked, without taking Rahul Gandhi’s name, that while the Government might have made mistakes and fallen short of expectations, “what have they done”? Even more ironically for a Government which relies on foreign experts for virtually everything, the Home Minister tried taking a feeble dig at ‘opposition leaders’ (Read Rahul Gandhi) speak to Swedish experts in ‘English’. Mr Amit Shah, clearly, would have spoken to the Swedish expert in Gujarati. But then the question still hangs in the air. Where is Rahul Gandhi, prompting a columnist to quip that Rahul Gandhi must take responsibility and resign as prime minister!
Since February 12, via his Tweets and video statements Rahul Gandhi has flagged several issues, some long before the media. He has raised demands for rapid testing, cash transfers to migrant workers, transportation for those walking home and strategically unlocking the economy. BJP leaders mocked that they were strategically falling asleep. They could have been right !
Rahul Gandhi meanwhile held four media interactions online and answered questions posed to him. He consistently refused to criticise the Government, saying this was no time for either politics or a blame-game. But even as Prime Minister narendra Modi continues to ignore demands that he should address an unscripted press conference and answer questions, BJP leaders wondered if questions to Rahul Gandhi had been vetted in advance.
Rahul Gandhi also held six one on one conversations with subject matter experts like former RBI Governor Raghu Ram Rajan,Nobel Laureate Abhijit Banerjee, public health experts Ashish Jha and Johan Giesecke, industrialist Rajiv Bajaj and former US Ambassador to Greece Nicholas Burns on issues of health, economy and authoritarian leaders dividing people.
In spite of a total lockdown he also managed to meet a few migrant workers on the street and heard their pleas. Yet, a former diplomat in his debut opinion column this week ended up asking the same old question, “Where was Rahul Gandhi for days on end when common man's suffering played out?”
“Where is Rahul Gandhi” is a strange question to ask; unless the real objective is to hold those in power accountable and make them squirm by asking where are the official statements, the press conferences, the daily briefings on data, statistics, government policies and coping mechanism etc. Those are valid questions to ask. But when was the last time somebody asked PM Modi those questions?
The Prime Minister has not done half of the public activities that Rahul Gandhi has done during the COVID pandemic. Almost every nation has been holding daily press briefings; most state heads have been meeting the media regularly and directly leading the nation from the front. Even the PM’s ‘friend’ the US President takes questions from the media daily. But not the Indian PM.
Indian Government didn’t even make any official statement on COVID until around March 19, the day PM Modi addressed the nation for the first time, about forty days too late. As always, the PM has not faced the media and have stuck to one sided communications via TV/Radio.
On the issue of Chinese incursion too Modi is silent. Rahul Gandhi has been questioning the silence since May 29 but there is no response. Defence Minister Rajnath Singh and Home Minister Amit Shah made unofficial statements either mocking the opposition or making jingoistic claims but as Rahul Gandhi said on June 8, "The media is muzzled and terrified. The truth seems dormant.”
What kind of State head remains silent on the issue of territorial invasion by foreign forces? Where is that voice Modi had when he was in opposition and questioned the then Prime Minister’s diplomatic strategy on China? Where are those tall claims of showing red eyes to China? Which columnist asked these questions to Modi recently?
When Rahul Gandhi speaks to global experts it shows a leader’s respect for knowledge and academia, an ability to learn from others, to open discussions and collaborations. But liberal media is busy ridiculing him asking whether he wants to be a journalist now.
They do not however have the courage to mock the PM who asks citizens to bang plates in his first ever address on a global pandemic. PM’s first, second and third response to the global pandemic was both Kafkaesque and comic in the darkest sense. But a section in India has been busy laughing at Rahul Gandhi.
For over two decades, since the time Modi was suddenly made the Chief Minister of Gujarat without even contesting a local election, Modi has carefully crafted a God or Wizard like figure for himself. He cannot be seen or heard by mere mortals without a mediation. He is always ‘up there somewhere’, far away from ordinary folks – up on the stage, on TV, on web conferences, behind a Radio; even during natural calamity he looks down upon the lesser mortals through the window of his fancy jet.
