Of politicians and the politics of exhibiting PDA
There is no politician who will indulge in PDA without an end game in mind
In the past one week, we have witnessed two very high-profile instances of politicians exhibiting PDA (public display of affection)—especially in their employment of the hug, an otherwise common gesture among the general populace.
The first instance played out during the concluding ceremony of an otherwise spectacular World Cup final in Moscow on 15 July. Indeed the game itself was thoroughly absorbing, a face-off between the attractive football played by Croatia and the game of attrition played by the French, who, for the record, eventually won by a margin far more flattering than what an otherwise close contest would suggest. While on the field the players had our attention, off the field one politician almost stole the post-match presentation with her unique brand of PDA. A constantly smiling Croatia President Kolinda Grabar-Kitarovic, who was present on the dais flanked by Russian President Vladimir Putin and French President Emmanuel Macron, proffered a warm hug to each and every player, including the ecstatic French team; of course her affection was most for the inconsolable Croatian team, which had fallen short at the final hurdle despite playing better football. And even a bout of heavy summer rain did not dampen Grabar-Kitarovic’s resolve, going through the motions despite being fully drenched. It was undoubtedly a moment where the Croatian President’s PDA garnered incredible social capital, not just in Croatia, but across the world.
And then back home on Friday, Congress president Rahul Gandhi, after an aggressive speech in Parliament attacking the government during the debate on the no-confidence motion brought against the ruling National Democratic Alliance, crossed the floor to the treasury benches and leaned down to give a visibly surprised Prime Minister Narendra Modi a hug (rather ironic because the PM was targeted in a video released by the Congress earlier this year mocking him for what they called “hug diplomacy” in Modi’s meetings with global leaders).
At that moment, Gandhi had remarkably gained the upper hand in the game of constant political one-upmanship. However, his decision to go off script and shoot a wink to some fellow members of the Congress party, immediately thereafter, completely undid the advantage—in fact, Gandhi now runs the risk of his claims of propagating love and affection sounding hollow. It was an instance of PDA gone awry.
At the cost of sounding presumptuous, I would like to claim that there is no politician who will indulge in PDA without an end game in mind; frankly nothing wrong with it because politicians need it as part of their messaging to the larger populace—Mahatma Gandhi employed it constantly in rousing the nation against colonial rule. Also it is simply unfair to expect spontaneity from someone who is under constant public scrutiny, more so in an era of rampant social media.
As a result, the entire act of PDA has to be, at the least, well-planned. Indeed the best example of calibrated PDA are those frequently undertaken by US Presidents, either in the run-up to the polls or in making a public point. But even here, we have instances of things not going to plan, resulting in considerable embarrassment to the politician.
Going back to the PDA episode in the Indian Parliament, there is a larger message. There is far too much acrimony between political parties, all of who are, at least on paper, fighting for the better cause of India. Unfortunately, the disagreements are degenerating into mutual vitriolic name-calling. A trend that is actually part of the larger malaise of the binary exchanges dominating public debates and the gradual erosion of the middle ground. This column has, on several occasions, bemoaned this phenomenon and made a case for restoring the environment fostering a healthy national discourse.
Too much to expect a radical makeover. But for starters, Indian politicians could subscribe to the age-old maxim of diplomacy: Agree to disagree (and keep the dialogue going).
Anil Padmanabhan is executive editor of Mint and writes every week on the intersection of politics and economics.
His Twitter handle is @capitalcalculus.
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