Pidi's Twitter trick n' treat aside, how long will liberal love for Rahul Gandhi last?
Political pets have always helped bolster their leader's image, but the challenges ahead for the Congress V-P are too steep.
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Whether it was a calculated move, or a spontaneous overflow of powerful emotions (in the best ones, you can never tell which is which), the introduction of Pidi, Rahul Gandhi's pet dog, broke the internet yesterday, October 29, livening up an ordinary Sunday morning, and more or less eclipsing Prime Minister Narendra Modi's Mann Ki Baat on the uses of Aadhaar and Bhim app in a country where fewer people have smartphones than what the PM would want us to believe.
Pidi rose rapidly on the charts like a smooth blockbuster, one of those Khan or Johar-backed indie films that wow us with their "feel good" factor, and assure us about the return of civility, kinship, cross-species love in simple and diverse domesticity of our lives.
Taking a break from his newly adopted modus operandi of sharp strategic irony, Gandhi displayed a moment of self-flagellating dropping the guard, as it were, when he tweeted:
Ppl been asking who tweets for this guy..I'm coming clean..it's me..Pidi..I'm way 😎 than him. Look what I can do with a tweet..oops..treat! pic.twitter.com/fkQwye94a5— Office of RG (@OfficeOfRG) October 29, 2017
Both a dig at those who say Gandhi doesn't tweet himself - in fact his officious Twitter handle puts quite a few people off, and requests for him to shift to a personal handle have been aplenty - and a mild rebuke at those who allege team Gandhi deploys bots to inflate the number of likes and retweets, the Pidi tweet came across as a refreshing moment of "clean humour" and "having some fun".
In no time, drawing room liberals of Lutyens' Delhi were fawning over Pidi's ability to stand on his hind legs to say "namaste" on command, to balance the treat on his snout and display canine cuteness and blew away the fence-sitters on Gandhi's ability to extract loyalty.
There were Pidi memes, as #Pidi trended at the top on Twitter, and demands of more Pidi videos. And then there were the retorts from BJP, with Assam minister and Congress-to-BJP defector Himanta Biswa Sarma leading from the front. While those familiar with Pidi's earlier encounter with Sarma before the Assam Assembly elections alluded to that tiny little nugget of history that changed the state's political fortunes, Sarma himself fired the salvo.
BJP IT cell head Amit Malviya similarly tweeted:
Pidi लाओ, Congress बचाओ.. pic.twitter.com/A677QSIvah— Amit Malviya (@malviyamit) October 29, 2017
However, behind this social media one-upmanship over a pet, now with instant celebrity, lies an incredible game of chess between the two chief political camps, and how they determine meanings, how they read gestures, what they make of these staged/candid displays of seemingly apolitical outreach that are clearly aimed at brand building. When the BJP and its friendly ideological interpreters in the media say that this gives a "frightening look at Congress' reality", that's the extrapolation of the much criticised "high command" culture of the grand old party of India.
The accusation here being that the party nurtures "good boys" (and girls) who display their obedience on command, and who are suitably rewarded. And this entrenched hierarchy between the Gandhis and the rest within the Congress and the fealty to one family is passed off as loyalty to Nehruvian ideals, secularism and the idea of democratic republic of India. This is the standard BJP critique of the Indian National Congress, the basic trope of Narendra Modi's 2014 Lok Sabha election pitch, and therefore, little wonder that the Pidi video too has been subjected to this tried and tested treatment.
Why BJP's loyalty criticism falls flat
On the other hand, let's not forget that this is a long way off from the "kutte ka bachcha" defence of Modi when asked about Gujarat 2002 in a 2013 interview to Reuters. Whether it was a casual remark or a studied response, it did display a "fascinating subtext of condescension, deep entitlement and naked arrogance" - this time stemming from and emboldening his party's and his ideological mentor RSS' Hindutva plank.
The Telegraph report on the interview says: "He saw no contradiction in dovetailing the classic RSS template of 'Hindu nationalism' with being 'progressive, development-oriented and a workaholic'." However, as is evident from report after report on the sorry state of the Indian economy, the plummeting GDP, the lowered industrial output, the job famine and death by data owing to the government's legally questionable Aadhaar push, the contradictions are way too glaring to ignore anymore.
