If you’re frothing at the mouth and are going apoplectic, it’s a sure sign that you have nothing coherent to say and have allowed emotion to interfere with lucidity of thought. In that sense, Congress leader Sanjay Nirupam’s vulgar abuse directed at Smriti Irani of the BJP, in a television talk show late on Thursday (watch the clip here), is symptomatic of the Congress’ colossal failure to get its head around the political significance of Narendra Modi‘s win in Gujarat.
Appearing on ABP’s post-election analysis, Nirupam resorted to the usual Congress strategy of launching ad hominem attacks on Modi based on wilful misrepresentation of facts about his record of governance in office, which was far and away the one election issue on which Modi returned to power for a third time. Challenged by Smriti Irani, Nirupam launched into personal abuse of Irani. “Aap to paise ke liye thumke lagati thi… Patha hai tumhara charitra (You used to dance for money, I know your character),” he sputtered, his hands flailing in extreme agitation.
Nirupam is, of course, a crass politician, from whom no one expects any better. But his outpourings are indicative of a larger failing within the Congress to challenge the very real political threat that Modi’s ascent, on the strength of a new idiom of developmental politics, poses to the Congress in 2014. (At another level, Nirupam’s manifest misogyny, unmindful of the fact that he was on prime-time television, provides a cultural backdrop to regressive attitudes towards women that create the enabling conditions for brutal assaults on women – of the sorts we saw in Delhi last Sunday with the gang-rape of a 23-year-old woman.)
Quite simply, the Congress in Gujarat was looking to do a repeat of the 2004 general election. That year, the BJP-led NDA was campaigning on the ‘India Shining’ platform, showcasing the entrepreneurial and economic resurgence it had laid the foundation for with a slew of economic reforms under Prime Minister AB Vajpayee. But the Congress under Sonia Gandhi launched only what can be called a ‘drains inspector’ campaign: of pointing to pockets of poverty (of which you can find plenty to this day) and running down the merits of economic growth on the specious ground that the poor and the dispossessed had not benefited from them.
The Congress’ success in that election – whatever the reason that underlay it – gave it reason to go on a populist binge and indulge in the cynical politics that placed a premium on welfare entitlements over aspirations. The effect of eight years of such “breast-beating economics” is manifest today: the economy is growing at its slowest pace in nearly a decade, and the country is perilously close to seeing its sovereign rating downgraded to junk status.
Yet, campaigning for this Assembly election in Gujarat, the Congress resorted to the same strategy of running down Modi’s claims to having fostered development. It was replicate the same cynical politics of the downward spiral that had proved successful in 2004 aat the pan-Indian level. Except that it didn’t work.
The success of Modi’s campaign pitch of reaching out to the aspirational sections of society, eschewing the politics of religious or caste identity, holds enormous significance for the economic and political discourse as it will likely be framed for the 2014 elections, but the Congress doesn’t appear to have got the memo. It is still stuck in the backward-looking politics of entitlements and populism and caste and religious identity, whereas Modi has demonstrated that India’s politics is aspirational, and that unlike in 2004, when the Congress succeeded in ambushing the India Shining campaign, ‘development’ and ‘economic reforms’ aren’t dirty words anymore.
Particularly in a context where the 2014 election is being framed as one that will see a head-to-head contest between Modi and Rahul Gandhi, the contrast in the tones between them couldn’t be more stark.
As Pratap Bhanu Mehta points out in the Indian Express (here), Rahul Gandhi‘s vision of India is as ”permanently dependent upon and confined to welfare. He does not display a trace of self-belief in India’s possibilities.” Modi, on the other hand, speaks to the future, even if he occasionally appears presumptuous in overemphasising the developmental theme.
Mehta sees this as a larger failing among Modi’s critics, and in particular the Congress, to set their own house in order before they target him. Virtually every criticism made of Modi is true of his critics as well. You say Modi fosters a personality cult? What of other parties – where the leader is bigger than the party? You say Modi is a propagandist? What do you say about the fact that the Gandhi dynasty has abused state power for decades and imprinted its name on virtually every scheme? You say Gujarat’s developmental record isn’t as immaculate as Modi claims it to be? What about the Congresss’ record over the 60-plus years since independence? As Mehta points out, if the Central government had been subject to the kind of scrutiny Gujarat has been subject to, our economic history would have been entirely different. The list is endless…
The real significance of Modi’s third consecutive victory in Gujarat, on the campaign theme of development, is that it has the capacity to dramatically alter the political discourse in the lead up to the 2014 election. Those who argue that the rest of India doesn’t abide by a Gujarati template of developmental discourse tend to miss out on the genuine yearning among aspirational sections of the neo middle class for just the rudiments of good governance.
Of course, Modi doesn’t measure up to the highest standards of liberal politics, but the same can be said of many other leaders as well. In that sense, Nirupam’s mindset is more prevalent among the ‘liberal’ political class than is readily acknowledged.
In such a political backdrop, Modi has already imprinted his stamp on the 2014 election theme. From its initial responses to Modi’s win in Gujarat, the Congress appears not to have got the message. The longer it persists in bad-mouthing political opponents as a substitute for offering governance, the more certain it is to lose the narrative. 2012 isn’t 2002, and 2014 won’t be 2004 either.