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Friday, Sep 20, 2019

The BJP should accept greater scrutiny

It is almost as if the BJP feels compelled to engage in the Rafale dogfight rather than focus on the core challenge of daily governance, especially on the economic front.

columns Updated: Sep 27, 2018 19:30 IST
It has been increasingly obvious as the Congress ratchets up the clamour on the Rafale deal that the Modi government is slowly beginning to feel the heat
It has been increasingly obvious as the Congress ratchets up the clamour on the Rafale deal that the Modi government is slowly beginning to feel the heat(AFP)
         

Politics in the 24x7 media age is increasingly about perception management, which, in turn, is about constantly shaping the narrative on favourable terms. The UPA 2 government lost the plot when they simply couldn’t handle the Anna Hazare-led anti-corruption movement. That was the period when the Manmohan Singh government ceded the executive space to the noise of prime time television as hyperventilating anchors convinced the Centre that its 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. And yet, there comes a time in the life cycle of every government when 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 clamour 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, most of whom have nothing to do with the defence ministry, are 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 suggested a collusion between the former French President Francois Hollande and Gandhi, and the prime minister has warned against a “global mahagatbandhan” against his government are pointers to the diversionary tactics that are usually adopted when the battle becomes more about rhetoric than reason.

Modi’s foreign hand conspiracy theory is straight out of the Indira Gandhi playbook. Whenever Indira Gandhi was pushed into a corner, she 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 hobnobbing with Pakistanis. That even fake Facebook accounts were used to suggest a sinister Congress-Islamabad conspiracy reflects the nature of the no-holds-barred assault. It seemed to work, especially among the urban Gujarati voter.

Now, with the Rafale heat rising ahead of the next round of assembly elections, the BJP has launched a similar offensive against 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. Moreover, by drawing Robert Vadra, the controversial son-in-law of the party’s First Family, into the political slugfest, the BJP has attempted to create an equivalence between the cronyism charge its party leadership faces and the corruption/dynasty 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 dogfight 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 TV images of large crowds at Ramlila Maidan, the BJP seems unsettled and far too obsessed by the aggressive social media hashtag wars, the personalised content reflecting the low level of the prevailing political discourse.

This is not to suggest that Rafale is the BJP’s Bofors moment. Not yet at least. But by drawing the BJP into a perception war in which the prime minister’s name is repeatedly linked with special favours granted to 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, you cant just wrap the tricolour around a billionaire businessman with mounting debts while damning the reputation of a long- standing PSU.

What real impact this will have on the prime minister’s “na khaoonga na khane doonga” staunch anti-corruption image is uncertain: perhaps 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 among the BJP’s own internet armies forced a rethink, a troubling sign if executive decision-making is guided by Twitter trends rather than considered policy choices.

Rajdeep Sardesai is a senior journalist and author

The views expressed are personal

First Published: Sep 27, 2018 19:30 IST