On a day press briefings between BJP and Congress traded thicker than perhaps even bullets at the border, the ruling party came out on top, demonstrating amply why it is in ascendancy and why the grand old party is facing a terminal decline and an uncertain future.
BJP's power of messaging, first through party president Amit Shah and then later in the day through Union minister Ravi Shankar Prasad, was clear and aggressive, while senior Congress leader Kapil Sibal was left scrambling for words to interpret Rahul Gandhi's "khoon ki dalali" barb against the Prime Minister.
In politics, the tangibility of language trumps the intangibility of "intent". The Congress vice-president may have tried to put a subtle point across while accusing Narendra Modi of "profiteering from martyred soldier's blood" but the imagery was so crude and the timing so unbelievably wrong that the "intent" got neatly buried in translation and Rahul Gandhi was left clarifying his stand via a series of tweets.
the Indian Army in political posters and propaganda all across the country (2/2)
— Office of RG (@OfficeOfRG) October 7, 2016
In the imagery-laden world of political messaging, the problem with such a gaffe is that it tends to kick in motion a narrative so powerful that countering it becomes almost impossible. Rahul Gandhi's "khoon ki dalali" in all probability will go down the "maut ki saudagar" or "zehr ki kheti" way. In each of these cases, the Congress paid a heavy price for not understanding the complex interplay between language and message.
Condemnation poured in from politicians who understand the power of imagery, and it wasn't surprising to see Lalu Prasad Yadav and Arvind Kejriwal lead the pack. BJP president Amit Shah delivered the coup the grace earlier on Friday when he turned the "dalali" accusation on its head and proffered that while the word does not suit the Indian army or the PM, it sits perfectly well with Congress, given its history of being linked to a laundry list of scandals, including Bofors, coal auction, 2G and the likes.
That is when the GOP made its second, crucial error.
Throughout the political controversy over surgical strikes, the Congress has failed miserably to understand the power of the narrative. There could be debates about the scale and scope of the surgical strike carried out by the army across the LoC on 29 September, but there is no scope for doubt over the narrative that was unleashed when the Narendra Modi government publicly owned the operation. It was a calculated gamble that could have backfired had Pakistan launched a retaliatory attack.
But when it became clear that Pakistan would have no choice but to deny the strike, the gamble became a jackpot for Modi. In one stroke, Pakistan was cornered and so were Modi's rivals at home. Congress' biggest mistake was that it undermined the political message of surgical strikes while accusing the BJP of profiting from it. It showed aggression where none was warranted and consequently scored a series of own goals.
The latest was netted by Sibal himself when he appeared to defend Rahul Gandhi from Amit Shah's accusations and inexplicably ended up blaming BJP for the creation of Jaish-e-Mohammad. Attempting to up the ante against BJP, the senior Congress leader suggested that BJP was responsible for the creation of terror outfit JeM, because it released its founder Masood Azhar during the Kandahar hijacking in 1999.
"Who gave birth to JeM? Who let out Masood Azhar; whose defence minister accompanied him to Pakistan? BJP. What did Masood Azhar do after that? He formed Jaish-e-Mohammad," taunted Sibal.
Now, it is one thing for Congress to accuse BJP of trying to cash in on a nationalist upsurge and quite another to suggest that India's ruling party is the creator of the UN-designated Deobandi terrorist organisation responsible, among other crimes, for the 2001 attack on the Indian Parliament, the murder of American journalist Daniel Pearl and the terrorist attacks in Pathankot and Uri. As far as self-goals go, Sibal scored a blistering one.
The BJP immediately fielded senior leader and Union minister Ravi Shankar Prasad, who tore into the Congress.
"How can Congress say that JeM was created by the BJP? You know who will be happy with this assertion? The ISI," said Prasad. "If Pakistan stands isolated on global stage today it is because it has created, supports and funds terrorist outfits like the JeM. By calling that militant group a creation of BJP, India's principal opposition party has given a huge handle for Pakistan to exploit."
It is improbable that the Congress isn't aware of the repercussions of such baseless and malicious allegations at a time when India's diplomatic offensive against Pakistan is bearing fruit and the failed state stands virtually isolated on global stage. It is improbable that seasoned politicians like Sibal would not know where to draw the line when trading political barbs.
If a century-old party is behaving like a juvenile delinquent, that is because it has lost all self-belief and has bought into the self-prophesying truth that it is in a terminal decline.