It is once again blanket coverage by every news channel worth its name and Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who just wound up his week-long sojourn in the US, is truly living up to the showman image that he created during his previous visit to that country. Though he did not create a West Coast equivalent of the New York Central Park jamboree, the rock star image has been kept alive by a Madison Square Garden moment at the SAP Centre in San Jose, frequent change of clothes - sometimes as many as four in a day - and his by-now familiar habit of diving into the name-chanting crowd at almost every function he attended in and around San Francisco.
India’s ever-hungry news channels have been wolfing down everything that Modi says or does and, to boot, have also contracted several noted entrepreneurs and retired diplomats to back up what each of them claim to have: “The best team covering Modi’s US visit.”
In all the hubbub over Modi’s meetings with the CEOs of Silicon Valley, the Town Hall Q&A with Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, the Digital India projections at Google’s headquarters and the “Start-Up Konnect” under the aegis of Nasscom, the Indian media simply forgot to even make a passing mention of another “important” visit  to the US by another important Indian politician, Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi. (I say important visit because that is how the Congress Party has described Gandhi’s travel to the US).
Randeep Singh Surjewala, chief spokesperson of the Congress, claimed that Gandhi has gone to America to attend the “Weekend with Charlie Rose” conference at the invitation of the organisers. Surjewala was at pains to describe how important a conference this was and how famous Charlie Rose is all over the world for his incisive questioning of political leaders and thinkers. Not many in India had heard much about Charlie Rose or the Aspen Conference before this, so it was just as well that Surjewala held forth to educate them.
Rumours, obviously inspired by the BJP, had it that this year’s ‘Weekend with Charlie Rose’ was already a done and dusted affair as early June. But this was countered by a photograph of Rahul Gandhi listening to someone in rapt attention at what looked like a conference as also a couple of snaps with British opposition politician Ed Miliband and the prime minister of Iceland. But in this day and age when photo-shopping has become more common than window shopping, you are not sure which one to believe - the photos or the rumour that the conference ended three months ago. Moreover, no news agency -print or electronic - carried anything about the conference, leave alone what Rahul Gandhi did or said at the meeting.
But since Gandhi has made a habit of taking off to foreign shores every now and then, there is little interest - or newsworthiness, if I may - on what the Congress Party’s vice-president does on such visits even if he finds himself on the same continent and country as the prime minister at the same time.
But what is of particular interest is the fact that Gandhi had gone away at a time when his party is in the throes of fighting a bitter internal battle between old-timers (read, loyalists of Sonia Gandhi) and the relatively young leaders who want to see the younger Gandhi anointed as party president. It is also interesting that Rahul Gandhi had left for America when the Congress Party has been relegated to the status of a lowly third-place player in the “grand coalition” that Nitish Kumar of the JD-U and Lalu Prasad Yadav of the RJD have forged ahead of the elections to the Bihar assembly. These are crucial elections for every party in the fray, especially so for the Congress which, after its washout in last year’s Delhi polls, could face extinction in the Hindi-speaking belt if it does not do well in Bihar.
The Congress has been a bit player in Bihar and Uttar Pradesh for the past several decades, but being a national party and in power at the Centre for most of this period, it did have a presence in these states, though not in their respective legislatures. But it was wiped out in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections in Bihar. A similar result in the assembly polls could drive the last few supporters into the fold of its rivals. Rahul Gandhi, who had proclaimed after last year’s electoral debacle that he was going to change the party like never before, should have been camping in Bihar from Day 1 to oversee the party’s battle readiness. Instead, he is away attending a conference that probably has little relevance to Bihar or India.
Modi, on the other hand, will not be deemed as missing in action in Bihar because, even if he is not there in flesh and blood, every Bihari who has access to a TV set would be watching and listening to him from far away San Francisco. And while addressing the Indian diaspora at SAP Centre, Modi did not forget to list the achievements of his 16-month-old regime even as he discredited, albeit indirectly, the first family of the Congress Party for its perceived corruption. The Congress is fuming over Modi’s remarks and is even dragging his 90-year-old mother into the political battle, but it can turn out to be counter-productive in electoral terms.
There is further trouble brewing for the Congress Party in Punjab which goes to polls next year. Former chief minister Amarinder Singh, who is now a member of the Lok Sabha, had boycotted the entire monsoon session of parliament to press for his demand to be made state party chief in place of incumbent Partap Singh Bajwa. Reports had emerged that if he does not get what he wanted, Amarinder could well cross over to the BJP which could then put him up as its chief ministerial candidate when the polls come around. Speculation is also rife that some senior leaders may walk out and form their own party if the Bihar elections don’t come up to expectations.
The Congress is a century old party and has seen many ups and downs, revolts and rebellions. But every time it had suffered, it had only emerged stronger after a subsequent election.
Correspondingly, with the exception of a few like Mamata Bannerjee and Sharad Pawar, not many people who rebelled have survived too long outside the party. Indira Gandhi decimated the Syndicate in the 1971 elections. Much later, leaders like Palaniappan Chidambaram and Pranab Mukherjee left the party only to return and V P Singh, despite managing to become prime minister, had an ignominious exit.
However, the difference between those times and the present in terms of a Congress revival is too stark to be missed. Indira Gandhi had an uncanny ability to sense the mood of the people, urban or rural. Sonia Gandhi, truth to tell, is not a patch on her mother-in-law. There are times when Sonia’s ‘Italianness’ still becomes apparent despite her best efforts. Indira Gandhi was always in control of situations and her oratorical skills were matched by a ruthlessness against anything and anyone that came in her way. Sonia Gandhi still cannot speak fluent Hindi, leave alone understand the various nuances of the language across states in the Hindi heartland. Lastly, but most importantly, Indira Gandhi never had to face an opponent like Narendra Modi whose oratory is perhaps right up there above all prime ministers before him.
As for Rahul Gandhi leading the party, the jury is still out. Forget oratory, forget vision, Rahul’s commitment to the party itself has been under a cloud. At best he is whimsical. He missed the entire budget session of parliament, came back from a 59-day sabbatical and promptly disrupted the entire monsoon session under some pretext or the other. And now when the party needs its leader to lead from the front in Bihar, he has flown away to a far off land to attend a conference that nobody in these parts had heard about. Surely the Grand Old Party of India deserves better!

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