Congress President Rahul Gandhi promised an “earthquake” if he were allowed to speak in Parliament. On Friday, delivering a speech during the debate over the no-confidence motion against the Bharatiya Janata Party-run government, Gandhi produced something even more unexpected: a hug. In a made-for-TV moment, the Nehru-Gandhi scion ended a fiery, adversarial speech, which had been interrupted by the ruling party, with a declaration that he harboured no hate for the BJP and then proceeded to walk to the other side of Parliament and gave a hug to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, even though the latter remained seated.
That one gesture will mark out the day’s events regardless of what happens next. Prime Minister Narendra Modi is expected to speak later in the day, and there are a number of other listed speakers who could make a mark, yet if anyone wants to outdo the sheer theatrics of Gandhi’s hug, they will have to put on quite a show.
The hug will probably also overshadow Gandhi’s speech, which would have been newsworthy even if it had not been followed by the unexpected embrace. The Congress president came out punching, using the term “jumla strike” and saying the BJP had weaponised the use of false promises. He went down a laundry list of issues that the Opposition has raised against this government, beginning with its treatment of farmers, youngsters, women, Dalits and tribal people are other victims.
Aside from a couple of Hindi flubs, which had even Modi laughing, Gandhi managed to stay on point and drive home the idea that the BJP-run government has much to answer for. Gandhi went beyond the usual general attacks against the government and instead chose to go specific, earning the ire of the ruling party and even the Speaker.
He mentioned Jay Shah, the son of BJP president Amit Shah, whose company had an unusual spike in turnover after Modi came to power. He brought up the Rafale deal, repeating allegations that the government had changed the terms of the fighter jet deal to benefit his businessman friends, in this case Reliance Group’s Anil Ambani. At this point he openly called Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman a liar, prompting angry retorts and ruckus from the treasury benches, where the ruling party members sit.
Gandhi spoke of the money that goes into the marketing of the prime minister of India, and said he was leaving it to the people to figure out where that money is coming from. He said Modi is forgoing the debt of big industrialists close to him. It was at this point that the ruckus coming from the BJP, which has a majority in the house, got even louder and the speaker was either unable or unwilling to police the din. And so Sumitra Mahajan adjourned the house for a few minutes.
When the members returned, Mahajan gave the house a long lecture on decorum in Parliament and why names of people and foreign countries should not be used. And then, Rahul continued, this time making a few more direct points. He said that Modi was afraid to look him into the eyes – though he messed up the Hindi on this again, sparking laughter – and claimed that the prime minister had a “touch of nervousness about him”.
Gandhi brought up the fact that Modi had remained silent on questions of crimes, against women, against minorities, and against Dalits and Adivasis. He then came to the last portion of the speech, telling the Speaker and the rest of the House that they would like this part. He went on to claim that the difference between Modi, BJP President Amit Shah and Congress leaders was that Modi and Shah “cannot afford to lose power because when they do, other processes will start against them”.
He then thanked his opponents. Sticking to the “I don’t have hate in my heart, only love” line that he has been using for the last year or so, he attempted to define his politics and his party as the antithesis of the BJP. “I’m grateful to BJP and RSS that they’ve explained the meaning of Congress, and of being an Indian... You have anger for me. For you, I’m Pappu. But I have no anger for you. I am Congress.”
Then came the hug: Gandhi walked over to Modi, who was taken aback and did not stand up. Gandhi hugged him, and started to walk away before a still uncertain – and still seated – Modi called him back and patted him and said a few words, before Gandhi returned to his seat. Then came the wink:
Considering past experience, Modi will be raring to take on Gandhi. The prime minister is slated to speak around 6:30 pm, presuming the debate carries on in an orderly fashion. It would be hard to predict what Modi will say, but his recent attack on the Congress for being a ‘party of Muslim men’ is likely to feature in some way. It is no coincidence that Gandhi did not mention Muslims at all, sticking instead to a reference to “minorities” being under attack. He did, at the very end also pull out a line about the RSS and BJP teaching him what it is to be “Hindu”.
One can expect the prime minister to respond directly to Gandhi’s comments and even his hug. Yet it will be that image that plays on the TV channels and runs on the front pages of the newspaper tomorrow, unless somehow more theatrics are in store. The question is whether the substance of Gandhi’s speech – the attacks on crony capitalism and the queries about Modi’s silence – will endure.
Gandhi has managed to surprise, not with a “suit-boot”-like phrase that seemed powerful enough to get the government to respond, but with an image that will certainly travel farther and wider. But what does the hug represent? After a speech full of attacks on Modi and the BJP, what message does it send if the main memory of this even is a theatrical attempt at Parliamentary bonhomie? Does Gandhi expect the move to be a pre-emptive strike ahead of the tongue-lashing that is likely to come from Modi? Much will depend on what the prime minister says, but regardless of how the rest of the day goes, the no-confidence motion has already over delivered on the drama quotient. What else is in store?