This Independence Day the cacophonic combativeness of electoral conflict could be heard much louder than the soft lilt of the national anthem. The speeches of an outgoing prime minister and a would-be successor were a glaring illustration of the extremes that are pulling India’s politics in contrasting directions and possibly leaving the undecided voter even more ambiguous, or maybe, further disengaged.
On form alone, at least for those still politically uncommitted, the choice of style presented itself as an option between boring and ballistic, rehearsed and rhetorical, sanitised and snide, and insipid and inflammable. If you were looking for statesmanship the closest we got to it was on the eve of August 15, in the president’s address. Pranab Mukherjee may not win too many points for oratorical flourish, but the substance of what he said struck a higher note than either the drum-beating aggression of one or the barely-audible platitudes of the other. He managed to find the balance
between firmness and empathy. But then, he isn’t in active politics anymore.
Interestingly, the Congress refused to participate in any debate — on television or otherwise — deconstructing the messages in the two speeches; a decision reportedly taken at the very top to stop the Gujarat CM from setting the terms of the Independence Day discourse. But silence is not an alternative narrative and therein is the party’s Modi problem.
The Congress comes across as unsure and under-confident of how to take on the fiercely personalised dares thrown to its leadership by the BJP’s primus inter pares. It vacillates between offence and defence and sometimes crouches behind absolute denial when it comes to confronting Modi. In the assembly elections — expecting defeat — the Congress campaign did not even put up a fight. Even the mandatory photographs of Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi were missing from propaganda posters and banners, so as to not draw direct comparisons between leaders and styles. Now, on the national stage, side-stepping the tricky trap of who the party’s contender is for 2014 may no longer be possible.
For the Gujarat CM converting the election into a clash of personalities is a smart strategy. Especially since at the moment the collision is between Modi vs a question mark.
In the media narrative and the minds of Congress hopefuls his challenger will be Rahul Gandhi. But given the status-quo, risk-averse instincts of the Congress and the fresh memory of the battering in Uttar Pradesh, this is unlikely to unfold in any formal sense. Besides, apart from his now-not-so-recent interactions with corporate chambers and students, it’s been a while since we heard from Rahul Gandhi on where he sees his own trajectory in politics. His aversion to the media (or perhaps his opinion that journalists are irrelevant to election outcomes) has draped him in an unknowability that makes him more opaque than enigmatic.
On balance, even though his press interactions add up to many more than the Congress vice-president’s (he’s still to give a single interview) Modi isn’t necessarily over-fond of the media either. A few years ago questions posed to him on 2002 would evoke only a withering silence; sometimes even a walk-out. More recently, answering a question on his handling of the riots had Modi tying himself up in knots with the use of language that was anything but sensitive. The controversy is likely to keep the Gujarat CM at an arm’s length from formal interviews for a while. And yet whether in mainstream media or social media forums, Modi has ensured that he’s always in the headlines.
At the moment, love him or hate him, the narrative is being scripted by Modi, while the Congress dithers over whether assault or tactics is the best counter-strategy. The fatal mistake is in the party not bothering to present anything innovative that is its own — a leader or an idea — that can be taken directly to the people.
What the Congress and Manmohan Singh should both reflect on is why a similar attempt by the BJP to make the election more presidential than parliamentary failed in 2009. In the many ironies of politics, it was then LK Advani — today Modi’s main challenger within the BJP — who sharpened his election weapons to target the PM. Back then, calling Manmohan Singh ‘nikamma’ didn’t boomerang just because Indians dislike vituperative attacks; the plan also failed because in his first term the same soft-spoken, non-flamboyant, slightly bland-in-personality PM displayed strength of character when he was willing to risk his government for the nuclear deal.
It was immaterial whether you thought the deal was worth the trouble or whether you even understood its fine print. As citizens, we were impressed that power could be potentially sacrificed for a principle, however contentious. What mattered then was not how Manmohan Singh spoke (it’s a different matter that now he rarely speaks at all) but that he stood for something.
In his second term, even with greater numbers of his side, the once professorial PM — who gave so many middle-class Indians reasons to relate to him and his personal decency — has incrementally ceded the authority of his post. His refusal to assert himself, his inability or unwillingness to communicate more, his failure to make his last term in office robust and relevant and his newly-acquired fear of risk have all contributed to the weariness among people in search of a leader. To that extent, the PM’s seemingly waffling approach to governance in his second term has created the space for Modi’s diametrically opposite and, often scary, authoritarian style. None of this may win Modi the election (constituency arithmetic will be key) but as the PM wraps up his tenure, he will carry this paradox with him. In many ways, Manmohan Singh’s second term is responsible for the rise of Modi.
Barkha Dutt is Group Editor, NDTV
The views expressed by the author are personal