Similarly, on the question of bone-chilling loyalty that the Modi-Shah duopoly expects from their fellow BJP members and cadres, the less said the better. Those in the Margdarshak Mandal have much to say about how the centralised power system within the party sidelines the heavyweights of yesterday, so that they wield no political or moral sway on anyone. If from time to time, someone like Yashwant Sinha is compelled to "speak up" and come clean on how the "economy is poised for hard landing" because of "unmitigated disasters" that were demonetisation and GST, their minister sons are deployed to dismiss the dire diagnosis.
There's so much of intra-party democracy that a Union minister is forced to delete his tweet welcoming the SC ban on firecrackers after being trolled by bhakts. There's so much reliance on regional leaders that PM Modi and BJP national president Amit Shah personally oversee each and every state election, delivering more speeches than there are days in a year. There's such love for diversity that "Project Adityanath" is launched on a national level, and the Uttar Pradesh chief minister is paraded as the new mascot of Hindutva in the communist stronghold Kerala, so that polarisation along religious lines doesn't even become necessary in poll-bound Gujarat: it's a given.
Rahul the 'Pidiatrician'
In carefully managed photo-ops with the Army, PM Narendra Modi has been seen enjoying a moment with sniffer dogs, stroking or feeding them. Those are rare occasions when the PM is not looking into the camera.
Indian politics is no child's play. It needs Pidiatricians.— Madhavan Narayanan (@madversity) October 30, 2017
Whether on camera or off, Yogi Adityanath's cow love and bolstering of cow vigilantism have been subjects of frenzied debates in mainstream and social media. But the entry of Rahul the "Pidiatrician" somewhat changes the game.
Political pets have always helped in boosting their leaders' image. Be it Barack Obama and his pet dogs Bo and Sunny, Bill Clinton and his pets, the cat Socks and the dog Buddy, Justin Trudeau's dog Kenzie, or New Zealand's "first cat" Paddles, the rightful owner of her human, the new and young PM Jacinda Ardern - pets improve the social and political capital of the leaders they are affiliated to. History says a younger Richard Nixon's political career was saved from an angry and upset Dwight Eisenhower in 1952 by flaunting his daughter's dog. An uppity Barack Obama's initial presidential years warded off some of the flak when he "kept his promise" to give his daughters a pet dog, Bo.
These great populist masterstrokes with elaborate history of cross-continental anecdotes and antecedents are what the Lutyens' circle is reminded of when it confronts Rahul Gandhi in his private space, sharing a happy and friendly time with Pidi. The trick is practised and perfected, and is adorable because it hints at this history of intimacy, the closest the single, bachelor Gandhi can come to displaying a "normal family life" beyond being photographed with his mother, Congress president and matriarch Sonia Gandhi.
A lawyer and civil rights activist friend once told me that he has long liked Rahul Gandhi because "he seems to be a guy you can sit down and have a beer with". The dog video is also reminiscent of the Snapchat dog filter controversy involving comedian Tanmay Bhat, with the latter posting a picture of Modi (lookalike) with the same filter, getting trolled, leading Congress leaders to take to Twitter en masse to post their selfies with dog filters.
The subtext to both the responses - my lawyer friend's and the Congress leaders' - were about having a sense of genial humour, not being too self-serious while having the capacity to hold intelligent conversations on important and urgent subject matters such as Aadhaar exclusions, note-bandi induced misery, communalism and saffronisation of India, the hijacking by the Sangh of the INC icons like Sardar Patel as well as mainstreaming of notorious figures like Godse.
After "Gabbar Singh Tax" and the Pidi video, the political stocks of @OfficeOfRG have skyrocketed. But the challenges that lie ahead for the Congress vice-president are way too steep to be met by mere Twitter scores alone. With opinion polls forecasting an easy BJP victory in Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh, despite Congress coming together with youth leaders Jignesh Mevani and Alpesh Thakor to rope in Dalit and OBC votes, as well as with Hardik Patel to court the Patidar base, Gandhi's many interim victories may ultimately not be enough to undo Modi-Shah's electoral Darwinism.
There are those who say that even a loss for Congress in Gujarat wouldn't matter because it's suitably energised, and the vote-share would certainly go up. And beyond the Assembly elections of 2017, especially in Gujarat where the delay by the Election Commission to announce poll dates allowed Modi to shower the state with sops worth Rs 11,000 crore and also blame the Gandhis and the UPA for stalling development, there's palpable anti-incumbency in the air.
For how long can the love for Rahul Gandhi the Pidiatrician last among the Lutyens brigade and the self-proclaimed liberals, who desperately need electoral victories to repose and renew their faith in the Gandhi scion? Unlike Pidi's, this is a fickle love, Rahul's principled secularism and history-laden surname be damned.