A few days ago, when Narendra Modi was predicting the demise of 'maa-bete ki sarkar' in Amethi, TV channels were simultaneously beaming live pictures of the son's rally from some other venue.
The two juxtaposed visuals summed up the entire story of the 2014 election. While Modi was being both seen and heard, Rahul Gandhi was on mute. The Congress leader was there in the background, but only as a silent reminder of the challenge facing Modi.
This has been the recurring theme of the 2014 narrative and, perhaps, Rahul's biggest tragedy. While Modi's every word, every sibilant sound byte has been heard, evaluated and keenly debated; not many seem willing to listen to Rahul.
In politics, nothing can be more fatal than the inability to attract the attention of voters, nothing more catastrophic than being ignored. Like in matrimony, if the communication between the two partners – in this case the politician and the public--breaks down, nothing can save the alliance. The bond, generally, breaks up and becomes irreparable.
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Rahul's biggest challenge – regardless of the outcome of the 2014 contest – would be to make himself heard again; he will have to occupy the Indian voter's mindscape, not only to survive but also to remain relevant.
But this would be a huge challenge. Just because Rahul's voice was largely ignored by TV cameras, people at election rallies – many would walk out of them midway – and the social media, doesn't mean the Congress did not have anything to say. Rahul's poignant refrain at rallies, 'Arre, bhaiyaa, suno', was indeed symbolic of his desire to articulate serious thoughts and issues, but his unfortunate inability to make people listen to him.
Many of Rahul's plans, suggestions and his arguments against the idea of Modi carried a lot of weight. But, unfortunately for him, he simply lacked the conviction and the oratorical skills to make himself heard over the Modi din.
Rahul's limitations and the fact that the Congress had a case against Modi were magnified, ironically, the moment his sister stepped into the election ring. Not only were the TV cameras--reliable markers of public interest--were back with the audio turned on, even Modi was forced to take notice and respond to Priyanka, a gesture that was a stark contrast to the disdainful disinterest he had shown towards Rahul's speeches and poll barbs.
Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi during an interview at his Tughlaq Lane residence in New Delhi. (Gurinder Osan/HT photo)
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Who is to be blamed? Obviously Rahul himself is responsible for his plight. At the beginning of the battle for 2014--the Vidhan Sabha polls six months ago were the starting point--he was treated almost at par with his adversary from Gujarat.
In fact, Rahul had a headstart over his rival when he dominated the discourse with his 'politics is poison' speech at Jaipur. But soon he ceded the floor to Modi, and also to Arvind Kejriwal, with his mind-numbing penchant for recounting his family history at election rallies. In an atmosphere dominated by 'anti-dynasty' rhetoric, continuous references to the family's past were suicidal. And by the time he started getting it right, most of the voters had switched off.
The road ahead for Congress looks tough. Every sign on the highway to the 16th Lok Sabha indicates the party would not make it beyond the 100 mark. Since Rahul is driving the Congress campaign, he will get most of the blame.
Reviving the party, especially if it sinks to its lowest tally in history, would be a huge challenge for Rahul. But that can wait. Rahul's immediate task would be to find his own voice and make himself heard.
Democracy is all about ideas, debates and dialogue. Though it resembles a monologue today, soon people would tire of a Modi-centric polity and notice the vacuum.
Silence can be a virtue in power, a handicap in politics but when in opposition it is a sin. If Rahul continues to remain on mute on TV channels after the polls, he would find himself being replaced by stronger voices, including that of his sister.
Read: Rahul Gandhi lets crowd do the talking in Varanasi road-show
HT Edit: Rahul has failed to take advantage of disastrous campaigning of BJP