After every US presidential election the campaign team of the losing candidate tries to identify the one moment when they believe it might have all started to unravel for their man. A tipping point of sorts that pushed the entire campaign over the cliff. Rahul Gandhi's people may well one day look back on today as one such definitive moment. Blaring headlines on the front page of every newspaper advertising the BJP's full-frontal attack on "Damaad Shri." They would be wrong.
The fatal moment -- make that, moments -- came last week: Priyanka Gandhi's embarrassingly lachrymose intervention on behalf of her husband Robert Vadra embroiled in allegations of corrupt business practices; and the party's over- the- top reaction to Narendra Modi's tub-thumping Varanasi road show. They were a self - inflicted double whammy whose consequences should have been obvious even to a novice let alone supposedly seasoned strategists at 10, Janpath or wherever they take such decisions. It was the first unmistakable sign that the Congress was in panic and that its floundering campaign had reached a point of no return. Until then for all the bad news it had managed to keep up a brave front.
That facade collapsed with Priyanka's ill-timed and mawkish outburst. It was an astonishing intervention because there was no immediate provocation for it. She had kept quiet all these months (a smart strategy when on a weak wicket) but suddenly from out of the blue --apropos of nothing--she came out not so much guns blazing as bawling like a child. Instead of letting the dog lie and hoping that nobody noticed it at least during the elections, she ended up drawing attention to the Congress and Gandhi family's hottest political potato at a most sensitive point in the campaign.
Suddenly, the Vadra issue was in the headlines again with the BJP seizing the opportunity with both hands to launch fresh attacks on the Congress and its first family. Down-in-the-dumps Uma Bharati, desperate to catch Modi’s eye, threatened that a "Modi Sarkar " would send"Congress party’s jamai babu (son-in-law)"’ to jail.
The big problem with Priyanka's intervention was that actually she had nothing to say in her husband's defence. Not a single cogent argument. No new fact to refute the allegations that he used his proximity to the ruling party’s first family to advance his business interests. It was the old Gandhi family moan (heard ad nauseam from her mother and brother) about how her parivar had been subjected to unfair political attacks. The least she could have done was to rehash the old defence –i.e. a PIL against him had been thrown out by courts and an inquiry by Rajasthan's BJP government had yielded nothing. Not many people know this and coming from her it would have resonated with the wider public. Instead she chose to play the martyred wife and mother—a hapless victim of her family’s old enemies.
It was Ms P at her worse. The Congress party’s ill-judged decision to deploy its famous secret weapon in the wrong cause (Vadra is a “no, no” even with most Congress supporters) was compounded by the fact that the weapon in question spectacularly failed to fire. It seems to have instead spectacularly backfired, allowing the BJP to make Robert Vadra the symbol of all Gandhi family misdoing.
If that left anyone in doubt that the Congress had started to lose its nerve they didn’t have to wait long for confirmation. Which came in the form of an extraordinary overreaction to Modi's maiden outing in Varanasi, and the BJP's claim that the large crowds he attracted signalled a Modi " wave".
No less a person than the famously tongue-tied Manmohan Singh, who chooses to keep mum on more important matters of the state, was first off the traps calling the "wave " a "media creation ". There was absolutely no need for him to get involved. He is good at sidestepping inconvenient questions and yet on this occasion when a bit of evasive action might have been a better strategy he chose to behave like a batsman who, blinded by a bouncer, goes for a big heave, exposing his wicket.
He was followed by other party bigwigs who first quibbled over the definition of a "wave ", then claiming that the crowd had been bought with money, free meal and booze, and finally accused the media of bias. Of course there was media hype, and of course crowds were mobilised; and certainly BJP's "tsunami " claims needed to be nailed. But it was the manner in which the Congress reacted which sent out the message that it had been rattled.
By its gross over-reaction the Congress ended up attaching unnecessary importance to what was essentially an election rally. Anyone watching or listening to the Congress leadership could be forgiven for drawing only one conclusion--that it had gone into a panic mode. Together the two episodes, coming within days of each other, are by far the clearest signal that the Congress has thrown in the towel.
All through the campaign the Congress has given the impression of reacting to the agenda set by Modi than presenting its own policies and vision. It was a mistake to focus the debate so much around secularism and communalism. By doing so the Congress walked straight into the BJP's trap whose sole intention in choosing Modi was to polarise the campaign along Hindu - Muslim lines.
Sonia Gandhi's appeal to the shahi Imam was couched in the worst possible language. Appealing for Muslim votes is quite different from seeking the help of a Muslim cleric with dodgy secular credentials to consolidate the "secular” vote as Mrs Gandhi did. The BJP was quick to claim that it amounted to painting all Hindus as communal. Even many ordinary Hindus might have felt the same way.
The bottom line is that a party with such poor strategy as the Congress doesn't deserve to win. It is time it hired a US-style professional election guru to advise it. Too late for these elections but there might be another one soon if the Modi "magic" doesn't turn out to be as magical as it's cracked up to be.