In her first faceoff with Narendra Modi in Gujarat, Congress President Sonia Gandhi was guarded in her comments. She sought to skip the obvious and play on Nehruvian nostalgia. She did not mention Modi or his government even once. The only attacks came indirectly, when she referred to “people who make tall claims…and hijack others’ achievements”.
The negative popular verdict against her in 2007 after her combative references to Modi as “maut ka saudagar” apparently weighed heavily on Sonia and Congress strategists as she addressed a public rally in Rajkot. She consciously avoided getting into any tu-tu main-main with Modi. In line with this party line, all Congress leaders associated with campaigning in Gujarat have stressed the need to fight the 2012 elections on local issues and present an “alternate inclusive development model”.
Thus Sonia made no efforts to answer Modi’s charges relating to the decision to allow FDI in retail, nor did she rise to the Modi bait on her foreign trips. All these were no-go areas, as were any direct attacks on Modi. Sonia strictly restricted herself to a written script. She sought to dismiss his personal attacks against her with just one passing reference in Hindi. “Hamare upar tarah tarah ke hamle hote hain, pathrao hote hai, lekin hamne pehle bhi unki parwah nahi ki aur ab bhi nahin karte (They have been attacking me on various things, but I have never bothered about that in the past nor would I care for it now)”.
Sonia also seemed to be conscious of the fact that the Congress does not have a leader in the state to match Modi’s profile and so she decided to dwell on the past history of the Congress instead of the present. “Who sowed the seeds of development in the state? It was Congress.” She then said the big industrial leap in petrochemicals, refineries and textiles all came during Congress regimes.
Even the two projects that Modi has claimed credit for — bringing Narmada waters to Gujarat and the Sardar Sarovar dam — the Congress President said these were the results of her party’s efforts. She said the Narmada project was conceived by Jawaharlal Nehru and Sardar Sarovar was named after Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel. She twice took Sardar Patel’s name in her speech, and on both occasions it was supplemented with Nehru’s name.
It’s a different matter though that the BJP has hijacked the legacy of Sardar Patel and Modi’s acolytes have labelled him “Chhote Sardar.” It was in this context that she made another veiled attack on Modi, again without naming him. “There are some people who habitually snatch what rightfully belongs to someone else”, she said, adding that Narmada waters had not reached Saurashtra in the last five years.
However, in Rajkot Sonia publicly spoke of FDI in retail and claimed its biggest merit was that it would eliminate middlemen who profited from farmers. The move, according to her, would act as bridge between two Indias, rural and urban, as it would enable farmers to get the right value for their produce. Given the topography of Saurashtra, farmers have their own share of grievances and Sonia may be hoping that FDI in retail may come as a positive sign to voters in this region.
Again there was a nuanced attack on Modi. Her contention was that if the centre allowed states to opt out of FDI in retail “why this noise and misleading of people?” Modi has pitched himself against FDI in retail. Likewise, on diesel and fertiliser prices, she asked why Gujarat was not lightening the burden on the people. The Congress will be hoping that the crowd gathered in Rajkot can get the real import of her speech.
The Congress President ended her speech with the pledge to build a “new Gujarat.” She did not elaborate on her party’s vision. She has probably left this to various local leaders in the state, who can tailor this commitment to local needs so as to take on Modi at the grassroot level on local issues. The party believes this is the best way to end Modi’s 11-year reign.