NEW DELHI -- Congress Party Vice President Rahul Gandhi would have wanted to end his month-long march across Uttar Pradesh with an unforgettable moment. And, he did. So unforgettable, in fact, that it blacked out everything leading up to that moment, which was his month-long march across Uttar Pradesh to woo its farmers, and lend a sympathetic ear to their grievances, ahead of the state polls.
But instead of a debate on the impact of this massive outreach program spread across 2,500 kilometers of India's most populous state, what made headlines was Gandhi's remark about Prime Minister Narendra Modi doing "dalali" over Indian soldiers.
"Humare jawan hain jinho ne khoon diya hai, jinho ne surgical strike kiya, unke khoon ke peeche aap (PM) chhupe huye ho. Unki aap dalali kar rahe ho. (You are hiding behind our jawans, who sacrificed their lives, who did the surgical strikes. You are capitalising on their sacrifice)," Gandhi said at a farmer's rally in Delhi on Thursday.
We may never know whether these remarks were the consequence of some really bad advice or Gandhi's brainwave. But it should have been fairly obvious just how out of sync such a harsh line of attack would be with the mood of the country. Coming at a moment when India is engaged in a war of wits with Pakistan, it is ill-timed and inopportune as political convention requires parties to by and large support the prime minister in the face of an external adversary.
The prime minister himself doesn't have a squeaky clean record when it comes to maintaining the dignity of his office and attacking his political opponents, but those squabbles have been over domestic politics. Gandhi has said that Modi is benefitting from the death of Indian soldiers when the international community is watching how the situation between India and Pakistan develops.
While there are concerns and questions that one might have about the surgical strikes conducted by the Indian army on terror bases across the LoC on 29 September, and how the Modi government is dealing with Pakistan, name-calling and abuse does nothing for the cause of clarity or accountability.
Following widespread criticism of his remarks on social media as well as from politicians across party lines, including from Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal, Gandhi clarified on Twitter that he fully supports the surgical strike, but he does not support "using the Indian Army in political posters and propaganda all across the country."
What he tweeted is not what he said at the rally on Thursday evening, and if chest-thumping is what he is taking issue with then he might have noticed that Modi has been uncharacteristically restrained in the aftermath of the surgical strikes, even advising his ministers to tone it down.
Coming just days after his effusive praise for the prime minister, it also makes one wonder whether Gandhi knows his own mind. "I want to thank him because for the first time in two and half years he has taken an action that is of the stature of PM," he said on 30 September, one day after the surgical strike.
In fact, his mother and Congress Party President Sonia Gandhi had also expressed solidarity with the Modi government. "The Congress Party congratulates the armed forces on the success of the operation and offers its support to the government in our country's continuing battle against cross-border terrorism," she said.
Sonia Gandhi's "Maut ka Saudagar" (merchant of death) comment made against Modi during the 2007 Gujarat Assembly election was similarly incendiary and ended up backfiring on the Congress Party. While the Congress chief had hoped to stir up revulsion and anger over the 2002 Gujarat riots, in which over 1,000 people died, most of them Muslims, her remark further polarised voters in Modi's favour. BJP once again swept to power in with 117 seats in the Assembly of the western state, with the Congress Party getting only 59.
More than Modi, the "Dalali" remark has hurt the Congress Party by eclipsing what could have been a rousing finale to the most ambitious campaign which the party has undertaken in recent memory.
In fact, an internal assessment of the Congress Party concluded that the kisan yatra in UP has ended successfully, with Gandhi establishing himself as a "champion of the farmers," and if the state election is held today, nearly 74 percent of UP households dependent on farming would vote for the Congress Party.
With all the hard work which has gone into organising this rally, it would be terribly disappointing for Congress Party workers if this march comes to be defined by the now infamous incident of the cots at the start of the campaign, and the "dalali" remark at the end, with everything that happened in the middle reduced to detail.
The episode in which the villagers took away the cots after a khaat sabha in the district of Deoria took on a life of its own simply because Gandhi did not deign to address the controversy until it was too late. Now, at the end of the kisan yatra, he went too far.
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