Irreverent commentators in India may have designated Rahul Gandhi
the Pappu (little boy) of Indian politics, an inadequate and slightly comic challenger to Narendra Modi, Bharatiya Janata Party’s talismanic leader. When he makes formal public appearances overseas, however, foreign governments have to take him more seriously and assess him in his capacity as the president of the Congress, the country’s most significant opposition party. In that sense, such platforms offer him a good opportunity to enhance his credibility. In the past, in the US and Singapore, he had displayed poise and charm in fending off questions about his dynastic credentials. Perhaps it is an indication of the stress of impending parliamentary elections in 2019 that his performance in Europe last week did neither him nor his cause any favours.
A gathering of non-resident Indians and foreigners in Hamburg, Germany, would have been an opportune occasion for spelling out the agenda of his party or that of the Opposition coalition that he purports to head. Instead, Mr Gandhi chose to focus on the failures of the Modi government — demonetisation, the hasty implementation of the Goods and Services Tax (GST), the lack of job creation. Then, he went on to link the outbreak of lynchings to growing unemployment and equate this trend to the rise of the Islamic State. In London, he doubled down on this erratic performance by, first, comparing the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) to the Muslim Brotherhood, insisting that the Congress
was not involved in the 1984 anti-Sikh riots, and asserting, without corroborating evidence, that Chinese troops are still present on Bhutan’s Doklam plateau.
Several issues arise from these varied, freewheeling pronouncements. It is nobody’s case that demonetisation, GST or job creation are this government’s successes, nor is the record of lynchings of Muslims and Dalits under this regime something that Indians would speak of with pride. But is it acceptable for Mr Gandhi to criticise the Indian government on foreign soil? His and his party’s contention that Mr Modi has done the same to the Congress
in the past is neither here nor there; one wrong does not justify another. In fact, by emulating an opponent’s unethical practices — that too someone he is seeking to discredit — Mr Gandhi has only emphasised his own callowness, the quality he struggles to overcome in domestic politics.
Mr Gandhi would also have done better to acquaint himself with some basic facts before he made sweeping pronouncements. To deny the Congress’ role in the 1984 riots ignores not just serial verdicts by the Indian judicial system but also the apology in Parliament by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh
in 2011 — not so long ago for the 48-year-old Congress
president to have forgotten. Moreover, allegations linking the RSS to the Muslim Brotherhood
betray an embarrassing ignorance about the provenance of the two organisations and their objectives. Third, he levelled serious allegations against the government’s foreign policy — just after claiming that he lacked the details to explain how he would have handled the Doklam crisis differently. One can only imagine his experienced colleagues in the Congress
and in the Opposition coalition cringing at this performance. Mr Gandhi’s claim as a credible future prime ministerial candidate looks uncertain indeed.