Why the Congress should get over its 'Modi mania'

With the election season bearing down on us sooner than we think  - according to media reports, the Congress is drawing up plans for year-end elections - a virtual spit-fest is on among the principal national parties. Virtually every day, the Congress and the BJP are trading in tu-tu-main-main polemics; while this may seem par for the political course, and provide juicy grist for political commentators, it isn't particularly illuminating or edifying.

By their very nature, such exchanges work against the party in power, given that it makes for static interference in the radio signal of governance. And more so in this particular case, the Congress appears to be playing against its own interest by revealing a grand obsession with Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi, whom the party perhaps sees as the one man who stands in the way of a UPA-3 government.

Not a day passes by without the Congress offering evidence - in thought, word and action - that it is in the grip of an obsessive 'Modi mania'. Late on Friday, Congress spokesperson Rashid Alvi took name-calling to a new low by likening Modi to Yamraj, the Lord of Death in the Hindu belief system. It was an eerie echo of Congress president Sonia Gandhi's infamous "maut ka saudagar" epithet during the 2007 Gujarat Assembly elections, which even by the party's own admission did not serve it well.

In Narendra Modi, the Congress has a pink elephant problem. AP

In Narendra Modi, the Congress has a pink elephant problem. AP

Also on Friday, Congress spokesperson Manish Tewari let slip another zinger, again targeting Modi, in the context of the latter's stated intention to repay his debt of gratitude to "Mother India", which is widely being interpreted as an explicit statement of interest on Modi's part for a shot at the prime ministership.

Just a day earlier, the Congress' reluctant yuvraj Rahul Gandhi took the stage at a CII event, which served as something of a "coming-out party". And although he never invoked Modi's name, the undercurrent of his narrative showed that he was, as Firstpost noted on Friday, looking constantly over his shoulder at the spirit of Modi that appeared to be hovering over the CII stage and watching his every move.

All this is self-defeating for the Congress, but it is also illustrative of a cognitive trap that the party finds itself ensnared in. As I had noted on an earlier occasion, this is illustrative of the Congress' "pink elephant" problem.

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.

In much the same way, the Congress today just can’t get Modi off its mind. And the more it wants to not think of him, the more it obsesses about him. And particularly after Modi has made clear that he intends to storm the Delhi darbar, panic has gripped its inmates.

The experience of the past tells us that the Congress' Modi mania - which found expression in gratuitous name-calling of the sorts that Alvi indulged in on Friday - ill-served it in the electoral battle in Gujarat. Modi successfully turned every such invective directed at him back by portraying them as a slight on the people of  Gujarat, a theme that evidently enjoyed resonance with Gujaratis. The Congress perhaps reckons that on the larger national stage, Modi will not be able to milk the same sense of asmita emotion that he could in Gujarat.

Even so, it is a self-defeating strategy. Particularly for a party that has a rotten record of governance to defend, the daily chanting of the NaMo chalisa - and the invocation of colourful epithets - represents an acknowledgement of its inability to set the agenda. Even when it doesn't quite take the name of He Who Must Not Be Named - as Rahul Gandhi pointedly didn't - it only serves to amplify the perception that the party  is running scared of Modi.  It ends up being seen as defining its identity on the basis of what it is not not - rather than on the basis of what it represents. It ends up ceding the centrality in the political discourse to Modi, when it is open to criticism from all around.

The Congress’ obsession with Modi has landed it in embarrassing situations on earlier occasions too. In January 2012, for instance, 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.)

It appears that the Congress'  political strategists haven't thought this through, which is why the party appears to be clueless about how it should take on the BJP without revealing its magnificent obsession with Modi. That is evidently being remedied, and as this report suggests, the Congress "war room" is being energised by inducting Jairam Ramesh and CP Joshi for full-time party work, by giving up their ministerial responsibilities. Additionally, Kapil Sibal and Manish Tewari will be enlisted to pitch in without resigning their Ministerial posts. Likewise, Salman Khurshid will be drafted for party work on the side.

The focus of the Congress campaign, it appears, will then be on showcasing its aam aadmi initiatives. That is going to be quite a hard sell, given the UPA-2 government's record, and the taint of corruption that adheres to it. But it is arguably less of a losing proposition than the daily manifestation of Modi mania.