Its attempts to form a Mahagatbandhan suffers from a lack of conviction, and an agenda beyond ousting Modi.
The keystone of the Congress Party’s “tarnish Modi’s incorruptible image” strategy has fallen out, despite the hysterically high-decibel campaign. This was the one that was designed to destroy Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s credibility and send him tumbling, head-first from the tower. Instead, it is Rahul Gandhi that seems to be slipping, his ice-thin plausibility denied in the full glare of the national and international media.
And this, most damagingly, long months before the general election. It was a risky, desperate gambit to start with, and has become a festering self-inflicted, possibly mortal wound for the Congress.
Gandhi’s theatrical hullabaloo is about the 36-Rafale-fighter government-to-government deal and its “offsets” involving Anil Ambani and others. This campaign of calumny has been going on from before the monsoon session of Parliament, and is gasping for oxygen now.
Even HAL, the spurned suitor, on whose behalf Rahul Gandhi says he’s out jousting, is not willing to engage in the debate. Well aware of its shortcomings, despite being well invested, staffed and government owned, it does not want to involve itself in this controversy. It wants no part of the argument on whether Dassault, the French makers of the Rafale aircraft, if not the Modi government itself, unfairly sidelined it to favour Anil Ambani’s firm. Perhaps it knows itself better than Rahul Gandhi does. But Gandhi, in an “in for a penny, in for a pound” avatar, has not hesitated to call the Prime Minister a “chor”, and Dassault CEO Eric Trappier a “liar”.
He has sought to whip up a misinformation campaign that suggests that the Modi government has contracted the 36 Rafale fighters in fly-away condition, armed to the teeth with sophisticated weapons and gadgetry as they are, at a much higher price than was being negotiated with the previous UPA administration. The inapplicability of the apple and orange comparisons are deliberately ignored.
Gandhi’s inner coterie and analytics team are probably telling him the age-old strategy of “fling enough mud around and some of it will stick”, is working. The attempt to treat the Rafale purchase deal as Narendra Modi’s Bofors moment, is crumbling in the face of increasing divergence from the facts. Ironically, the first howitzers from America and field-guns from South Korea, since Bofors supplied some 30 years ago, have just been introduced, greatly strengthening Indian artillery capabilities at the borders.
Meanwhile, the Supreme Court is now apprised of the deal process and detailed pricing under sealed cover, and will shortly be faced with the inevitability of giving the government a clean chit—except for perhaps some points of procedure at best. Gandhi wanted the details in the media or at least before a select committee in Parliament, but will have to settle for an SC verdict without knowing what it is based upon.
By way of contrast, watching a CNN programme on the celebrated and enduring fragrance Chanel No.5 recently was edifying. The current “Nose” was asked what it is about the complex perfume that made is such a favourite. He said it was a mystique best not put into words. Chanel No.5 is known to be made of a host of ingredients, including the light pink “May Rose” grown at Grasse in the South of France. It contains our own sandalwood, a large, possibly accidental dose of aldehyde, natural civet and musks, jasmine, orris root, iris root, other Grasse flowers. Yet it remains a formulation secret. If only the present Congress party, like Coco Chanel’s perfume, knew anything about holding back and leave people wondering.
Indira Gandhi was secretive and naturally very good at it. She often left friend and foe guessing. Narendra Modi, a loner, also plays his cards very close to his chest. He is also lucky—oil prices are descending once again.
But Rahul Gandhi, once shy and tongue-tied, has developed a programmed and spiteful motor-mouth. And his very persona has evidently induced matching parental anxiety. It has elicited an ill-conceived volubility in his usually reticent mother. Sonia Gandhi boasted that she would not allow Modi to come back in 2019 “under any circumstance”. And this was as far back as the India Today Conclave 2018. She said it with a smirk on her face, even as the Cambridge Analytica scandals, not just here, but in the West, had already been outed.
The tone had been set much before, in Parliament, at public meetings and on the street. There has been an unending display of brattish and entitled rage, but not much else. “Before & After” Rafale, has been bracketed by a series of loud-mouthed rabble rousers, arsonists and murderers, gathered together to assist. There is the toxic trio of the Gujarat campaign—Jignesh Mevani, Hardik Patel, Alpesh Thakor. Thakor was identified recently as the instigator of an exodus of Bihar and UP workers from Gujarat, an action that will not help Congress prospects in both the very important states electorally. There is the sly catch from JNU, Kanhaiya Kumar, reportedly going into the electoral fray from Bihar soon. There are other criminal elements, lesser known, from Bhima-Koregaon.
And the Congress senior leadership, dignified while in office, has had to pony up with their own version of heckling coarseness to match their leader.
Mini-fires, treasonous and anti-national, were brazenly set at New Delhi’s far-left infestations in JNU. And a suicide, that of Rohith Vemula, was exploited amongst the Dalit students at Hyderabad. Pro-Pakistan and Kashmiri separatist movements were encouraged. Award wapsi tantrums were orchestrated. Infantile campaigns were unleashed on the social media. All this was gloated over by the nearly 50-year-old Rahul Gandhi in person. But despite national media coverage, these taunting antics, including winks and insincere hugs, have collectively failed to conflagrate.
The divisive Lingayat controversy raised, did more to put H.D. Kumaraswamy into the Chief Minister’s chair than help the Congress. There have been bizarre attempts at juneaudharism, and temple hopping in saffron. The Congress has also developed a recent affection for cows and gaushalas. It is yet to make up its mind on which way to jump on the Ram Mandir, probably trying to gauge the reaction of its remaining Muslim vote banks.
If there was a solitary hook-or-by-crook success for Gandhi and the Congress, it was in Karnataka. And another probable, if the in-fighting amongst the state Congress leaders permit, is widely expected to come in Rajasthan. Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh, however, are likely to be retained by the BJP. Mizoram too may well slip into the BJP camp along with the rest of the Northeast.
If this is the outcome, where are the sweeping results the campaign of vilification was expected to yield?
Congress has also been depicting the BJP as a destroyer of institutions and the economy, a culturally divisive force at home, and foolish in foreign affairs. So much so, that it must be uprooted if the “Idea of India” is to survive. Much as it tries to fish in troubled waters at the CBI, RBI, the banks and their defaulters/absconders, most of the finger pointing backfires. Its top leadership is being indicted and tried in the courts right now even as it bleats “vendetta”.
Meanwhile the Modi government scores with the GDP, infrastructure development, improved defence preparedness, ease of doing business, farmers and SMEs. Foreign policy gains are evident in Iran, Russia, the US, Israel, UAE, Saudi Arabia, the ASEAN and even China. GST is a massive economic reform accomplished, as are Acts like the bankruptcy code. Terrorism in Kashmir and Maoist violence in Central India have been hit hard.
The broader Opposition’s attempts to form a Mahagatbandhan suffers from a lack of conviction, and an agenda beyond wanting to oust Modi.
Modi, on his part, is poised to make the better battle of it in the 2019 elections. He controls the Central government and a large number of BJP/NDA states. He has a massive war chest of campaign funds. He is popular at home and influential abroad. Very importantly, he has, as yet, kept his powder dry. Nobody quite knows where or what he will attack, nor its intended intensity.
This, while Rahul Gandhi and the disparate Opposition has fired almost every bullet in its possession, ruining anticipation and the element of surprise. It stands exposed, transparent, obviously craving power, but has peaked altogether too soon to seize it.