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Is Candidate Rahul the Biggest Asset for Modi in 2019?

PR Ramesh is Managing Editor of Open
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Instead of unveiling an alternative vision for India, the Congress president has made himself an election issue

IN THE HISTORY OF politics, it’s unlikely that anybody has ‘come of age’ as frequently—and as ceremoniously—as Rahul Gandhi, the 48-year-old Congress president and the party’s official prime minister-in-waiting. The latest rite of his coming-of-age was on July 20th, when he gave what was described by his admirers as a “stirring” speech in Parliament during the debate on the No-Confidence motion against the Narendra Modi Government.

Rahul Gandhi is young only as far as political leaders go. The 36-year-old Sachin Bansal, who was declared the 86th richest person in India in November 2015, came of age 11 years ago when he co-founded Flipkart along with Binny Bansal, also 36 now. Sundar Pichai, the 46-year-old Chennai-born CEO of Google, was selected to head the world’s foremost internet search company in August 2015. The 36-year-old Nishant Rao, former managing director of LinkedIn India, founded India’s first voice-based call centre in the late 90s. And Vijay Shekhar Sharma, the chief of PayTM, is only 45. In politics, it’s a different kind of biological system of leadership, and the eternal youth of Rahul Gandhi still inspires his party. Maybe for India’s oldest party, what matters most is genealogy. So, above all, it was a speech delivered by the great grandson of Jawaharlal Nehru. And the media meme on Rahul’s adulthood reinforces this image.

Rahul’s recycled speech lacked any substantive issue to confront the Prime Minister with in 2019. His chances of mounting a strong challenge to Modi have only grown ‘dimmer and dimmer’, as a BJP MP wrote a while ago. This was perhaps why Rahul Gandhi resorted to rehashed accusations against Modi on the Rafale aircraft deal, charges that he has been repeating since the Gujarat polls with little or nothing to substantiate them.

Since this might be the Lok Sabha’s last session before the next General Election, the Congress was expected to unveil its poll agenda during the debate. Instead, Rahul Gandhi appears to have adopted the tactic of demonising Modi. He accused the Government of large-scale cost inflation in the purchase of French Rafale fighters for the Air Force over an earlier deal negotiated by the UPA Government; he alleged that there was no secrecy pact between the governments of India and France, as Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman had claimed; and he charged the Centre with cronyism in the awarding of offset contracts— the local supply part—under the deal.

It’s always difficult for an incumbent government to disclose all aspects of a defence deal, especially one that involves weaponry. In making the accusations, the Congress chief ignored the fact that the real issue was defence planning, not the terms of the Rafale purchase. Experts in the sector say that Rahul Gandhi’s claim of a disproportionately high price being paid for the aircraft is false. For one, the UPA had not finalised a price for the aircraft in its time, and this deal comes a decade later. For another, the price of a weapons-ready fighter jet—as the NDA has ordered—would be far higher than that for a bare-bone aircraft.

The Defence Minister, in response to Rahul Gandhi’s charge that she had lied to Parliament and his claim that French President Emmanuel Macron had flatly denied a secrecy clause in conversations with him, cited Macron’s statement in a TV interview on the matter: “You have these commercial agreements and we have competitors and obviously we cannot let them know the details of the deal.” Sitharaman told Parliament on July 20th: “This was an agreement signed between the two governments on January 25, 2008. The Agreement of Secrecy was signed by then Defence Minister AK Antony.” To hold Rahul Gandhi to account for what he said, the ruling party also moved a motion against Gandhi for his alleged breach of parliamentary privilege. What started with a bang against the Government is threatening to end with a whimper for him.

Rahul Gandhi’s “jumla (falsehood) strike” charge of crony capitalism against the Prime Minister, too, sounded like an echo of himself. Addressing party workers in Mumbai in November 2016 after demonetisation, he had alleged that the Modi Government was run by and for 15 industrialists. “Narendra Modi is running a government of 15 people. I cannot name them, but all of you are well aware who I am referring to. The farmers and the poor are suffering,” he had said. “Modiji brought demonetisation. Did you see any rich person standing in queue? I will tell you what is happening, the common man is standing in line and depositing money, and this Government will give this money to all rich industrialists,” he added. Despite little to back this accusation, he chose to reiterate this in Parliament. He seemed oblivious to the fact that the ‘industrialists’ he was referring to had acquired their wealth during Congress rule.

Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman refuted Rahul Gandhi's allegation of there being no secrecy pact between the Government of India and France over the Rafale aircraft deal

Rahul Gandhi ended his performance by crossing the aisle in an orchestrated piece of drama to hug a seated Prime Minister. Like Rahul’s wink soon after, it worked—but to Modi’s advantage. Video clips of it went viral, drawing public attention to an event that would otherwise have been of little consequence, since the no-trust motion was roundly defeated on the floor of the House as expected. Sections of social media were agog with the hug-and- wink in Parliament; the Congress even put up posters of Rahul Gandhi to highlight his intent to oppose what he’d called the BJP’s ‘politics of hatred’. Little did they realise that it gave Modi the ballast needed to tear into Rahul’s theatrics and expose the hollowness of his ‘maturity’. The Congress chief had scored a self-goal with his over-the-top actions, ruining a performance that could otherwise have been remarkable for the confidence on display while taking on a Prime Minister with such high approval ratings even in his fourth year. At the end of the day’s parliamentary proceedings, the Congress looked even more unprepared for 2019 than before.

On July 22nd, the newly constituted Congress Working Committee (CWC) declared at its first meeting that Rahul Gandhi would be their party’s prime ministerial candidate. But senior leaders acknowledged in private that they were worried by his choice of optics in the spotlight of Parliament. Social media does not represent ground reality; while it could be a tool to engage with the latter, it cannot supplant it.

In a 17-minute address at the CWC gathering, Rahul Gandhi reportedly told over 200 party members to learn from the BJP and RSS, which through sustained efforts had drawn away a significant part of the Tribal vote that the Congress once had. This speech is said to have verged on adulation for the commitment and strategy of the ruling party and its ideological mentor to sustain a political hold over its base and gain new groups of voters. The address was first uploaded on YouTube and then deleted almost immediately—a sign of immaturity on part of the party’s IT cell.

Rahul Gandhi reportedly cautioned party leaders against making comments that were at odds with the party’s principal objective of dislodging Modi and the BJP from power. The Congress party line would strictly have to be adhered to. This warning was interpreted by some as aimed partly at Shashi Tharoor, a party MP who recently said that if the BJP won in 2019, it would tear up the country’s Constitution and turn India into a ‘Hindu Pakistan’, depriving minorities of equal rights as citizens. ‘It is safer in some parts of the country to be a cow than a Muslim,’ Tharoor said. This was seen as out of line by the Congress, whose leaders had lately fallen over themselves to deny Rahul Gandhi had told a group of Muslim intellectuals at a meeting that the Congress was a ‘party for Muslims’. In his tweet clarifying the party’s position, Rahul Gandhi declared that the Congress stood for all of India’s marginalised people. ‘I am the Congress,’ he added for emphasis.

These moves reveal the dilemma that the Congress leadership faces in courting anti-Modi liberals while also portraying Gandhi as a ‘janeudhari’ (holy-thread-wearing) temple-goer, as the party goes about trying to counter the BJP’s Hindutva plank without seeming anti-Hindu to voters at large. Crafting such a meta-narrative calls for a trapeze act, given the fractures in the polity that appear to have rendered Congress politics inadequate to majoritarian demands. In Parliament, while attacking the BJP for allegedly spreading communal hatred, Rahul Gandhi ended up acknowledging obliquely that his Shiva devotion was a recent conversion; he even seemed to credit the RSS for it.

The Trinamool leader Mamata Banerjee has signalled that the Congress is unwelcome in the anti-BJP front she has mooted unless it settles for less

To craft a new narrative, the Congress leadership needs to cut its umbilical cord with the old. But Rahul Gandhi has been unable to detach himself from the traditional Congress outlook on minorities as a vote bank. His party’s decades-old empathy with Muslims, both covert and overt, continues to come through as an extension of its minority appeasement politics of the past. In this context, Rahul Gandhi still appears in search of a balance between the party’s need to woo Muslims without being seen as inclined towards any particular community. Worse, aside from its perplexity over secularism, the Congress—which under Rajiv Gandhi had lost power on account of the Bofors scandal— has not been able to hurt the current Government’s image of probity. Nor has it been able to shake off the miasma of corruption during the party’s two terms in power, especially with senior party leaders such as former Finance Minister P Chidambaram now under a cloud for it.

