Rahul lacked finesse, media locked in echo chamber

Last Updated: Sat, Sep 28, 2013 10:46 hrs

Tempting as it is for the breathless 24/7 TV talking heads and anchors to spin it, Congress Party vice president Rahul Gandhi's damning indictment of the Indian government will have next to no impact on Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's various diplomatic engagements in the United States.

The Indian media has focused on how Gandhi's unvarnished rejection of the Singh government's ordinance to protect convicted lawmakers came as a deep embarrassment even as he prepared to meet President Barack Obama on Friday. Gandhi's comments were said to have the potential to undermine Singh's meeting with the US president.

Those who offer such analysis willfully disregard the fact that the interlocutors are all seasoned politicians accustomed to the capricious nature of realpolitik. Obama, in particular, has frequently endured barbs and taunts far more demeaning and personal from his Republican Party detractors than what Singh has had to. Obama, perhaps more than anyone else, understands the exigencies of politics and knows better than to make his judgments influenced by such events.

Beyond that, it is a bit laughable to think that the White House would calibrate how the president should treat the leader of a country it regards as its most defining strategic partner on the basis of a political sideshow in New Delhi. Sure, from the Indian prime minister's standpoint Gandhi could have chosen a less inopportune time to let himself lose. That said, this little piece of political theatre would have no currency in Washington.

There are also comments about how Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif might meet Dr. Singh with decidedly lower expectations because he now stands diminished by Gandhi. Those who offer such perspectives forget that Sharif comes from Pakistan, where leaders are routinely packed off abroad into exiles and brought back. Apart from Obama, if there is anyone else who might keenly understand the vagaries of politics it is Sharif.

The problem with such controversies is that they get tossed about in a large echo chamber where politicians and media professionals are locked in a near incestuous embrace. They both labour under the illusion that the echo chamber is the real world and keep talking to one another.

Perhaps a case could be made that Gandhi should have waited until Dr. Singh returned from his annual pilgrimage to the US., partly to attend the United Nations General Assembly in New York. On the other hand, it is not an issue that might make or mar the Singh government's credibility when it comes to foreign policy issues. Much as some in the media like it to have happened like that, one can be fairly certain that President Obama was not given a blow by blow account of what Gandhi was saying even as Dr. Singh was making his way to the White House. And once that briefing was over Obama decided to immediately scale down his level of interest in his visitor.

As for Sharif, it is entirely likely that his delegation has been made aware of this minor crisis but coming from a country where they have such crises for breakfast, it is highly questionable whether the Pakistani prime minister too might take Dr. Singh less seriously because of it.

What has happened since the advent of the 24/7 broadcast media is that there are celebrity anchors who seem to revel in the superficialities of the moment without quite bothering to look at the larger picture.

Quite apart from all that, it is clear that Gandhi's construct was rather churlish and unbecoming of someone who has been projected to be India's next prime minister. It may have been representative of his youth but it was crafted in a manner that fell short of someone who has been reared in the rarefied world of power and privilege all his life. If the purpose was to reveal a politically rebellious and irreverent side of his, then it did not quite succeed other than sending news anchors slobbering to their chairs. Even if the comments were made out of genuine conviction - and it seemed they were - they were still lacking in finesse.

Perhaps the most unconvincing part was the attempt by Gandhi to cast himself as a nonconformist outsider when, in fact, in many ways he is the very definition of an insider to Delhi political gamesmanship.

Mayank Chhaya is a journalist and author based in Chicago. The views expressed are personal. He can be contacted at m@mayankchhaya.net

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