Reading his lips

The most striking thing about Rahul Gandhi's remark on Pakistan in the course of an election speech in Uttar Pradesh is its indiscreetness. Predictably enough, it has set off rumbles in diplomatic enclaves in Islamabad. Some will go further and accuse the young Gandhi of an indefensible innocence of the nuances of the subcontinent's turbulent political history. And then there's the age-old criticism of the overweening pre-eminence of the Family in Congress politics that Rahul's most recent remark has only served to sharpen. Each of these are reason enough for the exclamations. But pause and rewind to that moment in Bareilly and another thing becomes clear: It's not just the remark, it's the time it is made in. For all his youth and the agility that is supposed to come with being young in politics, Rahul Gandhi, the politician, has revealed himself to be rather out of step.

In the media age, political leaders can ill afford to turn a blind eye to the audiences they cannot see. In other words, the space for the ill-considered remark what Rahul had to say on Pakistan was sandwiched between two other remarks about the Family winning India independence from the British and ushering the country into the 21st century is shrinking daily. The remark in Bareilly, for instance, will be played and replayed and amplified in other fora, and arguably to audiences that are more discerning or unforgiving or both than the one to which it was addressed in the first place. In this age, more than in any other, Rahul Gandhi and other irrepressible politicians like him must follow their grandmother's advice from another age: Think before you speak.

The second hallmark of Rahul's times that he seems to have failed to adequately acknowledge is this: The Family's grip over Indian politics has waned and nowhere is this more starkly apparent than in its erstwhile bastion of UP. Today, it is a four-cornered contest for UP, of which Congress is the fourth corner. The margin of error is smaller when your concern is not a quasi-monopolist in the marketplace.

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