Supreme Court verdict on Rafale changes nothing in political game; Rahul Gandhi has caught BJP napping with sharper message
The BJP has not been able to fight the perception battle around the Rafale deal that the Congress has unleashed, and the Supreme Cuort verdict will not help in this context.
The BJP thinks that a ringing endorsement of the Rafale deal by the highest court of the land means that the arrow has been pulled out of the Congress' arsenal, and Rahul Gandhi will no longer be able to use this weapon. One gets this impression by the way senior BJP functionaries and Union Cabinet ministers have since reacted to the developments in the Rafale controversy. After the Supreme Court pronounced its decision on Friday, Law Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad, for instance, went to the extent of saying that "all campaigns against Rafale must end now".
If this, indeed, is the BJP's understanding of the politics around the Rafale deal, there is little wonder that the party finds itself beleaguered by a non-scam.
Right from the beginning, the BJP has been misreading the political battle around the agreement on the fighter jets. It has sought to fight "fishing and roving inquiries" and Congress' evidence-free slander with facts. On certain issues, it has refused to divulge details citing national security threats and the "confidentiality clause" in the inter-governmental deal between India and France. The party may have thought that truth alone will be enough to clear all obfuscations, but the truth has many versions in politics.
While the BJP's position may have been legally sound — and the Supreme Court ruling vindicates its stance — it has never been enough to fight the perception battle that the Congress has unleashed around the Rafale deal. It is this perception battle that will ultimately decide how this story concludes. Narratives shape this battle, not facts.
That narrative won't depend on clean chits from courts, though it might help the BJP stave off some pressure, minute details of the defence procurement procedure, facts regarding the cost of India-specific customisations, or an objective comparison of the price-per-unit of the jets as negotiated by the UPA and the NDA, some of which the government is anyway unable to make public.
In the end, it matters little whether the NDA-negotiated deal, which the Congress has been touting as several times more expensive, will deliver an aircraft capable of carrying a nuclear payload. What matters in the rough and tumble of politics is which side has the better story.
On this count, despite frequently being on the wrong side of facts and juggling numbers, while targeting the government over the Rafale "scam", Rahul has a better story to tell. This story is essentially a slogan — "Chowkidar chor hai (the watchman is a thief)". Whether Rafale remains a potent weapon or becomes a damp squib in the court of public opinion will depend on whether Rahul gets enough traction on this slogan, or whether the BJP manages to find an even more effective slogan to counter it.
Going by early reactions, it seems the BJP is making the same old mistake. If it had earlier relied on indignance and a sense of hurt to tackle Congress' accusations, that indignation has exploded manifold since the Supreme Court judgment. The party has demanded an apology from the Congress president, and party leaders — from Amit Shah and Ravi Shankar Prasad to Arun Jaitley — has harped on the theme of "Satyameva Jayate" (truth will triumph).
"I welcome SC order on Rafale. The truth has won. An attempt was made to mislead people using lies. Rahul Gandhi should apologise to the nation and the army. He has put the national security at risk," the BJP president said at a press conference on Friday.
A few hours later, the finance minister said: "Truth holds together, falsehood falls apart. Falsehood also has a short life. In this case, it was a few months. Falsehood lowers the credibility of its creator."
By relying some more on righteous indignation and outrage, when clearly these have been poor weapons in winning the perception battle, the BJP is revealing its inability to carve out a better message. It could either be due to a lack of imagination, or a fundamental misreading of the nature of the battle over Rafale. This is quite strange in a party that relied primarily on better messaging to romp home in 2014. Back then, it had frequently turned the Congress' jibes into a potent weapon, such as Modi's "Chai pe Charcha', which was triggered by Mani Shankar Aiyar's tasteless comments.
While the BJP's ability to communicate with the masses seems to be on the wane, it is here that Rahul has made a drastic improvement. His response to the Supreme Court judgment pointed to the fact that he can make a clear distinction between the legal battle and the perception battle.
It has been clear to the Congress that "chowkidar chor hai" is a slogan that is hurting the BJP, quite in the manner in which "gali gali mein shor hai" hurt Rajiv Gandhi when the Bofors scandal emerged. The BJP may argue that Bofors is a "smoking gun", while Rafale is "hot air", it is little more than a pedantic point. The Congress believes that the mention of the words Anil Ambani, defence scam and pocketing of farmers' money make for effective messaging, and therefore, it appears undeterred despite the apparent setback in the Supreme Court.
In a press conference on Friday evening, a combative Rahul pointed out what seemed to be discrepancies in the Supreme Court's Rafale judgment over a Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) report and the Parliamentary Public Accounts Committee supposedly examining this report, demanding an explanation from the government. Rahul, once again, reiterated that the "entire country knows the watchman is a thief", and "we will prove that the prime minister is a friend of Anil Ambani and has helped Anil Ambani steal the country's money". It is fascinating how Rahul kept repeating in the presser: "Farmers, remember, your loans will be waived. These thieves took your money. The entire country knows chowkidar chor hai."
An indignant Prasad soon responded with a stinging attack on Rahul, accusing him of belittling the Supreme Court and crossing "all limits of propriety, decency and probity". But these charges by the law minister won't matter to the Congress president. The party feels that its slogan is catching on and has sought to pile on the pressure by demanding an investigation by a Joint Parliamentary Committee, announcing that the court's verdict doesn't matter as the Rafale judgement is "still an issue in the people's court".
The BJP is barking up the wrong tree, and its loud protestations are making the party look slothful, unimaginative and defensive. It needs to adopt a better message.
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