Is Narendra Modi vulnerable? Rahul Gandhi believes attacking PM over PNB scam could be a magic formula

Rahul Gandhi has said that “Narendra Modi is not against corruption, he is an instrument of corruption”. The Congress president was addressing an election rally on Wednesday in Meghalaya. In many ways, this is an extraordinary statement. It gives us an idea about how the battle for 2019 Lok Sabha elections may shape up, what the Congress strategy could be and the challenges that are mounting for the incumbent BJP.

File image of Congress President Rahul Gandhi. PTI

File image of Congress president Rahul Gandhi. PTI

This isn’t the first time that the Gandhi scion has accused the prime minister of corruption, of course. Rahul previously threatened to cause an “earthquake” by furnishing “personal proof of Modi’s corruption”. The ‘Sahara diaries’ campaign generated some mirth on social media before Supreme Court poured cold water over it.

The question, therefore, is this: Why is Rahul repeating a strategy that has failed in the past? Congress was thrown out in 2014 and reduced to a rump largely because the party became synonymous with corruption. Rahul himself is battling charges of graft. He is out on bail in the National Herald case. The Gandhi clan enjoys anything but a clean image.

So a related question: What has emboldened a politician who carries an albatross around his neck to level charges of corruption against Modi, who won an overwhelming mandate in 2014 on the back of a promise to clean the stable, carries an image of incorruptibility and is still highly popular among the electorate?  Isn’t Rahul apprehensive that his accusations carry a credibility deficit?

The Congress decision to revive a failed strategy and Rahul’s move to target the prime minister for Punjab National Bank (PNB) scam actually makes good sense. The reason, as always in politics, is temporal. To understand why, we need to take a step back and look at the linear progression of BJP’s electoral fortunes.

There were roughly three crucial ingredients in BJP’s string of electoral successes since 2014: A strong narrative, well-oiled election machinery and prime minister’s personal charisma. BJP’s rivals had a problem. They were shadow boxing not with Modi, but his image. Here was this larger-than-life figure inhabiting a stratosphere far above other politicians, a consummate orator who didn’t need the traditional media to get messages across to masses and a politician who appeared unruffled by criticism despite creating headwinds for Indian economy by introducing some of the most disruptive policies. Alliances were made and unmade, campaigns were launched but no amount of hyperbole could puncture Modi’s inscrutability.

BJP’s success in Uttar Pradesh Assembly polls added to Opposition’s nervousness about 2019. Around this time, the prime minister shifted public discourse to “building a new India’ by 2022”: The 75th year of Indian Independence. For the Opposition, the subtext was clear: Modi’s return in 2019 was certain.

That ‘certainty’ took a first major hit during the Gujarat Assembly polls in December, where BJP scraped through to a narrow victory in Modi and Amit Shah’s backyard. In pursuit of 150 seats, the party fell one short of 100. Its vote share decreased from 60 percent (approximately) in 2014 to around 49 percent in 2017, while the Congress went up from 33 percent in 2014 to 41.4 percent last year.

In the recently held Gujarat municipal polls, the trend continued. BJP retained 47 seats, the same number it won in 2013, while Congress posted a rise from 8 to 16 seats. The feeling of a ‘Congress comeback’ was reinforced by the results in Rajasthan by-elections where the BJP lost by huge margins in a straight fight.

In politics, it doesn’t take long for the narrative to change. Suddenly, the irrepressible BJP juggernaut was looking vulnerable. Electoral momentum has its own algorithm. The overarching narrative of “achhe din” in 2014 was looking worn out and a new political calculus emerged with the rise of young caste leaders. A re-energised Opposition rediscovered its unity of purpose.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi addresses a BJP campaign rally ahead of Karnataka Assembly elections in Mysuru. PTI

Prime Minister Narendra Modi addresses a BJP campaign rally ahead of Karnataka Assembly elections in Mysuru. PTI

Around this time, NDA allies also started to become more restive. The Shiv Sena, which had been struggling to contain BJP’s rise in Maharashtra at its own expense, announced that it was pulling out of the partnership for Lok Sabha polls. Chandrababu Naidu’s TDP was seeking more funds and attention and even the Akali Dal started making noises.

Media analysts soon followed. Some predicted that BJP would struggle to retain simple majority while some, such as Congress data analyst chief Praveen Chakravarty, posited that Modi’s prime ministership would be restricted to a single term because the party has saturated in its core states and failed to increase base in weak states.

The analysis is interesting, but it could be argued that instead of a state-wise breakup, BJP is looking at a demography-centric campaign by appealing to a cross-section of electorate. For instance, it may find more takers among first-time voters in 2019, women who have benefitted from the free LPG scheme or Muslim women who raised their voices against triple talaq. The party is also pushing hard to increase its presence in North East, knowing well that it might lose votes in middle India.

The BJP possibly won’t be too worried about losing its dominance in “core states”. It has some aces up its sleeve yet. There is still time to manage the allies.

However, the PNB scam is a different beast, one that may affect BJP’s trump card — Modi — and for the first time, diminish his aura. While the scam itself might be a knotty banking heist involving unintelligible terms and complicated accounting procedures, it is also a devastatingly simple narrative. Its power to penetrate Modi’s armour and damage BJP’s electoral chances lies in its simplicity.

To his credit, Rahul has been quick to latch on to the message. He has also been aided by the fortuitous twist provided by demonetisation. The idea — that while we line up for hours before banks and ATMs to withdraw cash, crooks steal our money and fly away while “chowkidar” sleeps – lends itself to a powerful political narrative.

To assess the damage this has caused, the BJP needs to look no further than the jokes and memes circulating on different social media groups. Not just neutral or anti-BJP voices, even staunch Modi followers are spinning the yarn, suggesting a deep disenchantment among BJP’s core followers. Anecdotal instances reveal that the anger is mostly directed at the prime minister for failing to stop the crooks from flying away.

It is this belief — that even Modi is no longer immune to criticism — that has emboldened Rahul in levelling charges of corruption against the prime minister. Congress believes Modi's image has taken a hit with Nirav's escape. It also believes that going hard after Modi on PNB scam will be a winning formula.


Updated Date: Feb 22, 2018 18:43 PM

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