Was India's most famous hug an ambush?

Soutik Biswas
India correspondent

Media caption,
Indian PM Narendra Modi is startled after his political rival hugs him

Since he swept to power four years ago, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has usually hugged the headlines. A strategically tactile leader, Mr Modi has freely embraced world leaders, while preferring to keep a distance at home.

Last week, Rahul Gandhi, the leader of the main opposition Congress, turned the tables on Mr Modi. After making a biting speech targeting Mr Modi's performance during a no-confidence motion - which the opposition lost - the 48-year-old dynast surprised his political foe in the parliament with a giant unexpected hug.

Mr Modi and his party revel in mocking Mr Gandhi and his enfeebled party, which has been reduced to a rump in the parliament. Mr Gandhi has also been the butt of coarse jokes by trolls supported by Mr Modi's BJP in social media. "You have hate in your hearts for me...and hurl choice abuses at me, but in my heart, I have no hate for you," Mr Gandhi, said before walking over to a sitting Mr Modi, and surprising him with a clearly unwanted embrace.

The hug made national headlines and the media went into a tizzy, generating an ungainly hashtag #hugoplacy on social media. Some called the it a "historic" hug, and proved that Mr Gandhi was a more astute politician than what his rivals gave him credit for.

Image source, Twitter

Others said the once-reluctant leader was finally learning the idiom of clever telegenic politics which would help him outsmart the formidable Mr Modi, known for his killer instinct and take-no-prisoners approach. "In the picture, Mr Modi seems burdened by his role, while Mr Gandhi looks ready for a certain inventiveness. It is as if he is signalling a change in style," sociologist Shiv Visvanathan told me.

A leading commentator called the hug "dramatic, unlikely and unexpected", and the result of a "pure, deliberate, coldly-crafted strategy". Barkha Dutt wrote that Mr Gandhi wants people to believe that the hug "is the politics of love vs the politics of hate - that a new-generation metrosexual gentleness can combat hard-line machismo." One newspaper breathlessly reported that the carefully-executed "hug plan" took place in February.

A dairy firm put out a cartoon, wondering whether it was an act of embracing or an attempt at embarrassing Mr Modi.

I believe the cartoon got it right. Many believe that the embrace was a brave gesture by Mr Gandhi in the "spirit of friendship" in "a toxic environment of masculinist politics" under Mr Modi. But the seemingly bipartisan hug appeared to be more of an ambush than an embrace.

Mr Gandhi may well have been inspired by US President Lyndon Johnson who famously said his philosophy was to "hug your friends tight, but your enemies tighter - hug 'em so tight that they can't wiggle."