For BJP, Rahul Gandhi Is The Gift That Keeps Giving

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Rahul Gandhi, former Congress President, is on a Bharat Jodo Yatra, a walkathon ostensibly to knit India together. He keeps talking about spreading love to save India from hate.

On the Maharashtra leg of his Yatra, Rahul Gandhi made some controversial comments about Veer Savarkar and his infamous apology letter to the British government, which have left his ally Shiv Sena bruised and exposed to BJP mockery. 

The unlikely tripartite Maharashtra alliance between the Sena, the Congress and Sharad Pawar’s Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) – the Maha Vikas Aghadi (MVA) – is currently intact, but barely. Its leaders are busy working the commercially encrypted apps to ensure that the Thackerays, Uddhav and his son Aaditya, are spared the blushes caused by the entirely avoidable remarks made by Rahul Gandhi.

The BJP couldn’t be more thrilled. Its government in Maharashtra with Sena turncoat Eknath Shinde was flailing over billion-dollar investments such as the Foxconn-Vedanta deal going to poll-bound Gujarat. Rahul Gandhi has handed them an emotive issue about insulting a “Marathi manoos” icon on a platter.

Rahul Gandhi’s ill-timed comments come gift-wrapped for the Shinde Sena and the BJP ahead of the crucial Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) elections, which will be the first real face-off between team Thackeray and the Shinde-BJP combine.

I spoke to all three MVA allies and the BJP for this column. The biggest takeaway was that Gandhi, while “spreading the love” to the BJP and Shinde, gave them what they were desperate for – a poll issue, not just in Maharashtra but also in Gujarat, which votes next month.

I was told that the BJP will also raise the “insult” to Savarkar in its Gujarat campaign, which is why BJP president JP Nadda also waded into the controversy yesterday and criticised Rahul Gandhi.

Himanta Biswa Sarma, the Assam Chief Minister, also criticised Rahul Gandhi and said he knew no history. Prime Minister Narendra Modi is also likely to take it up on the stump while campaigning in his home state. 

Team Uddhav, particularly the Thackeray family, is livid. Sources close to the family said Uddhav Thackeray had made every effort to get along with the Gandhi family, whom he respects, but Rahul Gandhi had never reciprocated.

The sources pointed out that Thackeray paid floral tributes and tweeted on former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi’s death anniversary but Rahul Gandhi, who was in Maharashtra during Sena founder Bal Thackeray’s death anniversary, remained completely silent on him. Aaditya Thackeray joined Gandhi on his Maharashtra walkathon, yet Gandhi dragged in Savarkar the very next day.

Sena leaders have been in touch with Sharad Pawar and have asked him to intervene with the Congress. While Sharad Pawar wants to heal the alliance he conjured up, he has shared with a leader that Rahul Gandhi is an unknown quantity with whom he has no political equation.

Rahul Gandhi is a gift that keeps giving, but only to the BJP, an NCP leader says. “He doesn’t know how to deal with allies and our sensitivities. The Congress is no longer the big brother in any alliance and has a government in two states, yet Rahul Gandhi believes he’s the boss. Why do this to the Thackerays?” the leader questioned.

For now, the alliance is hanging by a thread that Rahul Gandhi could snap in a moment with another ill-advised comment. Sena leader Sanjay Raut has told NDTV exclusively that the Savarkar backlash would affect the alliance adversely.

The Congress says Rahul Gandhi is not open to changing his “ideological” stand on Savarkar and may speak on him again. Team Thackeray knows the damage has been done, in a big way, in Maharashtra.  
An exasperated leader says, “He’s undone the hard work of the last 70 days. Real issues such as investment flowing out of Mumbai and the loss of jobs are now hostage to a debate on history”.

As the MVA manages the mess, Rahul Gandhi walks alone, estranged from his own allies.

(Swati Chaturvedi is an author and a journalist who has worked with The Indian Express, The Statesman and The Hindustan Times.)

Disclaimer: These are the personal opinions of the author.

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