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How Congress has shifted its strategy to attack PM Modi by name

The aggression with which Rahul Gandhi assailed PM Modi personally, Congress leaders say, reflects a conscious shift in strategy. Until a year ago, the Congress had treaded cautiously in referring to Modi.

india Updated: May 02, 2018 07:22 IST
Aurangzeb Naqshbandi
Aurangzeb Naqshbandi
New Delhi, Hindustan Times
Congress,PM Modi,Rahul Gandhi
Congress president Rahul Gandhi during a rally at Ramlila Ground in New Delhi.(Arvind Yadav/HT PHOTO)

In his last two major political speeches, Congress president Rahul Gandhi named and targeted Prime Minister Narendra Modi for attack 99 times over a stretch of 65 minutes.

The aggression with which Gandhi assailed Modi personally, Congress leaders say, reflects a conscious shift in strategy. Until a year ago, the Congress had treaded cautiously in referring to Modi.

The party has now decided on a gloves-are-off approach, having concluded that the 2019 general election must be projected as a Modi vs Gandhi contest, something it had hitherto shied away from.

At the same time, the opposition party is focusing the narrative on corruption, a plank on which Modi and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) rode to victory over the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) in 2014.

In the last two rallies in Delhi, Gandhi has been unrelenting in attacking Modi.

Launching a ‘Save the Constitution’ campaign from New Delhi’s Talkatora Stadium on April 23, Gandhi mentioned Modi by name 47 times in a 30-minute speech, attacking him on a range of issues, from his “silence” on the issue of corruption to the alleged atrocities committed on Dalits, women and minorities.

He followed it up at the ‘Jan Aakrosh’ (public anger) rally in Ramlila Maidan on April 29. Gandhi spoke for nearly 35 minutes and mentioned Modi 52 times, targeting him for his silence over alleged corruption, for the failure to mention last year’s Doklam standoff in his informal summit with Chinese President Xi Jinping, for unkept pre-poll promises and recent incidents of rape in different parts of the country, including Unnao and Kathua.

Gandhi even took a jibe at the PM, repeatedly calling him ‘desh ka chowkidar’ (country’s watchman), a term Modi had frequently used during his campaign for the 2014 elections.

Congress leaders now say that Modi needs to be held “accountable” since he is the “be all and end all” of this government, with the BJP itself “gradually becoming redundant” compared to the PM. “The pain and sufferings of the people have to be espoused by the principal opposition leader. The corruption and the mal-administration need to be exposed by the principal opposition party. Modi is the be all and end all of this government and this government begins and ends with him in every aspect. So he has to be responsible for its failures and that is why Rahul Gandhi is taking him on,” party’s chief spokesperson Randeep Singh Surjewala said.

Rajasthan Congress chief Sachin Pilot agreed. “The content of Rahul Gandhi’s questions on corruption and other issues is compelling. As the leader of the principal opposition party, he is doing what the country expects of him. This has clearly rattled the government,” he said.

This is a clear deviation from the past when the Congress would avoid attacking Modi personally, out of concern that the move may backfire and that Modi could “twist the situation” to his advantage. In 2007, the then Congress president Sonia Gandhi’s “maut ke saudagar (merchants of death)” barb against Modi, who was then the Gujarat CM, boomeranged in the assembly elections that year. This forced the Congress to avoid any mention of the 2002 riots in the subsequent polls. A dominant section in the party had repeatedly argued that raking up the issue of the 2002 riots during campaigns have proved counter-productive.

Political analysts are divided on the issue. Sanjay Kumar of the Delhi-based Centre for the Study of Developing Societies termed it a “bad strategy”, Delhi-based analyst N Bhaskara Rao said Gandhi has no option but to take on Modi directly and emerge as his main challenger in the next Lok Sabha elections. “It is better for the Congress to criticise the policies and highlight the failures of the government rather than attacking Modi,” Kumar said. “There is a dilemma before the Congress. They know Modi is the big vote-catcher for the BJP and want to puncture his image but at the same time he remains the most popular leader of the country. There is a strong belief that Modi is an honest man and implicating him in corrupt practices might backfire,” he said.

Rao said Gandhi has to launch his attacks “intelligently and strategically” given that he is up against a powerful opponent. “While Modi is a great strategist, Rahul is trying to catch up. That’s the name of the game,” he said.

Gandhi’s attacks have also indicated that his party is carefully trying to project the 2019 elections as a Gandhi versus Modi contest and send a clear message that it is the Congress leader and not any regional leader who will be the Prime Minister’s primary challenger. This is a departure from the past when the Congress was willing to hand over the leadership role to regional leaders -- whether it be Nitish Kumar in Bihar or Sharad Pawar in Maharashtra or Mamata Banerjee in West Bengal.

“Well, that is how it always would be and that is how it is going to be,” Surjewala said.

Pilot said Gandhi as the Congress president is leading from the front in challenging, questioning and holding the government accountable forcefully. “It is actually a rallying point for all the opposition forces. The last year or so, there has been a steep fall in the credibility of the BJP as a political party and the Prime Minister continues to be silent on pressing issues,” he said.

First Published: May 01, 2018 23:55 IST