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‘Long march’ helps Rahul Gandhi shed playboy image

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'Long march' helps Rahul Gandhi shed playboy image

 Five months spent traversing his country on foot helped the scion of India’s most famous dynasty shed his playboy image — but the road to reviving his dismal political fortunes will be a tougher journey.

Rahul Gandhi has for years struggled to challenge the electoral juggernaut of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, whose Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) holds a near-monopoly on power through nationalist appeals to the country’s Hindu majority.

Modi has revelled in casting his chief opponent, dubbed an “empty suit” in leaked US embassy cables from 2005, as an out-of-touch princeling more interested in luxury and self-indulgence than fighting to helm the world’s biggest democracy.

His Congress party, a once-mighty force with a proud role in ending British colonial rule 75 years ago, is now a shadow of its former self, plagued by infighting and defections.

But a decision to invoke one of India’s best-known protest traditions, flanked by ordinary people, has given him an air of authority that had so far eluded him in public life.

“Rightly or wrongly, the BJP’s campaign of him being an incompetent person was the dominant perception — he has managed to change that,” independent political analyst Parsa Venkateshwar Rao Junior told AFP.

Since his long trek began on India’s southernmost tip last September, Gandhi has struck a chord with fiery speeches and affectionate interactions with the thousands of bystanders that have lined streets to watch his procession.

The campaign harkens back to the famous 1930 trek by Rahul’s unrelated namesake Mahatma Gandhi, whose march to protest a salt tax imposed by British rulers was a seminal moment in India’s independence struggle.

It has bypassed the country’s traditional media in an effort to reach the public directly, with an in-house social media apparatus and interviews with online influencers.

Footage of Gandhi on the roadshows him with a newly commanding posture, sporting an unkempt salt-and-pepper beard grown during the march and trailed by smiling children.

His 3,500-kilometre (2,175-mile) journey — not all by foot — concludes on Monday in the frosty Himalayan foothills of Kashmir, after months spent finessing both his common touch and a voter pitch capitalising on widespread economic insecurity.

“The job of the nation is to make sure that you feel protected,” he said this month, while sharing kebabs and playfully joking about his sweet tooth in a YouTube interview with a popular food blogger.

‘Unite India’

The “Bharat Jodo Yatra” (“Unite India March”) has fashioned Gandhi into a more credible heir to the legacy of his father, grandmother and great-grandfather, each one a former prime minister, beginning with independence leader Jawaharlal Nehru.

But Gandhi has already steered Congress to two landslide election defeats against the seemingly unconquerable BJP, whose victory in next year’s national polls is almost universally considered a foregone conclusion by experts.

“He has managed to redefine his public image,” Rao said. “Whether it will translate into votes, I am not very sure.”

Congress was dominant during the first half-century after Indian independence but now governs in just three of India’s 28 states.

The party weathered a messy and public internal brawl last year over who would take office as its president after the resignation of Sonia Gandhi — Rahul’s mother, widowed when her husband Rajiv was assassinated in a suicide attack in 1991.

Several leaders of other opposition parties historically aligned with Congress spurned Rahul’s entreaties to join his countrywide trek, an uncharitable estimation of his prospects next year.

His exhortations of religious tolerance and India’s secular traditions have in the past failed to dent the BJP’s muscular advocacy for the Hindu majority at a time of rising intolerance against Muslims.

‘He had no choice’

But his decision to undertake the march also reflects his biggest hurdle: the enduring power of Prime Minister Modi, whose skill in cultivating a populist public image well outclasses his own.

“Rahul Gandhi himself has said that he had no choice but to go for the (march) in order to connect with people and report it through social media,” Zoya Hasan, an academic and political scientist based in New Delhi, told AFP.

Modi is the beneficiary of a media environment largely in thrall to the BJP’s agenda, with Indian press freedoms declining significantly since he took office in 2014, according to international watchdogs.

While the prime minister’s daily movements are reported on frantically by cable news broadcasters, Gandhi’s exploits have largely failed to feature unless they cast him in a negative light.

“Anything that undermines the opposition is prime news,” Hasan added.

“Anything that is positive which actually brings people together, as the Bharat Jodo Yatra is seeking to do, is not.”

