Here’s why Modi gets away with his gaffes, while Rahul Gandhi gets called Pappu

By Shivam Vij for ThePrint.in, 27 August 2018

There’s a clip of a Narendra Modi speech that made the rounds of social media recently, where the Prime Minister is talking about converting foul gas coming from a sewer into fuel. The statement became such a butt of jokes that the BJP and its supporters on social media were forced to counter it.

Had the same statement been made by Rahul Gandhi, it would have added to the mountain of evidence that Mr Gandhi isn’t a very bright leader, and certainly unfit for prime ministership. Why, then, does the same standard not apply to Modi? Why do Modi’s gaffes not turn his supporters away from him? 

There’s no dearth of gaffes made by Modi. He gets history and geography wrong. He indulges in some ludicrous photo-ops, seemingly talking to statues in China. He walks around his garden and posts a video of it calling it exercise. He once wore a suit with his name monogrammed on it. He constantly refers to himself in the third person. He says the climate hasn’t changed, we the people have changed – whatever that means. Not a week goes by without a Modi gaffe, and these are just some of the most famous things over which Modi has been made fun of. 

Yet these goof-ups don’t seem to impose any political cost on the Prime Minister. Under his leadership, the party keeps winning one state election after another. The worst estimates for 2019 suggest, as of now, that the BJP is likely to emerge as the single-largest party but will possibly form a coalition government.

Even in the 2014 Lok Sabha campaign, Modi made ridiculously tall claims that earned him the moniker of ‘feku’. But this couldn’t stop him from becoming the first prime minister with a single-party majority in 30 years. 

By contrast, Rahul’s gaffes, his goof-ups and mistakes all add up to the image that he is unfit to lead the country. Not even his supporters are able to say ‘Rahul Gandhi for PM’. The best they are able to say in his favour is that he’d be better than Modi because anyone would!

Voices are growing louder on media being unfair to Rahul. Why does he get called Pappu when Modi gets away with his embarrassing moments?

Modi’s political capital

The truth is that Modi’s gaffes hurt him too. Humour and ridicule are powerful weapons to undermine anyone’s credibility. People have noted that the kind of anti-Modi jokes that circulate today were unthinkable in 2014. Modi knows this. When Modi’s favourite word to address the masses, “Mitron”, (friends) became a butt of jokes, he stopped using it.  

Yet the reason why Modi gets away with his goof-ups and why he’s still standing tall as a national leader is because he’s built himself political capital. Modi’s political capital has been so enormous that he’s even gotten away with a blunder like demonetisation that temporarily slowed down India’s economic growth. A few gaffes are small stuff.

There are three ways to earn political capital. One is agitational politics, which helped an Arvind Kejriwal rise from an NGO-wallah to a chief minister. The second is electoral: when you win elections, people automatically take you seriously. When you win election after election, beating anti-incumbency, you become formidable. The third is administrative. When you are in power, you convince people that your performance as an administrator has been good. You convince at least enough people of this so that they can make you win the next election.

Modi has built his political capital both administratively and electorally. He convinced enough people that he was doing a good job as a chief minister to lead his party through three successive terms in the state. He then convinced enough people that he had a Gujarat model of development to be made a prime minister with a single-party majority. And then, he convinced enough people that he’s helping India progress, which made his party win several state elections. 

Rahul’s empty CV

By contrast, has Rahul achieved anything in agitational politics, or in the electoral arena, or administratively? 

Like Rahul, his mother Sonia also became the Congress president only because of her surname. But nobody ridicules her because she helped her party form a coalition government at the Centre for two terms. 

Rahul entered politics in 2004 and took it upon himself to revive the Congress party in Uttar Pradesh, but failed in that endeavour. He wanted to revive the youth wing of the party, by launching internal elections, but also failed in this endeavour. He refused to take a ministerial post in the Manmohan cabinet, thus losing a chance to build administrative credential.

After the Congress was reduced to less than a tenth of the Lok Sabha seats in 2014, it was for Rahul to give the party a new lease of life. However, he has failed to defeat the Modi-led BJP in a single election. 

Modi’s CV says self-made Prime Minister. Rahul’s CV is empty. That’s why the bar for Rahul to prove himself is much higher. That’s why his gaffes have a higher cost than Modi’s.

During a public interaction in London last week, Rahul was asked what his credentials were apart from his surname. Gandhi replied: “I have been working for 14-15 years in the political system. I have taken a beating and have learnt a lot. I am a person who listens, respects other people’s ideas. The most important thing to me is that I see through hate. And I really think, I am proud of that.”

That’s no achievement to cite.

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