Beyond hugplomacy: Congress' knight-in-shining-armour approach may not be enough to stitch Opposition unity
Rahul Gandhi's knight-in-shining-armour strategy may be a double-edged sword. Besides, mature Opposition leaders may not be comfortable with his 'shoot and scoot' style.
Optics are important in an age of 24/7 TV and social media. More than words, it is a defining image that sticks on the mind. For that, Rahul Gandhi’s well-choreographed hug to Prime Minister Narendra Modi was a clever twist in the tale. Modi, himself a master of the audio-visual medium, was caught off-guard. Opinion is divided on the impact of the wink that followed. But that does not matter as the eyeballs were already captured. It remains to be seen if Modi and the BJP are able to milk it to their advantage.
When prime-time political debates on news television is probably the second most popular national pastime after cricket, ordinary folks may be excused for getting carried away by theatrics, rhetoric and body-language. But it is a telling commentary that many journalists tweeted that they found Modi’s speech boring. A renowned editor jokingly remarked that people were expecting Modi to bat like Virat Kohli but he disappointed them by being more like Angshuman Gaikawad of yore, overlaying his speech heavily with statistics.
However, the euphoria over ‘hugplomacy’ and the Congress president's wink seems to have swept away many underlying narratives of what could well be a turning point in the current political discourse of the country. Much of it is, undoubtedly, about the emerging dynamics between the Congress and potential partners, should a 'mahagathbandhan' materialise.
To begin with, the Congress appropriated (or was generously gifted by Chandrababu Naidu) the no-confidence motion moved by the TDP to launch yet another Rahul Gandhi’s ‘coming of age’ performance. In his speech, Rahul Gandhi passingly touched upon issues pertaining to Andhra Pradesh and, instead, made it a tirade against Modi that certainly pleased his supporters and cheerleaders inside and outside Parliament. In doing so, Rahul Gandhi declared himself as the 'default prime ministerial candidate' against Narendra Modi for 2019.
While the TDP understandably focused on the alleged betrayal of the BJP on granting special status to Andhra Pradesh, other than the Trinamool Congress, few other Opposition leaders took a broad stand against BJP or the prime minister. There was little to suggest co-ordination between the parties supporting the ‘no confidence motion’. Thus, it turned out to be a Congress versus BJP showdown, and Rahul Gandhi made it even more personal by directly attacking Modi.
How this hijacking of the agenda by the Congress will go down with the regional stalwarts, all jostling for primacy in the Opposition rainbow alliance, is difficult to predict just now. Even if Rahul Gandhi succeeds with the help of a friendly media in his self-projection as the Opposition mascot, it is unlikely that the regional parties will allow him space unless the Congress has a strong presence in those states. Unfortunately for Rahul and the Congress, there are only a handful of states where the Congress has an organisation to boast of.
At most places, it would have to piggyback on allies, often as a dead weight or liability. Thus, this knight-in-shining-armour strategy may be a double-edged sword. Besides, mature Opposition leaders may not be comfortable with Rahul’s 'shoot and scoot' style of campaigning, not substantiated by facts.
In a speech generally characterised by bluster, the most important assertion that Rahul Gandhi made was about his 'Shiv bhakt Hindu” identity. This could have been a reaction to the prime minister asking at a public rally if the Congress was a party only of Muslim men. Though Rahul has been playing the soft Hindutva card of late, this could cause major discomfort to the Samajwadi Party, BSP, Trinamool Congress and RJD who have a sizeable Muslim vote bank
Two days before the ‘no-confidence motion’ was taken up in Parliament, Sonia Gandhi had scoffed at the press by asking – “Who said we do not have the numbers?” In reality, the UPA finally managed to garner only 126 votes in its favour. Whereas the BJP, despite the walkout of the Shiv Sena and its own reduced strength in the Lok Sabha, ended up with a tally of 325 votes that is higher than its original count. There is a message here that the Congress and the Opposition cannot afford to ignore. Those eyeing an entry into the mahagathbandhan will also be wary of this point.
Barring the Shiv Sena, the BJP managed to hold the NDA flock together. Though Rahul Gandhi’s insinuations about dissonance within the BJP and NDA ranks may have been part bluster, one could not miss the tensions and fault lines. The no-confidence motion is not just against the prime minister, but also the entire Council of Ministers. Therefore, it was surprising that other than Rajnath Singh, who did a somewhat cold and lacklustre job, no other senior ministers came out to bat. In the absence of Arun Jaitley, one would have expected Sushma Swaraj to be the second lead. But, she was not fielded.
So, as usual, it was left to the prime minister to carry the innings. But even while he spoke, it was largely his fan club of young turks who cheered, while many old campaigners sat with a bored look on their face as some commentators observed. Among the BJP allies, Shiromani Akali Dal, which has a pathological problem with the Congress, came out in strong support of the government and Anupriya Patel of Apna Dal made a spirited speech.
Those who expect that the no-confidence motion at the beginning of the Monsoon Session will pave the way for smooth sailing in the remaining days may be disappointed. The BJP needs the Parliament to function for transacting important unfinished business and passing crucial legislations.
Modi needs much more ammunition in his kitty to go back to the voters. For that, he has to get schemes like Ayushman Bharat going and ensure speedy implementation of infrastructure projects, sort out remaining glitches in GST and direct tax changes. Otherwise the old record of Neem Coating of Urea, DBT and Jan Dhan Yojana, Ujjwala (LPG), Ujala (LED Bulbs) and crop insurance are beginning to sound jaded. That is precisely the reason parties like the Congress and TMC would like to waylay him at every turn.
Rahul Gandhi speech carried another thinly veiled but powerful threat. He said Narendra Modi and Amit Shah would hold on to power, as they are afraid that, if out of office they will face prosecution for corruption.
This could have been a pre-emptive strike by Rahul apprehending action on cases against the Gandhi family and other senior Congress leaders that have been kept warm in the oven by the Modi government. Whether this will daunt Modi and Amit Shah for fear of being accused of indulging in politics of vendetta or provoke them to act is a gamble Rahul and his advisors would have surely thought through.
By pitching Rahul directly, Congress hopes Modi’s TINA factor has been cracked. Modi can turn it to his advantage by fanning insecurity and a clash of ambitions among the Opposition, jeopardising prospects of a mahagathbandhan. Modi repeatedly alluded to the Congress’ unreliable track record as an ally in his speech on Friday.
The coming months will see a protracted war of attrition that will test not only Narendra Modi’s resilience but also Rahul’s maturity and wisdom of the veterans like Mulayam, Mayawati and Mamata.
For the public, it will be a toss-up between watching Sacred Games on Netflix or election speeches on television. Mercifully, the cricket season is all but over.
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