One of the more persistent criticisms against the Narendra Modi government has been that far too many of its ministers seem to have very little work to do and as a result end up saying/doing things that have no connection with their assigned ministry. A classic example is Giriraj Singh, minister of state for micro, small and medium enterprises: rather than focus on reviving MSMEs in post-demonetisation India, Singh is best known for routinely making bizarre remarks, often asking critics of the government to be packed off to Pakistan. His latest diatribe has been once again against his favourite whipping boy, Congress president Rahul Gandhi. While questioning the authenticity of the pictures of Mr Gandhi on the Kailash Mansarovar Yatra, Singh claimed that pictures were photo-shopped because the shadow of the cane in the hand of the Congress leader was missing. While the minister’s frenetic attempts at staying in the headlines can be ignored, the sustained attack on Mr Gandhi fits in with a deliberate BJP plan ahead of the 2019 general elections: make the election battle Modi versus Rahul while systematically demolishing the credibility of the Congress president.
From a ‘hug and wink’ in parliament to responding to any casual remark he makes, “Bash Rahul” is now almost a daily diet for BJP spokespersons in tv studios, on social media and beyond. When during his Berlin-London roadshow, Mr Gandhi targeted the BJP-RSS ideology, the BJP held three press conferences on a single day to hit back even while its internet army was galvanized into hyper-active mode. More ammunition was provided when the Telangana chief minister, K Chandrashekhar Rao (KCR) described the Congress president as a ‘buffoon’ while announcing his decision to go it alone in the state elections. Whether at the Centre or Hyderabad, the narrative being set is to make the elections as quasi-presidential as possible by completely discrediting the Congress leadership as a viable alternative to the ruling incumbents.
Setting the tone has been prime minister Modi himself even while the party’s junior functionaries have been ‘outsourced’ the task of the daily assault on the Congress leader. If in 2014, Mr Modi had skilfully used his ‘son of chaiwallah’ lineage to draw a distinction with the ‘privileged’ Congress first family, in 2019 there is a similar attempt being made to position the election as ‘kaamdar’ (working man) versus ‘naamdaar’ (dynast). In 2014 though, Rahul Gandhi wasn’t a major factor in voter choices: the election was principally a referendum on the ruling UPA’s performance with Mr Modi’s muscular image being contrasted with Dr Manmohan Singh’s perceived weakness as an accidental prime minister. If the 2014 election was hyped as the ‘MITA’ election (Modi is the Alternative), then the 2019 battle is being pitched as the TINA election (There is no Alternative). Demolishing Rahul Gandhi’s claim to lead any non-BJP formation is crucial to reinforcing the TINA factor which is why the BJP continues to harp on the ‘Rahul as Pappu’ imagery at every possible opportunity.
By focusing on a ‘Target Rahul’ strategy, the BJP has cleverly avoided taking on the powerful regional leaders, some of whom like a KCR could be potential allies in a post-election scenario. It is almost as if the BJP senses that once the Congress glue comes unstuck, any loud talk of an anti-BJP maha-gatbandhan will quickly pipe down. That many of these regional potentates do not see the Congress president as a first among equals has been known for a while, but now it is becoming increasingly apparent that the relentless attack on Mr Gandhi is designed to make the Congress leadership appear even more of a liability.
The Congress hasn’t helped its cause by being excessively protective of their leader to the point where the party is constantly in reactive mode. For example, during the Gujarat elections when the BJP appeared to question Mr Gandhi’s ‘Hindu’ identity, the Congress went into overdrive to try and establish their leader’s credentials as a ‘janeu-dhari’ Hindu. Now, when the BJP seeks to question the Kailash yatra as ‘photo-op Hinduism’, the Congress has been quick to defend their leader’s ‘faith’. The result is exactly what the BJP wants: make the election chatter more about Mr Gandhi’s capabilities (or lack of them) and less about issues that concern the average voter.
Ironically, there are no shortage of ‘real’ issues for the Congress to latch on. A falling rupee and rising petrol prices have led to a spate of whats-app jokes, many of them directed at the ruling party which when in opposition had sung an entirely different tune. That it took the Congress almost a month to finally get its act together and call for a Bharat bandh on fuel only confirms that the party remains unable to fully rouse itself as an oppositional force, or become an instant magnet for a wider political coalition.
Its not just fuel prices which should be agitating the opposition. Agrarian discontent remains a concern as evidenced in the gritty kisan ‘long march’ and farmer protests that continue in different parts of the country. The Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy 2018 reports suggest that unemployment rates remain high and only confirm the wide gap between dream and reality on a key 2014 election promise. Rather than pitching Mr Gandhi as an alternative to Mr Modi who remains well ahead of all potential rivals in the popularity stakes, farmers and youth (‘kisan’ and ‘jawan’) are the twin poles around which a more sustainable and cohesive opposition campaign might revolve. Instead, when a major Congress leader in Madhya Pradesh makes an election promise of setting up ‘gau-shalas’ in every district as a priority while another claims Brahmin DNA is in Congress blood, you begin to wonder: is the opposition playing on a pitch prepared by the ruling BJP rather than attempting to set a narrative of its own?
Post-script: Whether Rahul Gandhi’s Kailash Mansarovar yatra establishes his ‘spiritual Hindu’ quotient is uncertain, but he has certainly proved his fitness levels are truly competitive even without doing yoga: his fit-bit record shows he trekked 46,433 steps over 463 minutes and burned 4,666 calories in a single day!