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White-led DA party joins ANC in South African unity government

White-led DA party joins ANC in South African unity government

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White-led DA party joins ANC in South African unity government

 The African National Congress and its largest rival, the white-led, pro-business Democratic Alliance, agreed on Friday to work together in South Africa’s new government of national unity, a step change after 30 years of ANC majority rule.

Once unthinkable, the deal between two sharply antagonistic parties is the most momentous political shift in South Africa since Nelson Mandela led the ANC to victory in the 1994 elections that marked the end of apartheid.

“Today, South Africa is a better country than it was yesterday. For the first time since 1994, we’ve embarked on a peaceful and democratic transfer of power to a new government that will be different from the previous one,” DA leader John Steenhuisen said in a televised address.

“From today, the DA will co-govern the Republic of South Africa in a spirit of unity and collaboration,” he said, adding that multi-party government was the “new normal”.

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The ANC lost its majority for the first time in an election on May 29 and has spent two weeks locked in intensive behind-the-scenes talks with other parties, which came down to the wire on Friday morning as the new parliament was convening.

The DA’s entry into national government is a big moment for a country still processing the legacy of the racist colonial and apartheid regimes. The party has struggled to shake off its image as a defender of rich white people and convince a broad spectrum of South Africans that it reflects their aspirations.

Two smaller parties, the socially conservative Inkatha Freedom Party and the right-wing Patriotic Alliance, will also take part in the unity government, they said. 

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Hamas’ armed wing says Israeli airstrike killed two hostages in Rafah

Hamas’ armed wing says Israeli airstrike killed two hostages in Rafah

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Hamas' armed wing says Israeli airstrike killed two hostages in Rafah

Hamas’ armed wing al-Qassam Brigades said on Friday that two Israeli hostages held in Gaza were killed in an Israeli airstrike on Rafah a few days ago.

The group, in a video posted on its Telegram channel, did not release the names of those said to have been killed or provide any evidence.

The Israeli government “does not want your hostages to return, except in coffins,” the al-Qassam Brigades statement said.

Israel rescued four hostages held by Hamas in a hostage-freeing operation in central Gaza’s al-Nuseirat on June 8. The health ministry in Hamas-run Gaza said more than 250 Palestinians were killed in the raid.

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The war in Gaza erupted when Hamas militants stormed southern Israel on Oct. 7, killing around 1,200 people and seizing more than 250 hostages, according to Israeli tallies. 

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US attack sub, Canada navy patrol ship arrive in Cuba on heels of Russian warships

US attack sub, Canada navy patrol ship arrive in Cuba on heels of Russian warships

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US attack sub, Canada navy patrol ship arrive in Cuba on heels of Russian warships

A Canadian navy patrol ship sailed into Havana early on Friday, just hours after the United States announced a fast-attack submarine had docked at its Guantanamo naval base on Cuba, both vessels on the heels of Russian warships that arrived on the island earlier this week.

The confluence of Russian, Canadian and U.S. vessels in Cuba – a Communist-ruled island nation just 160 km (100 miles) from Florida – served up a reminder of old Cold War tensions and of current fraught ties between Russia and Western nations over the Ukraine war.

However, both the U.S. and Cuba have said the Russian warships pose no threat to the region. Russia has also characterized the arrival of its warships in allied Cuba as routine.

The Admiral Gorshkov frigate and the nuclear-powered submarine Kazan, half submerged with its crew on deck, sailed into Havana harbor on Wednesday after conducting “high-precision missile weapons” training in the Atlantic Ocean.

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Canada`s Margaret Brooke patrol vessel began maneuvers early on Friday to enter Havana harbor, part of what the Canadian Joint Operations Command called “a port visit…in recognition of the long-standing bilateral relationship between Canada and Cuba.”

A Canadian diplomat characterized the Margaret Brooke`s arrival as “routine and part of long-standing cooperation between our two countries”, adding it was “unrelated to the presence of the Russian ships.”

Russia and Cuba were close allies under the former Soviet Union and tensions with Washington over Communism in its “backyard” peaked with the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. Moscow, which has maintained ties with Havana, has questioned the apparent nervousness of the West over the warships this week. 

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