Congress vice president Rahul Gandhi on Monday lost yet another round in the battle for capturing the mindspace of the electorate ahead of the 2014 elections, says Saroj Nagi.
Amethi's member of Parliament failed to use his first formal television interview to reach out to the people in general and the electorate in particular ahead of the crucial elections in which the Congress has already been written off by opinion polls and surveys.
He did little to change that impression by failing to exploit the platform provided to him.
He turned in a flop show.
The Rahul who seemed charged up at the All India Congress Committee session earlier this month, where he was speaking to his own audience, seemed like another person in his Monday interview.
He looked nervous, uncomfortable and ill-at-ease. He came ill-prepared for the gruelling session where the lack of preparation showed up. He fumbled, went into long pauses and appeared to be trying to get his thoughts together.
Instead of taking them on the chin, he tried to sidestep and avoid inconvenient and specific questions, virtually dubbing them as superficial and peripheral whether it was about punishing corrupt Congressmen such as Ashok Chavan, who had to quit as Maharashtra chief minister over the Adarsh housing scam, or Virbhadra Singh who stepped down as Union minister in a cloud of controversy only to become the Himachal chief minister.
For a man who has repeatedly claimed -- he did it umpteen times in the interview -- that he is focused on fundamental issues, Rahul did not display the freshness that should stem from it.
He came across not as a leader who has the courage to admit his errors and proceed from there, whether it was with regard to the 1984 riots or his conspicuous and prolonged silence on scandals ranging from 2G to coal-gate which had even reached the doorstep of the prime minister’s office or his failure till recently to intervene on issues like price rise which impinge of every common man.
Instead, the Congress vice president chose to dwell on generalities and his long-term vision for the party and the country’s politics, claiming that he was in politics for the deeper reason of fundamentally transforming and changing the system by bringing in youths, empowering women and giving a voice to the people at the ground level.
All this would have been considered well-said but for the fact that it was said far too often in the interview, thereby giving the impression that the Nehru-Gandhi scion -- who his party would want as prime minister if the United Progressive Alliance were to win in 2014 -- was trying to stall and block queries that threatened to put him in the dock.
And even where he made some admissions -- for instance of "some" Congressmen perhaps being involved in the 1984 riots, it was because he had his back to the wall, with little chance of an escape route. An admission at the outset would have won him points for showing the courage to own up to one of the darkest chapters in the Congress history. Being forced to admit to it, showed the Congress vice president in poor light.
Half a leader
The leader, whose single point agenda is to transform the system, has failed to transform himself.
Indeed, he came across as half a leader. Quite unlike his mother Sonia Gandhi.
The Congress president -- who was ridiculed for being a "reader" rather than a leader because she would read out her speeches at rallies and in Parliament -- did not go on the defensive when she was quizzed about it in her interview. "But it is right," she said with an innocence that disarmed her critics and uplifted the mood of her cadres.
Rahul, on the other hand, is defensive when it comes to the issue of his dynastic origins, specially with the BJP’s prime ministerial nominee Narendra Modi rubbing it in by dubbing him "shehzada" (prince). More so, since the rise of the leader who has been trying to broad-base and democratise the Youth Congress and the National Students Union of India and make it merit and performance oriented -- has been meteoric.
From an MP, he has risen to be party general secretary, party vice president and now the campaign committee chief for the 2014 elections, notwithstanding his failure to revive the organisation in key states such as Uttar Pradesh (despite getting 21 parliamentary seats in the state in 2009), Bihar, Tamil Nadu or West Bengal which together account for 201 of the 543 elective seats in the Lok Sabha.
The famous Gandhi charisma was nowhere in sight in the recent assembly polls which the Congress lost miserably to the Bharatiya Janata Party and the newbie Aam Aadmi Party.
Learner till date
After 10 years in active politics, Rahul remains a learner till date. A leader with a decade of experience behind him would have dismissed the question of a debate with Narendra Modi as misplaced in a parliamentary democracy and more in line with a presidential system. Instead, Rahul waffled.
If he came into his own, it was on two counts: one, when he spoke of transforming the system and invoked radical legislations such as the Lokpal and the Right to Information, which he would want to extend to other bodies like the judiciary; and two, when he took on Modi over the Gujarat riots and drew a distinction between 1984 where the government, he claimed, tried to stop the anti-Sikh riots and 2002 where, he alleged, the Modi government aided and abetted the riots.
But even here he faltered, visibly flummoxed when confronted with the question that the courts had given the chief minister a clean chit.
The one takeaway from all this for Rahul is that he needs to go in for more such one-on-one formal interactions if only to gain practice on how to deal with questions and come up with the right answers.
Clearly, stepping out for formal media interactions only when elections are round the corner is not such a good idea.
Saroj Nagi is a senior journalist based in Delhi.