It seems that the news cannot get enough of the now famous “Hug” initiated by Rahul Gandhi in last week’s parliamentary session. Depending on which side of the fence one is on, the act is either a masterstroke, or yet another bumbling attempt at relevance. Many see it as a defining moment in current Indian politics, not to say anything about the image of Rahul himself. The most flattering comments are the ones comparing his seemingly affectionate act as something Mahatma Gandhi would have done.
Well I don’t like Mahatma Gandhi. Let me explain. I do admire Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi. It’s the “Mahatma” part I have a problem with. Deifying people, even exceptionally successful ones, strikes me as pandering to the worst aspects of our culture. This insistence on servile adoration is, in my view at least, a huge contributor to our political woes. For one thing, it takes away the idea of personal agency. The average citizen, fed on a steady diet of carefully curated accounts of great men and their great deeds, is led to believe that by virtue of being “average”, one couldn’t possibly make a real difference. “I’m no Gandhi/Caesar/MLK. I’m just a man.” Well, so were all those guys. Average people in difficult circumstances that found something in themselves. Something which allowed them to accomplish great deeds, one small action at a time. And none of them achieved anything alone.
By putting Gandhi on a pedestal and deifying him, we conveniently brush away the very flaws that made him human. Take his views on sex for instance, most of which were patently absurd. Even Nehru, one of his staunchest supporters, once commented that his ideas on the subject were “abnormal and unnatural” and “can only lead to frustration, inhibition, neurosis, and all manner of physical and nervous ills… I do not know why he is so obsessed by this problem of sex”. The same goes for his ideas on the economy. Or the role of religion in a person’s life. None of that should take away from the man’s towering achievements however. But in celebrating the “Mahatma”, it becomes impossible to relate to Mohandas. Gods and superheroes are hardly relatable. Besides, hide the flaws and any opponent will eventually use it as the linchpin of any attack on their respectability.
It is telling that every where you look today the story is all about the “hug”. Sure, it makes for great theater. Scripted or not, I will grudgingly confess that even my cynical heart warmed a little at seeing these two rivals shaking hands like good sports, even if said sport is something as twisted as politics. But lets not lose sight of the bigger picture. The real story is not the hug. It’s the questions. Questions on corruption and complicity, on lynchings and lies. That is the only thing should matter. The optics should not take precedence.
Rahul’s problem is not that he was born into privilege. Many others are guilty of that crime. India’s entire political structure hinges on blood-ties and favors. And though his gaffes remain a constant source of embarrassment, everyone I know that has actually met the man would swear blind that he is not stupid. No, his is a far worse crime. He is guilty of not being perfect. He is, in other words, too human.
He does not have the oratory skills of Nehru (neither does Modi but that doesn’t seem to matter as much). Unlike his opponent, he does not have the image of an idol towering over the very structure he’s supposed to serve. He is the likable guy. The silly cousin with a sense of humor. The college bud that tells you to take it easy and laugh more. And for some reason the electorate collectively decided all that negates him as someone that could ever lead.
I’ve spent a decade at sea, serving under captains of varying nationalities, ages and temperaments. No two were the same. Some were friendly. Some were tyrants. Some were soft spoken. Some were louder than a north sea gale. But they all got the job done. Some were better at it than others no doubt, but they were all, to a man, competent enough to get us through the storms. They were professional. In the end, it is the only thing that mattered.
Hugs or not, it is highly unlikely that Rahul is ever going to sound like Shashi Tharoor (let us be honest, that bar is ridiculously high). He will probably never possess the blinding charm of Obama. But he doesn’t need to. It would help, sure, but he doesn’t need to. Nor should we expect it. What we should expect, and outright demand, is exactly what he did before that piece of political theater. Take a stand, ask hard questions, don’t give in to bullying. Be a man. Just a man. Be human. Nothing more, nothing less. It’s all we really need.
Competence trumps image. If all the attacks leveled towards Rahul were directed at his competence, that would be a discussion worth having. But more than anything, he is a victim of character assassination. He doesn’t “look” the part, so he is vilified. His lack of charisma makes him an easy target. But like Angela Merkel (supposedly) said “You can’t solve tasks with charisma.”
People don’t like to believe that. I suspect that is because there is comfort in absolution. Taking responsibility is hard. Finding excuses is far easier. “It’s not my fault the country is a mess. I don’t engage in corruption. I follow the law. The guys in charge just need to get their heads out of their asses. I just live here.” For their part, politicians are happy to reinforce that message. So long as they convince the electorate that they are “needed” it gives them power, not to mention job security for life. If citizens discover their agency that honeymoon is over.
Ultimately, unfair as it is, this is our mess. We are in it now. There is no one coming to clean it up. No knights in shining armor, no heroes in capes, or politicians quoting Star Wars is going to fix this. It is going to take plain old boring humans. The “guys in charge” are enablers at best. Nothing more. To expect anything else in a democracy is suicidal. M.K. Gandhi was the father of the nation, fair enough, but he was in the end, just a man. Frail and flawed and human. So is everyone we (rightly) look up to.
May be the hug was an act of spontaneity or may be it wasn’t. It was a strategic masterstroke or the good fortune of one with boyish charm. It was a TV moment. But what is beyond contestation is this: with that hug, Rahul showed the world that he is human, flaws and everything. That alone makes him the very antithesis of Modi. The rivalry is not between Mr Gandhi and Mr Modi so much as it is between Rahul vs Modiji. Rahul is real, warts and all. Modiji is made up, 56 inch chest and all. Every single thing about the man is a carefully crafted illusion. Only now, the smoke is beginning to clear.
The worst thing the INC could do now is to make Rahul look like a superhero or a strategic genius walking in the Mahatma’s footsteps. Tempting as that notion of idolizing Mr Gandhi may be, embracing Rahul is going to be, I suspect, the smarter play. As the BJP is slowly learning, there is this thing about idols – Eventually they become easy to tear down .