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By targeting Rahul, the BJP is deviating voters’ attention from real issues

A falling rupee and rising petrol prices have led to a spate of WhatsApp jokes, many of them directed at the ruling party which when in Opposition had sung an entirely different tune.

columns Updated: Sep 14, 2018 12:02 IST
Kailash Mansarovar Yatra
Congress President Rahul Gandhi during the Kailash Mansarovar Yatra, 2018(Photos by special arrangement)

One of the more persistent criticisms against the Narendra Modi government has been that far too many of its ministers say or do things that have no connection with their assigned ministry. A classic example is Giriraj Singh, minister of state for micro, small and medium enterprises, who is best known for making bizarre remarks, often asking government critics to be packed off to Pakistan. His latest diatribe has been against his favourite whipping boy, Congress president Rahul Gandhi. While questioning the authenticity of the photographs of Gandhi on the Kailash Mansarovar Yatra, Singh claimed that pictures were Photoshopped 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 Gandhi fits in with a BJP plan ahead of the 2019 general elections: make the election battle a quasi-presidential Modi versus Gandhi contest, 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 trip, Gandhi targeted the BJP-RSS ideology, the BJP held three press conferences on a single day to hit back even while its Internet army became hyperactive. More ammunition was provided when the Telangana chief minister, K Chandrashekhar Rao, described the Congress president as a “buffoon” while announcing his decision to go it alone in the state elections.

If in 2014, Modi had skillfully 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, Gandhi wasn’t a major factor in voter choices. The election was principally a referendum on the ruling UPA’s performance with Modi’s muscular image being contrasted with Manmohan Singh’s perceived weakness as an accidental prime minister. If the 2014 election was hyped as the MITA (Modi is the alternative) election, then the 2019 battle is being pitched as the TINA (There is no alternative) election with the Opposition ‘aha-gatbandhan (grand alliance) being targeted as a gaggle of self-serving leaders with no ideology beyond being anti-Modi and burdened with a Congress president who cannot hold his own as a unifying figure.

Nor has the Congress 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 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 Gandhi’s capabilities (or lack of them) and less about issues that concern the average voter.

Ironically, there is no shortage of real issues for the Congress to latch on. A falling rupee and rising petrol prices have led to a spate of WhatsApp 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 still remains unable to fully rouse itself as an oppositional force, or become an instant magnet for a wider political coalition.

It is 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 reports of the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy 2018 have confirmed that unemployment rates remain high. Rather than pitching Gandhi as an alternative to 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 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 Fitbit record shows he trekked 46,433 steps over 463 minutes and burned 4,666 calories in a single day!

Rajdeep Sardesai is a senior journalist and author

The views expressed are personal

First Published: Sep 14, 2018 12:01 IST