Breaking fast and bread: Rahul Gandhi style
On August 2, Congress leader Rahul Gandhi chaired a meeting of leaders of 15 opposition parties for breakfast at New Delhi's Constitution Club meant for parliamentarians to discuss a joint strategy against the Modi government for the monsoon session of Parliament on the issues of the Pegasus spyware row, controversial farm laws and a sharp surge in fuel prices. On the table was a "sumptuous" platter. No less substantive was the political agenda at the meeting.
It was the third time in just about a week that Rahul chaired such meetings with like-minded opposition parties. The brief of the August 2 outreach exercise was not confined to firming up a common strategy against the government in Parliament. It went beyond that—how to unify the opposition against Modi for the next parliamentary elections in 2024.
The Congress Party's media managers lost no time to mount an exercise to project Rahul as the leader of a combined opposition who is ready to step up and take on the role of a unifier-in-chief in the fragmented opposition camp. The party took to Twitter to describe the August 2 meeting as "historic" and "this is the trailer for 2024."
The party's carefully-crafted image-building exercise for Rahul was supplemented by the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty's scion when he put out a video prepared by the party team of his meeting with the opposition leaders. It was a script for creating a perception that Rahul has found his mojo as the face of a joint opposition. It also aims at countering criticism both within the Congress and outside that Rahul shies away from challenges and responsibilities, particularly when the party is in dire straits. A few days before August 2, Rahul had chaired two meetings with opposition leaders and the Congress had sought to project such exercises as part of "project-Rahul-at-the heart of opposition unity."
Most importantly, the August 2 meeting is supposed to carry the message that Rahul is ready to take over from her aging and ailing mother Sonia Gandhi, the interim President of the Congress, not only as the head of the party, but also as the undisputed leader of the entire opposition. A notable fact about the August 2 meeting is that it saw Rahul breaking bread with the opposition without the presence of Sonia for the first time. Rahul himself quit as vice president of the party soon after the Congress' debacle in the 2019 parliamentary polls and has since then refused to reconsider it.
Not so long ago, the same Rahul was often criticised by the media for his not-so-infrequent "disappearing" acts during parliament sessions and the party's crises when the Congress needed him the most. According to India Today, Rahul's attendance in the budget session of Parliament was 54 percent, compared to the average of 80 percent for all Lok Sabha MPs. He did not attend a single sitting of the Lok Sabha last monsoon. But this monsoon sitting, he has not only been leading his party's charge against the government on the Pegasus snooping, but also on farm laws and fuel price issues. On the symbolism front, Rahul drove a tractor to Parliament in a show of solidarity with the agitating farmers protesting against the farm laws and then cycled his way from the Constitution Club to parliament after the breakfast meeting along with some other opposition leaders to protest against the fuel price hike.
Will Rahul be acceptable to the entire opposition like Sonia? That question remains to be answered. Unlike in the past, the Trinamool Congress, the fourth biggest party in the Lok Sabha with 22 lawmakers, attended the August 2 meeting, just a few days after Mamata Banerjee had met Sonia and Rahul in Delhi. It is an open secret in political circles that a number of veteran leaders like Mamata, Nationalist Congress President Sharad Pawar and Samajwadi Party founder Mulayam Singh Yadav have remained uncomfortable with sharing the dais or table with Rahul largely due to the generational gap and had been more at home with Sonia. Interestingly, Pawar, Mamata and Mulayam were not present at the August 2 meeting. Instead, their parties' representation at the meeting was downgraded by the presence of lower rung leaders. Even TMC floor leaders in the two Houses of parliament were not present in that meeting. Besides, Congress' political rivals like Bahujan Samaj Party in Uttar Pradesh, Aam Admi Party in Delhi and Janata Dal (Secular) (Congress former ally) in Karnataka stayed away from the August 2 meeting.
The Congress and the TMC have sought to project Rahul and Mamata respectively as occupying the pole position in an anti-BJP alliance. Both the parties face, in much starker forms, the onerous task of expanding their footprints across India that could give them an acceptable pan-India determining role in politics and bring the opposition parties together. The contours of opposition unity seem to be emerging after the Mamata-Sonia-Rahul meeting in Delhi recently. Close on the heels of that meeting, TMC leaders visited Agartala and poached on seven Tripura Congress leaders as part of the efforts by the Mamata-led party to spread its wings beyond the borders of Bengal with an eye on 2024.
Media reports also have it that some dissident leaders of CPI(M), which had ruled Tripura for years before being voted out by the BJP in 2018, are also eyed by the TMC as its potential recruits in Tripura in the run up to the 2023 assembly polls in that state.
Pallab Bhattacharya is a special correspondent for The Daily Star.