Rahul Gandhi erred by targeting Narendra Modi in Rafale row, not much time left to course correct

How do you deny an allegation? Just deny it, of course! Right? Wrong.

One excellent way to deal with an allegation is to just let it go: not saying anything about it. That’s what Barack Obama did in 2012. And that’s what Narendra Modi did in 2014 and is doing again in 2019.

A campaign against Obama saying he was a Muslim began in 2004, when he contested US Senate elections and continued after his election as the US president in 2009. It was so bad that, when Obama came to India in 2010, he abandoned a plan to visit the Golden Temple in Amritsar, fearing that if he wore a headscarf in the temple the photograph of it might be used to say he was a Muslim.

A poll at that time said that nearly a quarter of Americans indeed believed he was a Muslim. Almost on a daily basis, the Obama team had to deny that he was “not a Muslim”. But the campaign persisted in 2012 when he sought re-election as president. Then the story changed. On the advice of a “consortium of behavioural scientists”, known as COBS, that was formed to help Obama, he stopped denying he was a Muslim. He started saying he was a Christian. He was told that denials perpetuated a rumour and even confirmed it in people’s minds, and that the best way to refute a negative story was to spread a different, positive story. That’s what team Obama began to do. He was re-elected.

The Modi mantra

That’s what Narendra Modi and his team also did during the run-up to the 2014 election, when he was BJP’s PM candidate. One of Modi’s biggest tasks was to shake off his taint of the 2002 Gujarat riots. At first, he and BJP leaders began to deny he had anything to do with it. They spoke at length about the clean chit that Modi had received from courts. Then team Modi discovered that a new broom sweeps cleaner. They stopped — well, almost — talking about the riots. They began to wax eloquent on Modi’s development scorecard in Gujarat.

It’s plain common sense that the more you talk about a negative thing hurled at you the more it lingers in the memory of the audience, leading to even more curiosity about it.

The bottomline of this is that what you don’t talk about in politics is as important as what you do.

Demo does a Houdini

Rahul Gandhi erred by targeting Narendra Modi in Rafale row, not much time left to course correct

File image of Congress president Rahul Gandhi. PTI

That’s also the reason why demonetisation has disappeared from Modi’s narrative for the 2019 elections. It may find an occasional, fleeting mention, but it isn’t among the things that Modi or BJP tout as achievements to get votes. Too many people, even those who are not the regular Modi baiters, have trashed demonetisation for BJP to trumpet it as an accomplishment.

Besides, Modi and his party have other “positive” things to speak about. Topping that list is the 26 February Balakot air strikes on the Jaish-e-Mohammed terror base in Pakistan. Even Rahul Gandhi was talking about Balakot air raids. And that turned out to be a problem for Congress.

Modi was talking about the raids in a way BJP would get votes. Rahul was talking about the raids in a way Congress was guaranteed to lose votes. Modi was claiming credit for acting against terror, something no Congress government had ever done. People knew this to be true and Balakot stoked their pride and nationalism. Opinion polls conducted after the raids proved it to some extent, though it’s clear that this alone can’t ensure a landslide for the BJP in the upcoming Lok Sabha election.

But the way Congress accused BJP of “politicising” the air raids appeared to undermine the nationalism of the man-on-the-street. The Jan Sangh, the previous avatar of BJP, never denied Indira Gandhi the credit for winning the 1971 war with Pakistan. Balakot wasn’t the only thing that Rahul was talking about which he shouldn’t be talking about. The alleged Rafale scam is another.

The Rafale fiasco

Rahul is ignorant of the fact that corruption alone can’t ensure a government’s fall or a party’s election defeat. It can only contribute, even if substantially, to an election outcome, as it happened to Congress in 1989 and UPA in 2014. The Congress was never on a strong ground on Rafale, and the Balakot raids made the issue even more irrelevant, but Rahul continues to make the ridiculous allegation of “Modi putting Rs 30,000 crore in the pocket of Anil Ambani” without an iota of proof.

Rahul’s allegations or even the documents published in The Hindu have nothing to say on whether Modi or any of his ministers took money in the Rafale deal. There is simply nothing in terms of a “money trail”. The Hindu was stopped from publishing Bofors documents by the Congress government in 1989 because, as its editor N Ram told me at that time, they were beginning to point to the “money trail”.

In the Rafale deal, evidence available so far only suggests that there were procedural irregularities. Without doubt, these must be exposed and questioned, but Rahul depending solely on this to target Modi is bad strategy.

What Rahul should be talking about, on the other hand, are kitchen table issues. He does indeed talk about unemployment and plight of farmers, but not in a manner that instills confidence in listeners that he can be trusted to create jobs and help farmers, if voted. But first, Rahul must learn what not to talk about, before plunging into things that he should. There isn’t too much time for him to waste.

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Updated Date: Mar 16, 2019 22:27:31 IST

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