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Rahul Gandhi presents a poor case for Congress in TV interview

In a rare interview, Rahul Gandhi, who will head the ruling Congress party's general election campaign, injected a tense new element into the battle that has so far focused mainly on the economy and corruption.

The Congress party has not yet confirmed whether Rahul Gandhi will be a prime-ministerial candidate in upcoming elections. Tauseef Mustafa / AFP Photo
The Congress party has not yet confirmed whether Rahul Gandhi will be a prime-ministerial candidate in upcoming elections. Tauseef Mustafa / AFP Photo

NEW DELHI // Rahul Gandhi’s incoherent and evasive answers in his first full-length television interview reflects the troubles of his beleaguered Congress party ahead of elections this summer for which he is the presumptive prime ministerial candidate.

Mr Gandhi, the 43-year-old Congress vice president, is leading the party’s bid to win a third successive term in power.

But his performance in an interview with the Times Now news channel on Monday evening will have done nothing to increase confidence in the Congress as it lags behind the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party in polls.

Arnab Goswami, the Times Now editor, and Mr Gandhi’s interrogator, tried to pin him down on subjects such as corruption, the Congress’ role in anti-Sikh riots in Delhi in 1984, and his opponent Narendra Modi’s alleged culpability in anti-Muslim riots in Gujarat in 2002.

However, throughout the 80-minute interview, Mr Gandhi avoided answering specific questions, clumsily changing the subject to talk in vague generalities about empowering women and the youth, and opening up the democratic system.

“Were Congressmen involved?” Goswami, in one instance, asked about the 1984 riots. “Did innocent people die? Absolutely,” Mr Gandhi responded.

On another occasion, when Goswami asked if the Congress had woken up to the threat of inflation too late, Mr Gandhi replied: “No, I think women are the backbone of this country and women need to be empowered.”

Not surprisingly, the subsequent media coverage was critical of Mr Gandhi. The business daily Mint, calling him “a boy in a man’s world”, said that he came across as being timid and non-confrontational. In The Hindu newspaper, the journalist Praveen Swami noted that Mr Gandhi’s tepid interview would have “disappointed his supporters and inspired his detractors”.

These criticisms are particularly pointed given that Mr Modi, the chief minister of Gujarat and the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate, has set himself up as a decisive, plain-speaking strongman.

The cold truth is, however, that Mr Gandhi has sparse ground on which to defend his party’s recent track record.

The Congress-led government, in power since 2009, has reeled under successive corruption scandals.

It has proven inefficient in its handling of the economy; prices of everyday goods have risen even as economic growth has slowed. The party has increasingly been accused of being out of touch with the troubles of the common man.

Sushant Kumar Singh, a Mumbai-based political analyst, called the interview a “disaster” for Mr Gandhi and the Congress.

“He was just so underprepared, which really is the way the Congress is going into this election as well,” Mr Singh said.

Mr Singh found Mr Gandhi’s response to a question about the 1984 anti-Sikh riots, which occurred after two Sikhs assassinated Mr Gandhi’s grandmother, Indira, then prime minister of India, to be incredulous.

Nearly 3,000 Sikhs were killed in Delhi, in violence that is alleged to have been supported by Congress leaders.

That question, Mr Singh said, should have been easy to bat away. “His own prime minister [Manmohan Singh] ... has apologised for those riots, after all ...” he said. “So when Arnab Goswami asked if Rahul would apologise as well, he should have. It would easily have been the biggest talking point of the interview.”

The only benefit that the Congress can squeeze out of Mr Gandhi’s interview seems to be that it even happened. Mr Modi, on the other hand, has steadfastly refused to sit down for such extended television grilling.