From holding a broom for Swacch Bharat to photos with his mother, each and every public appearance of Mr. Modi is carefully orchestrated and choreographed as an event.Like the Wizard of Oz, whose large figure and strong voice mesmerised the audience from behind a curtain which hid a tiny ordinary man, there is always some kind of technological and psychological illusion and mystery surrounding Modi.
His workings are unexplained, there is no transparency in the government’s decisions, but his actions have terrible consequences. People will suffer and wail, they will die walking to their homes, standing at the ATM queue.
Meanwhile, Modi will not open himself to public scrutiny but appear on TV from time to time to give a sermon, to tell citizens that all suffering is either for their own good or for the nation’s. He will say “forgive me if I did any wrong,” but citizens don’t really know how to hold him accountable for his actions.
God is not accountable. You can wish and pray for the best, but not hold God accountable when things go downhill.
Rahul Gandhi on the other hand is no God, he is a people’s leader. Since 2004 when he joined formal politics he has journeyed across the length and breadth of India to join more people’s movements on the ground than Modi ever has. He has been seen, heard, touched, hugged from up close by thousands and thousands of ordinary people.
In 2008 he visited the Niyamgiri Hills in Odisha to join the tribals who were protesting against the Vedanta mining work and promised them to hear their cause. The UPA government kept the promise and in 2010 after the Vedanta project was rejected by the Centrehe went back to celebrate their victory.
In 2011 he dodged the police, got on a bike and reached the high tension area of Bhatta and Parsaul villages in UP where farmers had clashed with the police over land acquisition.
In 2015, he extended support and solidarity to FTII students by visiting the campus amidst protests. He also intervened on the issue of a ban on the Ambedkar Periyar Study Circle (APSC) at IIT Madras. Reportedly, the ban was revoked in June 2015 after he kicked up a Twitter storm.
In Feb 2016 Rahul sat in hunger strike along with students of Hyderabad Central University in memory of PhD Scholar Rohith Vemula; Within days of visiting HCU, he joined another student protest, this time in JNU by participating at the midnight protests and speaking to a cheering crowd.
In June 2017, farmers agitation in Mandsaur, Madhya Pradesh was met with police bullets and Rahul Gandhi soon rushed to meet the farmers but was detained at Rajasthan-MP border. He went back to MP in June 2018 to commemorate the farmer’s protests. In December 2018 Congress won the assembly elections in MP, on the main poll plank of farm loan waiver and agri-reforms and welfare.
Here is a case study on how a leader relentlessly walked the path alone even when his party workers were fatigued and depressed, till he gained people’s trust and votes (only to be eventually betrayed by one of his most trusted, that’s another story).
Rahul has been detained and arrested by the police for joining or attempting to join people’s protests again and again. In November 2016 he was detained thrice in two days, when he tried to meet the family of martyr Ram Kishan Grewal who committed suicide over One Rank One Pension campaign.
In 2018 he was detained for protesting in front of the CBI headquarters against the Centre’s midnight coup by which it removed both the warring CBI Chiefs. On 12th April, he held a spontaneous midnight candle light vigil at India Gate to seek justice for the Unnao rape survivor and the 8- year old Kashmiri tribal girl, who was raped and murdered in Kathua. Despite apprehensions of a low turnout from his own party leaders he went ahead with the vigil which was participated by thousands of ordinary people. News channels ran live footages till late at the night.
Here is a leader who had inspired his party workers and a section of the ordinary masses, and captured the imagination of the entire nation. One who started a movement and led it from the front.
Unlike Modi’s fables, Rahul Gandhi’s public activities of traversing wretched terrain, from dodgy potholes to the hot deserts on foot, by local trains, budget airlines, of nights spent in villages, eating with locals, meeting daily wage labourers, sanitation workers, rickshaw pullers and so on are all on public record. Yet the media, both right wing pro government ones and the liberal ones will never stop asking “where is Rahul Gandhi.”
In comparison, since 2001 how many people’s movement has Narendra Modi been part of? How many people have really seen or heard him without any kind of technological mediation? How many times he walked on foot to a rural area to meet the poorest of the poor? Why did the ‘Fakir’ in him fail to step out and speak to the migrant workers fleeing the national capital and ask what they wanted?
This democracy does not need a God or Wizard like figure anymore. We need answers and accountability from somebody of our own kind.