Modi faces no such dilemma. In spite of the hate-Modi intellectual industry, the Prime Minister can rely on his ideological moorings and undiminished personal appeal. Since 2014, the BJP has widened its electoral base significantly. This is a powerful social coalition of classes and castes that the Congress is frantic to outdo with the help of regional forces such as the RJD and SP in Bihar and UP, respectively. Such alliances may not work out the way the party expects. The Trinamool leader Mamata Banerjee has signalled that the Congress is unwelcome in the anti-BJP front she has mooted unless it settles for less and relents on its assumption of leading such a formation. The SP too has maintained that a continued association with the Congress may not favour its prospects in UP. More recently, the RJD’s Tejashwi Yadav has questioned Rahul’s claim to prime ministership even if the Congress were to emerge as the biggest party in a coalition that defeats the BJP and its allies in 2019. These rumbles among regional satraps do not bode well for Rahul Gandhi’s party.

The cheers that Rahul’s histrionics received in Parliament cannot disguise Congress’ shortcomings. The Congress has neither the geographical spread nor the leadership appeal of the ruling party to pose a serious challenge at the hustings. In terms of personal charisma and political stature, Modi scores easily. Apart from its coalition experiment in Karnataka, the Congress has governments only in Punjab and tiny Mizoram, while the BJP has gained power across the country, even in parts of the Northeast where it had little presence till recently. The BJP partnership with the PDP in Jammu & Kashmir may have come apart, but the ruling party’s trend of the past four years has been one of rapid expansion. The best that can be said of the Congress is that Rahul Gandhi’s address at the CWC showed an awareness of how much work the party needs to do before it can take on the BJP.

TO HIS DISADVANTAGE, Rahul Gandhi is bogged down by his dynastic image, which in today’s India is anathema to its aspirational youth. Aside from a strategy that seems over-reliant on attacking Modi and his agenda, the Congress chief has failed to come up with a vision that would be in sync with an India of the 21st century. With the country’s youth dominating electoral outcomes and millennials forming a key block of voters in the upcoming General Election, the leader of India’s main opposition party has yet to carry out a makeover that could give it an appeal among them. He refuses to engage with the future. The eternally young leader has nothing new to offer the young.

Set against such a leader is Modi, who has turned his biography— of poverty and struggle and dreams—into poetics on the stump. It works. He is still one of them.

Modi shapes perceptions. The demonetisation of high-value currency in late 2016 could easily have been highly unpopular as a move, but the Prime Minister successfully convinced a large cross-section of the country that his motive was both honest and urgent. It needed to be done to tackle black money and cleanse the country of financial malpractices. Despite the hardships that people faced, the country did not see mass unrest against notebandi, as it was popularly called. His personal integrity was never questioned.

Modi’s detractors do not give him credit for his inclusive welfare measures. The list of schemes anchored by the Government include Mudra, Ujjwala and Swachh Bharat. Their success is likely to stand Modi and his party in good stead in 2019.

That may not be all that the BJP is banking on. Modi is a permanent campaigner. His magic on the stump has not waned in state election after election. His speeches are likely to get sharper and more acerbic vis-à-vis the opposition as the General Election nears. In a speech in West Bengal, he had declared that the state’s Durga Puja celebrations were in danger thanks to the ‘appeasement politics’ of the Trinamool government, and Chief Minister Banerjee found herself on the defensive. He is one speaker who taps the mass mind with ease.

The Prime Minister keeps a sharp eye on each state. Party leaders in Maharashtra have been asked to fight the polls alone, without the help of its old ally Shiv Sena. In Bihar, leaders are expected to rejuvenate ties with Nitish Kumar’s JD(U). In Rajasthan, Chief Minister Vasundhara Raje has been named as the BJP’s candidate for that post in the impending state elections.

The Prime Minister has already put both his Government and party in campaign gear, beginning with the regime’s fourth anniversary celebrations in May. His ministers have made one round of visits to all states in preparation for the big battle ahead. The announcement of a major hike in Minimum Support Prices for agricultural produce marked the start of an all-India campaign that will feature as many as 50 rallies over the next five months. Also planned are teleconference interactions between the Prime Minister and beneficiaries of various Central schemes, for which a database of 220 million voters has been created by the BJP. Party President Amit Shah has completed his first round of stocktaking visits to all states. The broad exercise has four components, which include interactions with Lok Sabha members, social media teams, the sorting out of glitches, and the deployment of the party’s ‘Vistarak’ force. How earnestly the last of these efforts is being mounted is clear in the rapid enrolment of Vistaraks that’s underway. The party aims to have 450,000 of these full-time volunteers drawing in votes for the BJP at the booth level.

It looks like Rahul’s performance in and outside Parliament has only made him Modi’s biggest asset in 2019. Candidate Rahul without an alternative vision for India has made himself an election issue.