The day Rahul lost it

The Straits Times Foreign Desk

His dimple, which appears every time he grins, adds to his boyish charm. But, Mr Rahul Gandhi’s charisma appears to fade when he starts to speak, especially on political issues facing India.

Case in point: The apearance on Thursday of the 42-year-old, portrayed as the future prime minister of India by his Congress party, at an event by the Confederation of Indian Industry (CII). It was streamed live on Indian television and viewed by thousands on Youtube.

Mr Gandhi begins by saying: “There is a tendency to look at India as a country...” - a line which could have been construed as a gaffe had he not gone on to explain himself. A hundred years ago India used to be a “force”, he said, a force that a thousand years ago came “from our rivers”.

His analogy implied that as a civilisation India drew its energy from a force of nature around which it thrived but it was a bit of a stretch. And most of the audience was left confused.

A few rambling and insipid anecdotes followed before he fumbled and said into the mike: “I lost have it.”

Of course, he was just saying that he’d lost his place while speaking because his papers on the lectern got jumbled up. But the damage became irreparable at this point.

He looked a tad embarassed as he tried to get his speech back on track.

Some elderly gentlemen from the CII who were sharing the dais with him looked on unblinking, as he tried to rearrange his notes. They seemed to regard the snafu as no more than an endearing slip by a schoolboy making his maiden class presentation.

But the awkwardness was palpable, and the Twitteratti were not as indulgent. No one minced words in deriding the budding politician for his speech, which was dismissed as lacking substance.

Search the handle #PappuCII (Pappu is a colloquial term for dumb kid) on Twitter to read the caustic and often hilarious remarks that followed the Gandhi family scion’s half-baked performance.

‘The dork knight rises again’ said one tweet in a list of thousands that took on a sarcastic tone towards Mr Gandhi after he likened India to a buzzing “beehive”.

‘If India is a beehive, then why do we collect all the honey in Swiss banks’, said another - with obvious references to allegations that dishonest politicians stash their wealth in overseas banks.

Some tweeted the Youtube clips of the gaffes while poking fun. ‘If Dumb and Dumber ever get remade in Bollywood, Rahul Gandhi will star in a double role’, said one, while another “summed up” his speech to mean: ‘Don’t expect anything from us.. do it yourself.. thankyou’.

The scathing criticism is not really unfair.

Since his entry into politics in the early 2000s, Mr Gandhi has not displayed much political acumen or expressed his views on issues facing India, leaving his countrymen largely disappointed.

He has come across as a reluctant politician with limited oratory skills struggling to speak in Hindi, the most commonly spoken language in India.

He has, however, insisted that his silence is like that of an observant student who will not speak unless properly educated on a subject. He has shunned the media and his official Facebook and Twitter accounts are a store of boring, official-sounding messages, obviously posted by his PR team.

No wonder, the young people who had once hopefully flocked to him are slowly moving away. They want their future leader to be inspiring, politically savvy and spontaneous rather than awkward and rote.

If Mr Gandhi has to lead India, he needs to reinvent himself, be better equipped with knowledge of India’s complex polity, and bring fresh ideas to the table. Sacking his speech writer would be a good start.

Of course, you can’t please everyone. But, the future beekeeper of the 1.2 billion-strong hive had better invest in protective gear. For, bees are known to turn around and sting.

rupsk@sph.com.sg