Originally Published 2016-12-19 04:54:06 Published on Dec 19, 2016
Rahul Gandhi says he wanted to present evidence of Modi's culpability in parliament. But ...
What Rahul Gandhi has won and risked by playing hardball

While it hardly transacted business, the winter session of parliament marked a transition for the Congress and the opposition. As Sonia Gandhi took a backseat, due to health reasons or out of a desire to give her son more room, Rahul Gandhi became the Congress' prime mover and interface with other opposition parties. He attended parliament regularly, participated in protests organised jointly with other opposition parties and discussed tactics with fellow MPs in the opposition benches. As one regional party member told this writer, "This session, we have seen Rahul take the calls on behalf of his party, and not his mother. I find the Congress is relieved and less confused."

For a considerable period, the Congress had been in a dilemma as to who would have the final word on strategy and on the approach to a particular political situation: Sonia or Rahul. It was not as if the mother and son were or are adversaries, but they have different groups of advisors, different lieutenants, different messengers, and different methods.

Rahul Gandhi, for instance, has been advocating a non-cooperation line since May 2014. To cite an example, he was upset when the party finally gave in to the government's legislative programme and helped pass the Insurance Bill in 2015. He even rebuked a senior party functionary and former minister who had agreed to the "compromise" in the Rajya Sabha. It is expected that this hardball manner will now be maintained.

The opposition is divided into parties that accept the supremacy of the Congress and those who see it as a rival. This has been reflected in the reaction to Rahul Gandhi's ascendancy, especially after his press conference with other opposition MPs earlier this week, when he spoke for the collective group and cast himself as the leader of an opposition alliance. Parties such as the CPI(M) have no problem with Rahul Gandhi's leadership. The Trinamool Congress, which doesn't want the Congress-CPI(M) alliance in Bengal to be revived, is playing along. The Samajwadi Party is flirting with the Congress in Uttar Pradesh - though there is doubt whether a pre-election partnership will actually fructify. As a result, Mayawati and the BSP are wary of Rahul Gandhi and the Congress. So is the Aam Aadmi Party. Nitish Kumar is in alliance with the Congress but the Bihar Chief Minister sees himself as a contender for the Prime Ministry in 2019 - should the Narendra Modi juggernaut stall - and would not want to be seen as playing second fiddle to Rahul Gandhi.

While this is the broad state of play, at the press conference, Rahul Gandhi made an attack on the Prime Minister by saying he had concrete evidence of Modi's personal corruption. He has reiterated this since, stressing Modi is "terrified" of him and that the evidence he (Rahul) has is "bulletproof". Since he was speaking on behalf of a set of opposition parties, the Trinamool Congress representative sitting next to him and smiling all the time, one must presume he made the charge on behalf of all of them. After all, and despite this writer's initial hunch, the opposition parties present in the room that day have not dissociated themselves from Rahul Gandhi's claim of personal corruption by Modi.

Rahul Gandhi says he wanted to present the evidence of Modi's culpability in parliament. There could be several reasons for this. It is, of course, the temple of democracy, the nation's supreme political debating chamber. It would be the appropriate forum for a serious allegation against the Prime Minister to be made and proved. Speaking in parliament also gives an MP certain privileges and immunity, which he or she would lose if a potentially defamatory accusation were to be made outside the House. It is anybody's guess as to which of these reasons was motivating Rahul Gandhi.

As it happens, the parliament session is over. There will be pressure on Rahul Gandhi, from within the Congress and from other opposition parties that were represented at the press conference, to reveal and lay before the public proof of personal corruption that would "explode his (Modi's) balloon". It is incumbent upon the Congress Vice-President to do this at the earliest.

Many in the Congress system are nonplussed as to why Rahul Gandhi raised the stakes so much. They are hoping he is right at least this time. It is also recognized that the charge will not simply be forgotten, as so many one-liners and allegations are in politics. Hit-and-run politics and making accusations that are never followed up or validated is what maverick and irresponsible parties do, and what the Aam Aadmi Party has made into an art form. National parties like the Congress and the BJP, with strong internal institutional structures and a broader public appeal, will always be judged by higher standards.

It is for Rahul Gandhi to now live up to those standards. He must tell the country what he knows.

This commentary originally appeared in NDTV.

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