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Why Rahul Gandhi Hugging Modi Was More Than Symbolic

It is a telling sign of how much this country is deprived of love and empathy from our leaders that a small hug has melted millions of hearts.

Two people giving out hugs broke the internet this week: Croatia’s President Kolinda Grabar-Kitarovic’s warm and comforting hugs to her team and the French team, and Rahul Gandhi’s hug to Prime Minister Modi. Why are hugs making headlines?

The No Confidence Motion in Parliament was watched with bated breath. Nobody expected a dramatic twist like the Opposition winning the vote of course. The idea was to open the floor to a legitimate criticism of the Government. Before this, any and all criticism was met with threats, online trolling, personal attacks, even murder. Think Gauri Lankesh and MM Kalburgi. Right-wing trolls did not even spare one of their own. Minister of External Affairs, Sushma Swaraj, was at the receiving end of the vitriol for stopping the harassment of a Hindu-Muslim couple who were applying for passports. Abuse and hatred has become the order of the day.

Congress President Rahul Gandhi’s speech in Parliament hit out at the failed promises of the Modi-led government and the divisive politics the party espouses. He mainly attacked four aspects of the ruling government: Crony capitalism, the financial crisis especially in the banking sector, the failure in foreign relations, and the politics of hatred being propagated all over the country. Using terminology usually seen as part of BJP-propaganda, Gandhi termed the failures of the government ‘jumla strikes’.

Whatever happened to the Rs. 15 lakhs promised to be sent to the bank accounts of all Indians after the ruling party promised to wipe the floor with those who have indulged in corruption? It’s probably gone into the massive Rs. 77,000 crore (Rs. 770 billion) worth of bank loan frauds that has taken place under the Modi government from April 2014 to March 2018. NPAs rose by 230% under the Modi Government; bad loans rose by 317%. This has led to a banking crisis that has been further aggravated by the hasty implementation of GST, demonetisation, a slump in foreign investment, and a fall in employment generation. “The unemployment rate has hit a seven-year high under the this government. Modiji had promised two crore jobs in one year. The situation, however, is far from that,” said Gandhi rousing a storm in Parliament.

The Congress President skillfully linked this to the crony capitalism that has been plaguing the country by saying. “The farmers pleaded with the PM to waive off their loans. He waived off Rs 2.5 lakh crores of some 15-16 rich people, but didn’t listen to the farmers. The PM only talks to 15-16 businessmen. What the farmers and the underprivileged feel… it doesn’t reach the Prime Minister.”

As much as we’d like to applaud the Congress President for making sure he had facts and figures on his side during the speech in Parliament, it wasn’t his speech that really caught the imagination of the people. It was what happened in the end that has made history.

Ending his fiery address, Gandhi said, “You can abuse me, you can call me Pappu, but I don’t have a speck of hatred against you. I will take this hatred out of you and turn it into love. I am the Congress.” To the astonishment of all those present, the Congress President made a reference to the pejorative terms the BJP have used to describe him over the years. “You taught me what it means to be a Hindustani, what it means to be a Hindu. It means to love somebody even if they attack you.”

Before the surprise generated by his words had been absorbed, he got up, strode across the floor, and wrapped his arms around the Prime Minister. For somebody known for never losing an opportunity to hug world leaders, Modi was startled and froze in his seat. He quickly recovered and whispered into Gandhi’s ear before patting him on the back.

So much was mentioned in that one speech: The Rafale Deal, the financial crisis, the studied silence of the PM when it comes to violence perpetrated against minorities… I could summarise it all but that has been done.

The question is, why did a simple gesture blow the collective mind of the nation? It is a telling sign of how much this country is deprived of love and empathy from our leaders that a small hug has melted millions of hearts. It rouses in us what Mahatma Gandhi roused all those years ago during the freedom struggle: Satyagraha. The force of truth. The force of love. Somewhere in our psyche, we are revolting against the violence that has become normalised in our everyday life: Online abuse, rape threats, lynchings, mob justice.

So when a leader of Rahul Gandhi’s stature calmly addressed being called names like “Pappu” and expressed no hatred towards those who try to make him look small in the eyes of the nation, it was such a polar opposite to the way Modi’s followers react to the Prime Minister being criticised, that the collective breath of the nation stopped. And the next breath brought in a flood of warmth, of relief, of hope. That there is a possibility that hatred is not the only way. That violence is not the only solution. That Mahatma Gandhi’s teachings of Satyagraha still lurks somewhere in our subconscious.

When the President of Croatia hugged her team, she expressed love. When Rahul Gandhi hugged Prime Minister Modi, he expressed hope. Who ever thought that a simple gesture like a hug could stun the world twice in one week?

The writer is a political researcher with the Congress Research Department and Think Tank.