The template for the electoral calendar until the 2019 general election may have already been set. The bitterness and gut-punching belligerence on display in the Budget session, particularly in the Prime Minister’s intervention in the debate on the thanks-giving motion to the President, will dictate the political discourse. Of course, a growing confrontation between the BJP and the Congress can further impede the government’s attempt to get things done in Parliament and outside, but, politically, it suits the ruling party more than it suits the principal Opposition party.
Indeed, what provoked Modi to launch a no-holds-barred assault on the Congress in general and the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty in particular is hard to fathom, but at the end of his unparalleled aggression, by all accounts, the Family was left fumbling for cover. It faced a classic dilemma. Rebutting the specific charges against the “parivar” would mean playing straight into the attacker’s hands; keeping silent would lend credibility to them. Pointedly, even those who make no bones about their visceral hatred of the “saffronites” find it hard to support the first family’s self-absorption which had reduced the Congress Party into a rump of its once glorious past.
Whether, or not, Modi came across as prime ministerial, particularly in the Lok Sabha, his diatribe-strewn intervention enthused his troops no end. After the crushing by-poll losses in Rajasthan, they were a little crestfallen. From the BJP’s perspective, Modi’s frontal attack on the Congress was necessary. Belated attempts at Rahul Gandhi’s make-over, amply aided by the editorialist classes, had generated a faux sense of the Congress’ revival.
The Rajasthan by-poll setback to the imperious Vasundhra Raje had ignited a thought among the little lambs tied to the little finger of the Gandhi scion of an early return to the seats of power in New Delhi. The most likely losses of the ruling party in much of the Hindi heartland, which it had virtually swept in the 2014 general election, bolstered that rosy scenario.
Modi’s oratorical aggression did two things immediately. One, it once again reminded his critics—if such a reminder was needed—that he was no push-over. He was not going to wilt under pressure of any kind. He would not only defend his turf, but would carry the fight to the Opposition camp. And which he did in the way only he could have, leaving the Opposition pulverised, and the Congress virtually in coma—despite that ugly display of a most grating lung-power by the minions of the Congress boss inside the Lok Sabha.
The second objective in his mercilessly tearing into the Congress leadership, most likely, was to give fillip to the not-so-covert resistance from the likes of Sharad Pawar and Mamata Banerjee to the idea that the mother-installed Congress boss is a natural claimant to head the proposed non-NDA grouping. A badly mauled and bruised Rahul Gandhi, unable to stand up to the oratorical and parliamentary skills, as also the guiles and wiles, of the unquestioned leader of the ruling combine can be hardly in a position to mount a credible challenge to the much-better prepared and much-better organised BJP. Despite attempts by the likes of NRI, Sam Pitroda, and Shashi Tharoor, Rahul Gandhi has to go some distance to wipe off the lingering image of a know-nothing pappu. Parroting scripted lines or Twittering under the rubric of the Office of Rahul Gandhi only underlines his limited skills as Prime Minister material.
In this context, a widely respected public intellectual Ramchandra Guha’s lament that Rahul Gandhi as the leader of the grand old party remains unacceptable merits consideration, especially by the courtiers in the party’s deliberative bodies. Unfortunately, neither singly nor collectively is anyone able to bell the cat and speak truth to the authority ensconced in the gilded palace at 10 Janpath. The Congress royalty being permanent, anyone who cavils at the Congress gaddi, being reserved exclusively for the family, can follow Sharad Pawar and others to set up his own tattered tent outside.
Guha was apt in saying that the ferocity of Modi’s attack on the Nehru-Gandhi family would have lacked relevance had the Congress been led by a non-Gandhi. Even though both Nehru and Indira Gandhi did commit huge blunders, the costs of some of which the nation still feels obliged to pay, repeating the charges decades later would fetch negligible political capital were someone other than a Gandhi to helm the Congress. Indeed, had anyone else other than Rahul harped on the alleged hanky-panky in the Rafele deal, it would merit a detailed response. Rahul, or for that matter, his mother Sonia, is hardly in a position to talk of corruption in defence deal. Besides, Rafele does not involve any bribery. No. Not a paise. It only reveals the Prime Ministerial unilateralism that not long ago had led to his overnight rendering 86% of the money in circulation illegal. Procedural short-cuts and defence procurement processes might have been short-circuited by a Prime Minister given to play solo unmindful of the institutional safeguards and protocols in place. On the eve of his visit to France, he upped and offered his hosts a deal they desperately needed to keep their defence industry running and, crucially, to save jobs. Manufacturing fighter jets is not only capital intensive, it is also employment-intensive.
Curiously, after keeping mum for several months, it was upon his return from the much-ballyhooed tour of the US that Rahul first spoke of something fishy in the Rafele deal. Apparently, the competitors who too had an eye on the Indian order for a new generation of fighter jets, to replace the old, antiquated and accident-prone MiGs, were persuaded to meet Rahul. And at one such meeting, suggestions of wrong-doing were bandied about. The rest was apparently done by the legion of defence dealers who had prospered under the aegis of the Gandhis but were now on the run owing to the squeaky clean Modi.
Also, it cannot be ruled out that the Rafele noise has been revived by Rahul following reports that the CBI might try and have the Bofors case re-opened. As per credible accounts, the Bofors deal was clinched at a lunch hosted by the then Prime Minister for the visiting Swedish Prime Minister Olaf Palme on the lawns of 7 Race Course Road where the host’s wife personally served pasta to the honoured guestsy, among them being one named Ottavio Quattorocchi. Small wonder, then, the Gandhis went through all manner of contortions to deny that they along with their bribe-taking family friend were not implicated in the scam. They were. Hell with the clean chits procured from all and sundry.
Unfortunately, Rahul is otherwise handicapped sticking the corruption charge against Modi. For one, this PM doesn’t have his wife living with him, nor, for that matter, does she have a family friend to claim that he is virtually a member of the Prime Minister’s family. More importantly, Modi is widely known to be incorruptible. And, finally, there can be no bribe, it being a government-to-government deal. Yes, if you call the short-circuiting of the tedious and painfully long defence procurements process, Modi did seem to have compressed it in order to make the headline-grabbing announcement on the eve of his visit to France. Remember notebandi.