The American linguist George Lakoff would test his cognitive science students by telling them not to think of “pink elephants.” But of course, once the idea was planted in their minds, his students could think only of pink elephants. It’s a theme Lakoff explores in greater detail in his book Don’t Think of an Elephant, on the subject of framing in politics.
The Congress party today has a similar “pink elephant” problem. It just can’t get Narendra Modi off its mind. And the more it wants to not think of him, the more it obsesses about him. And particularly after its recent rotten run in the elections in recent months, it sees a Modi everywhere.
Campaigning in the Delhi local body elections, which are to be held today, guess what was Chief Minister Shiela Dikshit’s campaign theme? Not some local bijli-sadak-pani issue of immediate relevance to voters, not the very real worry of people that Delhi has gained notoriety as the “rape capital” of India.
Instead, Dikshit picked on faraway Modi in at least one of her campaign speeches. And, worse, she did it in crass fashion.
Addressing an election rally in the Old Delhi constituency of Ballimaran, which has a high concentration of Muslim voters, Dikshit gave expression to her and the Congress’ Modi obsession. “The BJP often says that their next Prime Minister will be Narendra Modi, but they never call him for campaigning in elections,” Dikshit observed.
“That’s because they know that if he ever comes here, he will be stoned by the people,” she added.
Power Minister and local MLA
Haroon Yusuf too did his bit, invoking the Babri Masjid demolition as a campaign theme in the local bodies’ election.
The Congress’ obsession with Modi is easy to understand. It perhaps realises that Modi in some ways represents the most serious challenge to its prospects of a return to power in 2014, particularly that he has now been effectively given a ‘clean chit’ by the SIT in the Gujarat riots case. And in the decade gone by, Gujarat has come to be acknowledged for the strides it has made in the area of governance and development in a way that few Congress Chief Ministers can match.
But the Congress appears to be confused about how it should respond to the political challenge that Modi poses. Only the other day, Congress party leaders in Gujarat said they were working on a strategy of getting the spotlight away from Modi ahead of the Assembly elections due by the end of the year.
Instead, they said, they would focus on the allegations of corruption and the loss to the state exchequer, as laid out by recent reports of the Comptroller and Auditor-General.
In fact, the Congress is beginning to see its strategy of focussing excessively on the 2002 riots as a losing proposition. It is therefore now working on a strategy of toning down its criticism of the Modi government’s alleged complicity or failure to intervene in time during the riots in the State.
Yet, the Congress’ muddled response manifests itself in Dikshit’s invocation of Modi as a campaign theme for the local bodies’ election in faraway Delhi.
On his Offstumped blog, Shashi Shekhar calls it Dikshit’s ‘maut ka saudagar’ moment – an allusion to the time when Sonia Gandhi invoked that phrase ahead of the 2007 Assembly election in Gujarat. He sees it as a sign of the Congress’ desperation to lock in the Muslim vote.
But it is also a strategy that, in his opinion, is counterproductive.
“It is curious that Sheila (Dikshit) should raise… Narendra Modi in a local election in Delhi. Whether it does the BJP any good in the local poll is an open question, but it does confirm that Congress leaders are Narendra Modi’s best Brand Ambassadors. With their belligerent rhetoric and tendency to draw Mr. Modi into remote election campaigns they are turning these elections into a referendum on Mr. Modi without the need for him to even step out of Gujarat and campaign.”
The Congress’ obsession with Modi has landed it in embarrassing situations on earlier occasions. In January, the Gujarat unit of the Congress took out newspaper advertisements for the Republic Day, which described Modi as a “master organiser and astute election strategist.” (It would later unconvincingly dismiss the advertisement as being “sarcastic” in tone.)
Sheila Dikshit herself had in January commented glowingly of the Gujarat government’s record of governance, but hastily rephrased her comments after they whipped up a controversy within her party. In comments in Agra, Dikshit had observed that the reason why governments (in Delhi and Assam and Gujarat) had been re-elected “again and again” was because they ensured development.
But when the comments were interpreted as being overly adulatory of Modi’s record in office, she rushed to clarify them.
“I cannot possibly praise a leader or a Chief Minister who has been accused by people of his involvement in Godhra riots which killed many many innocent people. The Godhra incident was communalisation. How can we Congress people even think of praising such a person?” she wondered.
All of this is indicative of the Congress’ bigger political problem. It hasn’t the foggiest idea of how to take on the political challenge that Modi represents. And the more it wants to ignore the ‘pink elephant’, the more it becomes the object of its magnificent obsession.