"Gauri Lankesh lives on in our hearts," tweeted Rahul Gandhi after the prominent journalist, vocal against religious extremism, was gunned down outside her own home in Bengaluru.
The sentiment is welcome, but one wonders how much of Gandhi's heart is in it. Unfortunately it foreshadows the blame game that will inevitably follow. Lankesh was well-known as a Hindutva critic. Two Karnataka BJP politicians, who her magazine had accused of corruption, had successfully sued her for criminal defamation. She was out on bail when she was killed. But her murder takes place in a Congress-ruled state. That means there will be ample opportunity for both sides to point fingers at each other.
Right-wingers will say it proves Congress-ruled states are not safe, that her death is a failure of the state administration. Congress will say Hindutva extremists have more to gain fomenting trouble in such states.
That has already begun. Gandhi has said that those who oppose the ideology of the BJP and the RSS are "pressured, attacked, beaten and even killed." He has said, the BJP wants to "impose only one ideology which is against the idea of India." According to NDTV, BJP's Nitin Gadkari has rubbished the claims saying, "We have nothing to do with the Gauri Lankesh incident... the BJP's, the central government or any of our organisations have no relation to this incident."
Gandhi's tweet, in a way, only underscores how increasingly toothless the Congress appears these days, limited to platitudes.
That itself is a curious statement. On one hand we are being told that no one knows who killed Lankesh, which is true and any rush to judgement is premature. But by that same token, it should be equally premature to rule anyone out, a fact that Gadkari seems to miss. Just as Gandhi cannot know what group the murderers belonged to, how does Gadkari know with such certainty what affiliations the unknown people who murdered Lankesh did not have?
But this is typically what happens when a murder becomes a political football. To make muddy waters murkier, Subramanian Swamy is digging up twelve-year-old articles about Lankesh's family feuds.
It's also true Lankesh did not mince words when taking on the government led by Gandhi's own party in her home state for trying to curb press freedom using the archaic idea of "parliamentary privileges" of elected representatives.
Gandhi's tweet, in a way, only underscores how increasingly toothless the Congress appears these days — limited to platitudes. The Lankesh murder in Karnataka puts the government in one of the few major states the Congress rules on the backfoot. For a government which will soon face voters, this is an issue that needs its immediate attention. There are reports that Lankesh was also investigating corruption in the Siddiramaiah regime. The Congress these days seems listless, easily out-maneuvered by the BJP even in states where it manages to win more votes.
There is little evidence the Congress plans to change anything soon, that it might be able to summon up the energy to play the role of a worthwhile opposition. Her opponents have already dubbed Lankesh a "Naxal sympathizer" in tweets about her murder as documented by Altnews. Lankesh had supported rehabilitation of Naxals. The Congress is hardly likely to be seen as too vociferous in demanding justice for a "Naxal sympathizer".
The Congress has shown little aptitude for leadership as an opposition party lately. The RBI data about the gap between demonetisation's objectives and achievements should have been a godsend for any opposition party. It could have been a potent weapon with which to batter the government's grandiose claims. Gandhi has shown little aptitude to drive that point home.
He has been in Norway while Lalu Prasad Yadav held a show of strength in Patna. He has been more in the news for a speech he is supposed to give later this month in Silicon Valley on artificial intelligence than anything he is doing in India.
The BJP should thank Sam Pitroda for organising a talk on that topic since it has afforded the Twitterati a field day to taunt the Congress vice president's own intelligence. On top of that, the Congress Twitter handle has been scoring more self-goals by a #KnowYourLegacy quiz on Twitter which asked what animal Pandit Nehru rode in Bhutan in 1958 when there were few motorable roads there. The options were horse, yak, elephant and donkey. The correct answer was yak but no prizes for guessing which option caused the most eye-rolls and chuckles.
The Congress could demonstrate that is serious about the investigation beyond condemnations on Twitter.
All this to say the Congress has been floundering, whether trying to play catch up on social media or hold onto slipping political real estate on the ground. In Gujarat Shankarsinh Vaghela has quit the Congress adding to Gandhi's worries. In Odisha, Gandhi is making noises about "unity of purpose" suggesting that there is clear worry about that very thing being missing.
There is no clarity there on the state PCC president. A leader told The Telegraph "Rahul only asked us to accept his decision without resorting to factional fights." Gandhi is having trouble holding the Congress together because after many defeats, there are deep-seated doubts about whether the Congress under him can deliver. It's a leadership deficit.
In Karnataka, Chief Minister Siddaramaiah has announced an SIT investigation headed by the Inspector General of Police and said he is open to a CBI probe. Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh has asked for a report from the state government. As far as this murder goes, the Congress is in a unique position.
It is in power in the state where it happened although it is in opposition in the Centre. It could demonstrate that it is serious about the investigation beyond condemnations on Twitter. This could be a moment for Gandhi and the Congress to show that as a party it can be taken seriously. He could lead the charge, the push for a quick and effective investigation and not seem to lose interest as he often does after a flurry of activity.
Otherwise the Congress can just keep drawing up more #KnowYourLegacy quizzes about obscure facts that no one cares about anymore.