Is Modi government being unnerved by Rafale 'war'?

Politics in the media age is increasingly about perception management which in turn is about shaping the narrative to your advantage. The UPA 2 government lost the plot when they simply couldn’t handle the Anna Hazare-led anti-corruption movement. The most bizarre episode was when senior ministers from the Manmohan Singh government went to receive yoga guru turned ‘black money crusader’ Baba Ramdev at the airport, only to arrest him 24 hours later. That was the moment when the government clearly ceded the executive space to the noise of prime time television as hyper-ventilating anchors convinced the Centre that their time was up.

By contrast, Narendra Modi has been much more astute in handling the media, refusing to be drawn into the cacophony of the daily news whirl even while ensuring that Team Modi ‘controls’ the headlines through sharp event management. Not for him any sudden and dramatic response to the breaking news syndrome: instead, the prime minister has ‘managed’ the narrative by mostly one way communication, staying silent when it suits him and expressing his ‘mann ki baat’ when he thinks the time is right. Then, whether it be the ‘note-bandi’ chaos or the GST confusion, Mr Modi has never let the echo effect of tv sound-bites affect his poise. And yet, there comes a time in the life cycle of every government where the hurly-burly of news can unnerve the most shrewd of public figures: for the Modi government, that time may have finally come.

It has been increasingly obvious as the Congress ratchets up the clamor on the Rafale deal that the Modi government is slowly beginning to feel the heat. The normally calm defence minister now appears routinely brusque in her responses. That almost every union minister, many of whom have nothing to do with the defence ministry, are being fielded to respond to Rahul Gandhi’s daily jibes is a sign that the Congress president is gradually getting under the skin of the BJP leadership. That BJP spokespersons have spoken of the ubiquitous ‘Pakistan hand’, the finance minister has even bizarrely suggested a collusion between the former French president Francois Hollande and Mr Gandhi, and the prime minister has warned against a ‘global maha-gatbandhan’ against his government is a pointer to the diversionary tactics that are usually adopted when the battle becomes more about rhetoric than reason.

Mr Modi’s ‘foreign hand’ conspiracy theory is straight out of the Indira Gandhi playbook who, whenever she was pushed into a corner, would come out fighting by occupying the ‘nationalist’ space. That is the arena where the BJP too is most comfortable and where the ruling party believes a Sonia-Rahul-led Congress remains vulnerable. During the 2017 Gujarat elections, for example, the prime minister had led the charge against the Congress by virtually accusing the party leadership of hob-nobbing with Pakistanis: then be it his predecessor, Dr Singh, or indeed, Gujarat Congress leader, Ahmed Patel, no one was spared. That even fake Facebook accounts were used to suggest a sinister ‘Congress-Islamabad’ conspiracy reflects the nature of the no-holds-barred assault. However coarse and repugnant the oratory may have been, it seemed to work with the Congress forced on the defensive even while the fear-mongering appealed to the urban Gujarati voter in particular.

Now, with the Rafale heat rising ahead of the next round of assembly elections, the BJP has launched a similar offensive on the Congress leadership. While suggesting that Rahul Gandhi is being backed by Pakistan in his Rafale ‘war’, the BJP hopes to once again position their arch rivals as ‘anti-national’ collaborators. An all too familiar parallel theme has been to attack the weakest link in the Gandhi-Nehru family, Robert Vadra, the controversial son-in-law of the party’s First Family. By drawing in Vadra and his alleged defence deals into the political slugfest, the BJP has attempted to create an equivalence between the cronyism charge its party leadership faces and the corruption tag attached to the Congress.

And yet, the frenzied nature of the BJP response suggests that for once the self-assured mien is losing its shine. It is almost as if the BJP feels compelled to engage in the Rafale dog-fight rather than focus on the core challenge of daily governance, especially on the economic front. If in the Anna movement, the Congress was shaken by the tv images of large crowds at Ramlila Maidan, the BJP seems unsettled and obsessed by the aggressive social media hashtag wars. Which might explain why the Congress’s low-level ‘MeraPMChorHai’ attack was responded to by an equally deplorable “RahulKaPuraKhandaanChor’, both hashtags reflecting just how debased the public discourse has become. That even senior government ministers were tweeting using the appallingly personalised hashtag only reveals just how the gloves are well and truly off.

This is not to suggest that Rafale is the BJP’s Bofors moment. Not yet atleast. But by drawing the BJP into a ‘perception war’ in which the prime minister’s name is repeatedly linked with businessman Anil Ambani while the Congress bats for the public sector Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL), the terms of the battle are being set in a manner in which it isn’t very easy for the BJP to do its familiar ‘nationalist’ flag-waving. After all, it isn’t simple to wrap the tricolor around a crorepati businessman with mounting debts by damning a long- standing PSU.

The government may well have a case for jettisoning HAL and expediting the process of obtaining the French fighter jets, a money trail to suggest ministerial corruption may not have been yet established, but just the secretive manner in which the deal was hastily reversed and concluded does raise enough suspicion in the minds of the average citizen who is instinctively distrustful of the murky world of defence deals. What real impact this will have on the prime minister’s ‘na khaoonga na khane doonga’ staunch anti-corruption image is uncertain: perhaps Mr Modi still has enough personal equity to ride through this storm for now. But the public goodwill could yet be squandered if his government chooses to brazen it out behind a wall of opacity rather than accept greater scrutiny of its decisions. Clearly, no honeymoon is permanent as the Modi government is slowly discovering.

Post-script: There is no better example of the Modi government’s loss of nerve than its sudden U-turn over a planned Indo-Pak foreign ministers meet in New York. It is almost as if the social media outrage amongst the BJP’s own internet armies forced a rethink, a troubling sign that executive decision-making is being guided by twitter trends rather than considered policy choices.

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