Non-BJP parties doubt Congress locus; CPI(M) questions ‘weakened’ GOP’s ability in its political draft.
In one of his rare appearances in Lok Sabha (rare because he usually chooses to skip the House), Rahul Gandhi fired booming salvos at the government as the opening speaker on the Motion of Thanks to the President, an annual exercise in which the government showcases its standpoint and the opposition seeks ways to puncture it. He touched upon many issues ranging from Pegasus, Covid management, railway job seekers’ agitation, unemployment and plight of small and informal industries, etcetera. Newspaper headlines next morning mentioned none of these—they were hogged by his theory on “Two Indias” and his contention that due to the present government’s foreign policy China-Pakistan proximity has ensued. Neither of these two formulations was capable of gaining popular support, nor could they withstand the litmus test: the ruling circles were quick to rebut and even ridicule the de facto leader of the Grand Old Party. Though he referred to himself in his speech as the grandson of Jawaharlal Nehru, the parliamentary dexterity of neither Nehru nor Rahul’s grandfather, Feroze Gandhi, was reflected. Feroze had excelled in expressing contrarian views even as a member of the ruling party. Rahul’s discourse was nowhere near that niche. Perhaps it was the poorest start to a debate from Opposition benches ever.
Rahul seems to have borrowed his strategy from artillery’s shoot-and-scoot tactics—a gunner fires and immediately moves away from the point of the howitzer’s firing to avoid counter-battery. Guns recoil—and in the Lok Sabha debate on the President’s address the shoot-and-scoot tactic was foiled by a powerful recoil: Prime Minister Narendra Modi not only replied to Rahul’s speech in Lok Sabha but also extended his diatribe to the Rajya Sabha and a subsequent media interview with ANI in which he launched an all-out assault on Congress specifically. Political message resounded. As Rahul Gandhi chose to stay away from Parliament even on the day when the PM replied to the debate, it was a one-way game and the ruling party seemed to replicate the performance of the Indian hockey team in the 1932 Los Angeles Olympics final, when India thrashed hosts USA 24-1.
Talk of “Two Indias”—one for the poor and another for the rich have no novelty. Digressing from Congress ideology, which espoused India as an “Union of States”, as enshrined in the Constitution, Rahul’s discourse sounded jarring and somewhat like the stand taken by regional parties on Centre-State relations. It drew applause from DMK, Congress’ present ally, which at one point was questioned on its stance on the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi. As Modi pointed out in his reply, talk of “Tata-Birla” dominance on the economy started in the 1950s. If today India’s rich are led by Adani and Ambani (in that order), then it has to be recalled that both entrepreneurs began their upward spiral in Congress times and the liberalisation of 1991 kick-started the process of emergence of an India in which capitalism in its pristine form took roots. Rich-poor disparity in India cannot be attributed to either the present or past regimes.
Rahul’s formulation that the proximity between China and Pakistan has been triggered by Modi’s policies was countered by External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar in a tweet: “Rahul Gandhi alleged in Lok Sabha that it is this Government which brought Pakistan and China together. Perhaps, some history lessons are in order: In 1963, Pakistan illegally handed over the Shaksgam valley to China. China built the Karakoram highway through PoK in the 1970s.” The MP from Ladakh, Jamyang Namgyal Tsering, went a step further. Speaking later in the debate he asked why the Congress manifestos since 1962, till 2019, were silent on the Chinese occupation of Aksai Chin. Praising the recent budget allocation on development of border villages, Tsering quipped, “Nehru had a forward policy on China, but it became a backward policy for the people of Ladakh”. China is Congress’ Achilles’ heel: Rahul ought to have known that he was skating on thin ice. He perhaps forgot that in spite of China-Pak nexus, which saw Nixon-Kissinger pitch US against India, Indira Gandhi had created the glory of 1971. Recent expose in Australian media has shown that India had routed China in Galwan—this too did not catch the fancy of the GOP leader.
Salvos by Congress on Modi have failed to catch popular imagination. Pre-2014, the “maut ka saudagar” and “chaiwala” jabs could not stop the emergence of Modi as the challenger in 2013. The “suit-boot-ki-sarkar” slogan or reference to a Rs 10 lakh suit worn by Modi during visit by President Obama also cut no ice. “Chowkidar chor hai” chant did not create a Bofors effect on the Rafale deal. And now the latest salvo in Parliament has recoiled and the counter battery by Modi has stunned.
Congress is the only party which can offer nationwide challenge to BJP. Between 200-250 Lok Sabha seats across the country, even today see a two-way contest, the profligacy of regional parties and axiomatic collapse of Congress notwithstanding. Till emergence of BJP as the main national force and the collateral rise of anti-BJPism, the rallying point in Indian politics since 1950s had been anti-Congressism. Antipathy towards Congress persists though the party is ousted from most state capitals apart from New Delhi. And in this loathing not only regional parties, but even CPI(M), whose secretary Sitaram Yechury, enjoys bonhomie with Rahul Gandhi, is calumnious. In its draft political resolution for the forthcoming Party Congress (apex meet) in Kannur, CPI(M) refers to the GOP as a “weakened” organisation: “Congress political influence and organisational strength has been declining and currently it is plunged in a series of crisis with defections of several leaders to the BJP in various states… While it proclaims secularism it is unable to effectively mount an ideological challenge and often adopts a compromising approach.”
Not only did Rahul Gandhi fail to catch the imagination of the entire opposition by his salvos, his attempt to cock a snook at Home Minister Amit Shah by mentioning that a delegation from Manipur had told him that they were made to take off their footwear at Shah’s home while the minister wore a pair of chappals, made Congress renegade and present BJP’s Northeast strongman, Assam Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma, recall that when he took a party delegation to Rahul’s home some years back a dog had nibbled the biscuits offered to the visitors, which prompted him to leave the GOP.
Personal attacks and not policy debate seem to dominate political discourse.