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Nothing to say? Have a cigar


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I CAN’T claim to know why Rahul Gandhi doesn’t speak in public as often as his supporters expect him to but he makes me think of my Uncle Jafri from Karachi.

A prosperous businessman and a reticent conversationalist, Uncle Jafri often found himself at a loose end in the midst of his Indian relatives in Delhi. They would be discussing Sheila Bhatia’s new play or Sheila Dhar’s latest take on Begum Akhtar’s jibe from the stage at an unsuspecting listener. A line from Neruda on Chile could divine Nehru’s assault on the Telangana struggle.

Uncle Jafri sat with an unlit cigar in his mouth through it all. He tried hard not to look disinterested. The unlit cigar made the inaction seamless and uncontrived. Did the silence indicate ignorance, or was it evidence of a good listener? It was hard to tell.

Rahul Gandhi’s apparent lack of involvement in any public discourse worries those who may have to choose between him and Narendra Modi if that is what the race for the top job boils down to. I have seen him feverishly working out in the gym. What about the intellectual prowess needed to run a complex country like India?

His latest outing was in Delhi on Sunday. A huge Congress party rally seemed to confirm him as Manmohan Singh’s most likely successor, provided the party got its sums right by 2014.

And what did he tell his teeming supporters? Foreign direct investments (FDI) in multi-brand retail trade was good for the country. The country is still debating the pros and cons of inviting foreign capital in the socially sensitive retail sector.

He could have joined the debate or explained why he is right, but Rahul chose to issue a fiat at a public rally. And then he went on to link it all up with the Kargil war. “We helped you in the Kargil war and now you should help us with FDI”.

This is more or less what he told his principal rivals, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Now, I can understand the Americans seeking a quid pro quo with the BJP on that, but Rahul?

It was Bill Clinton, if you remember, who got mobbed and cheered by Indian MPs when he took them into confidence about how he had helped India evict Pakistani troops from Kargil’s strategic heights.

The Americans want Wal-Mart to spread its business in India and that is what the FDI issue is really all about. Perhaps Rahul was signalling to the world’s powerful nations his political faith in the free market, something that Third World leaders are often required to affirm before being entrusted with the levers of power?

The Congress party was almost invincible when it had the unbridled support of lowly Dalits and impoverished Muslims. After Indira Gandhi’s death both the communities fled the coop. The result was earthshaking for Indian politics.

Following the huge surge of sympathy her son got in the 1984 polls, the era of single-party rule ended in India. The unleashing of a new energy among middle caste Hindus via a job reservations bill further unsettled the political arithmetic.

The BJP and the Congress are the two main upper caste parties in the fray. It means that for sheer survival they need to look for support, or even poach if necessary, from the lower layers of the social heap. Communalism is one of the tools at their disposal.

The BJP commandeered unsuspecting Dalits and tribes-people to pit them against the lowest layers of Muslims in Gujarat. The Congress pitted the hapless Bodo tribes-people against the dispossessed Muslims in Assam. A similar plot is getting unveiled in Uttar Pradesh and there is no knowing where all it might surface before the next elections.

It is not that Rahul Gandhi has not been trying to woo the Dalit voters back to the Congress fold, but there is little evidence of success. On one occasion he took a British foreign secretary to a Dalit home in his rural constituency where he was given a cot to spend the night on. There is no indication that he has a strategy to win Muslims over. He may not need one.

Muslims, Rahul Gandhi’s advisers may calculate, would in any case flock back if the BJP puts up a candidate like Narendra Modi. It’s hard to believe, but Rahul Gandhi’s safest bet today seems to be Modi’s candidature for the top job. But Modi is himself a shrewd man. He has put up a record number of three Muslim candidates for the Gujarat assembly polls next month.

The Karachi session of the Congress had dreamt the dream of India’s tryst with socialism in 1931. Sunday’s rally in Delhi signalled the last nail in the coffin of that dream. As for secularism, Rahul Gandhi has to decide if he wants to continue be the BJP’s ‘B’ team.

In 2004, after the Congress assembled a workable coalition, he declared the BJP ‘a joke’ with a one-point agenda of insulting his family. This was when memories of the Gujarat pogrom were still reverberating across the country. BJP a joke?

Then, apropos of nothing really, on his walk through Moradabad during an election in Uttar Pradesh he declared: “My grandmother broke Pakistan into two.” Had the comment got him even two extra votes he should be declared a great political strategist. In the absence of any such evidence, the Gandhi scion should usefully learn a lesson or two from Uncle Jafri.

The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Delhi.

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The views expressed by this writer and commenters below do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.

Comments (12) Closed

Rajeev Nidumolu Nov 08, 2012 01:58pm
Decline of congress happened because of it became a family business incapable of allowing talented Congress politicians to become its leaders. It has attracted into into its ranks other business political families whose sole reason to be in the party are business interests with marketable brand name Nehru-Gandhi family in the front .
G.A. Nov 08, 2012 01:32pm
What? India had to seek nothing less than Super Power help to dislodge a handful of Pakistani troops?
Cyrus Howell Nov 08, 2012 06:54am
Every good businessman is a good listener.
Ahmer Nov 08, 2012 06:36am
Can someone please try to explain in simple English what the author is trying to say?
gir na Nov 08, 2012 04:41am
Yes , He would get some extra votes.
Yowar Nov 08, 2012 12:38pm
He's saying that Rahul should keep quiet if he has nothing useful to say. Perhaps the author shoul practice what he preaches.
raika45 Nov 08, 2012 12:38pm
You have not being paying attention reading the column.The writer is talking about people like Sheila Bhatia and her new play,Sheila Dhar and her comments. Ever heard of them?This is the hoity toity of the upper class.Uncle Jafri most probably like us of the ordinary class is so confused by this talk, that he forgets to light his cigar.Rahul Gandhi the "dud" of the Gandhi family is thrown in to make the topic longer.
Agha Ata (USA) Nov 08, 2012 08:47pm
Salesmen don't listen at all. :)
Mohammad Khan Nov 08, 2012 04:19pm
I thought several times not to waste my time to coment on Javed's article, but seems I have to. Let me tell you in less words that he is just wasting his time, if earning good from these craps, then surely wasting readers time. He has no idea what he is talking about and there is no link between start and the end of article. My point is does Dawn not have some better writers and than him? Does quality hs gone down so much. I really used to like dawn, but now with this kind of frequent articles parimarily from Javed; it seems wastage of my time.
malaydeb Nov 08, 2012 09:28pm
He will let you know, when he himself finds the answer.
malaydeb Nov 08, 2012 09:49pm
The biggest lie here is that in Assam congress is behind the Bodo tribals. Congress supports Muslim groups in Asssam, 'cause without Muslim support they can't have the majority in the state assembly. There is an article in today's Dawn. It will be interesting to read that one along with this one. People try to draw a sort of moral equivalence when there is no moral equivalence.
Shri Nov 08, 2012 04:47pm
No advice to Rahul Gandhi will work. Political wisdom is something that either you have it or you don't have it. And Rahul Gandhi doesn't have it. Unlike uncle Jafri from Karachi, keeping quiet doesn't work in politics. Congress should try Priyanka Gandhi instead. Narender Modi will streamroll Congress at national level,just like he did in Gujrat, if Congress doesn't have a smart leadership.