At the drop of a tear
TEARS are a fragile weapon in public life. Their success rate is so low that it is rarely wise to display them. People check what kind of tears they are. Sentiment can be a powerful virtue in mass mobilisation, but sentimentality never works.
Tears of helplessness or regret invite scorn: the first is evidence of impotence, the second is proof of uselessness.
Law Minister Salman Khurshid committed double jeopardy when he tried to win Muslim sympathy during the current UP Assembly campaign by claiming that his leader Mrs Sonia Gandhi cried when he showed her pictures of the Batla House incident more than three years ago, in which Delhi Police shot down suspected terrorists. The dead young men were from east UP.
Khurshid was trying to send multiple signals simultaneously with this purported claim, not least of them being his personal proximity with the leader. It just might have worked if Mrs Sonia Gandhi had been leader of the opposition during the Batla House encounter.
Instead, this lachrymose recollection backfired spectacularly. Instead of being the answer to a dilemma that has troubled Congress since it happened, it awakened fresh and self-defeating questions.
If Mrs Gandhi was so moved by pictures of dead young Muslims, what did she do about it? She was not a helpless politician.
The home minister of India and the chief minister of Delhi belonged to her party in 2008. Why did she not take any action against them if she thought they were wrong, and the killings were an act of police excess? Was Mrs Gandhi merely shedding crocodile tears?
Mrs Sonia Gandhi has successfully maintained a distance from government on controversies like this. Khurshid’s faux pas has inadvertently carried the blame to her desk. Khurshid claims he briefed her. He showed her photographs which presumably blew the police version apart, inducing tears. She cried. And then? Three years of nothing.
Mrs Gandhi clearly understood the inherent contradictions immediately, and authorised the Congress general secretary in charge of Uttar Pradesh, Digvijay Singh, to dismiss Khurshid’s story as fanciful.
Perhaps she was also embarrassed by an implicit stereotype to which women are subjected: women are expected to be teary. Mrs Gandhi does not see herself as a gushy person.
Would any colleague of Mrs Indira Gandhi have ever suggested that she wept profusely after any incident, and Mrs Gandhi saw more havoc than perhaps any Indian leader. Mrs Sonia Gandhi has fashioned her political image in her mother-in-law’s cast.
We cannot blame Khurshid for addressing the subject, even if he chose to overdo it. The memory of the Batla House encounter has been troubling UP Muslims, and has clearly affected its electoral attitude. No politician touches a controversy unless compelled to. But the memory of Batla House was far more fresh during the general elections of 2009. Why was it absent from the electoral agenda then?
The Congress soared from a measly 22 Assembly victories in 2007 to a stunning 22 Lok Sabha seats in 2009 largely because of Muslim support in UP.
This means a virtual quadrupling of Assembly seats: you have to win over 80 Assembly segments to get 22 MPs. More proof, here, of the maturity of the Indian electorate. It does not rush to judgment at the frantic pace of a politician in search of brownie points or a press desperate for screaming headlines.
UP Muslims had empathy for Mrs Sonia Gandhi, because they did not consider her complicit in the destruction of the Babri mosque. Her credibility bought her time. But they have watched with increasing dismay as the Congress government permitted Home Minister P. Chidambaram to justify the Batla House incident as legitimate without even the grace of an independent inquiry. Muslims are tired of sops dangled before an election, which then mysteriously disappear once the vote is in.
Rahul Gandhi’s optimism about Uttar Pradesh rests almost entirely on a repeat endorsement of the Congress by the Muslim voter. He has played every card of image and identity politics, including lengthening his beard when calling upon clerics. All this may be amusing, but it is not a substitute for substance.
No one knows what the results will be; secrecy is the privilege of the voter, just as speculation is the day job of the pundit. But this just might be an election in which the worth of a candidate could be more important than the weight of a party.
The only leader, at least in my knowledge, who used a teardrop effectively was the great Kashmiri giant Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah, when he came under sudden pressure in the last days of the 1977 Kashmir campaign.
Eyes moist during his last rally in Srinagar, he reminded his people of his lifelong sacrifice and commitment. He won by a landslide. But his eyes never went moist a second time.
The writer is editor of The Sunday Guardian, published from Delhi, India on Sunday, published from London and editorial director, India Today and Headlines Today.