Opinion: Is the press underestimating Rahul as it once did Sonia?
Like Sonia, Rahul also has made little or no effort to make friends with the Press and we have shown no sign of respecting his courage in persevering in spite of the setbacks he has suffered and the scorn we have heaped on his head. In the Gujarat election, he has shown the stamina we thought he lacked. The improvement in the delivery as well as the content of his speeches has been widely recognised.columns Updated: Dec 23, 2017 20:33 IST
Reading reports of Sonia Gandhi’s speech last weekend when she handed responsibility for the Congress to her son Rahul, I was reminded of the courage and determination she had shown by accepting the presidency and on the rocky road to victory six years later. I and many other journalists failed to recognise Sonia’s inner strength and I would suggest that we may be doing the same in our disparaging coverage of her son.
At last weekend’s ceremony, Sonia admitted how formidable the first obstacle she needed to overcome had been - her inexperience and lack of self-confidence. Describing how she felt when accepting the presidency she said: “I was so nervous my hands were shaking. I could not think how I would manage to take charge of this historic organisation. It was a formidable and onerous task which confronted me.”
The task she had to fulfil was indeed formidable. The Congress was on its back. It had fewer seats in the Lok Sabha than ever before, a mere 114, and was only in power in four states. Internecine war raged in the party, and some leaders had broken away to try their luck by forming their own parties. Sonia’s coronation rather than rallying the party made matters worse with Sharad Pawar and two other leaders walking out in protest against the idea that she, an Italian by birth, could become prime minister. The BJP was taunting her mercilessly about her foreign origin too. So there was Sonia politically inexperienced, nervous and lacking self-confidence, a woman in a man’s world, captaining a leaking ship with rats already leaving. Yet she plugged the leaks and sailed to victory. During that voyage I never gave Sonia credit for the enormous courage she was showing and I could never bring myself to believe she could be victorious.
Perhaps one reason why I and so many other journalists underestimated Sonia and didn’t rate the chances of leading the Congress to victory was because she never tried to win our sympathy. During the years Sonia was rescuing Congress, and indeed the 10 years she was back-seat-driving the UPA government, she remained a remarkably private public person. Journalists’ access to her was strictly limited to a privileged few. She didn’t go in for press conferences or interviews. We journalists don’t like being ignored. I was so out of sympathy with Sonia during the years she lead Congress in Opposition that when I watched her at rallies I would often think, “she has no place in Indian politics with her unnatural Indira Gandhi imitation hand-wave and her shrill attempts to inject emotion into her stilted reading of prepared speeches.” Compared with an accomplished veteran like her rival AB Vajpayee she seemed unreal.
The circumstances in which Rahul has become Congress president bear an uncanny resemblance to the circumstances when Sonia became president. The Congress is in the doldrums again. It was routed in the last General Election ending with the lowest number of seats in Parliament it ever had and has lost several state elections since. In 1998, the BJP was rising, now it’s on a roll. There have been prominent desertions from the Congress. During the run-up to the election in Gujarat Shankersinh Vaghela, the leader of the Opposition in the assembly deserted. Rahul like his mother has only been elected because he is a member of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty. Like her too he has been scorned and ridiculed by the Press. In her speech last weekend, Sonia Gandhi spoke of the “personal humiliation” her son had faced.
Like Sonia, Rahul also has made little or no effort to make friends with the Press and we have shown no sign of respecting his courage in persevering in spite of the setbacks he has suffered and the scorn we have heaped on his head. In the Gujarat election, he has shown the stamina we thought he lacked. The improvement in the delivery as well as the content of his speeches has been widely recognised. He has stood up to his opponent --- Prime Minister Narendra Modi ---- trading blow for blow with him. The result has been a glimmer of light at the end of the long dark tunnel the Congress is passing through, so maybe we the Press are underestimating Rahul as we underestimated Sonia.
The views expressed are personal