In 2017, when things seemed to be going good for the Congress, Mani Shankar Aiyar’s comment calling the prime minister a ‘neech aadmi’ became the turning back moment for the Grand Old Party. It gave the BJP a clear edge and PM Narendra Modi used the barb to point out that an entitled Congress revelled in making attacks at him by ridiculing a man from a humble background.
Barring a few exceptions, the Congress learnt its lesson from the incident. Realising that any personal attack on the prime minister would backfire, it tried to steer clear of making such comments.
The party, now in election mode, seems to have implemented its learnings from the experience for itself — in the name of Congress president Mallikarjun Kharge. At a rally in Banaskantha, an Adivasi belt in Gujarat, Kharge said: “The prime minister always says he is poor. I am Kharge, the poorest of the poor. I come from the untouchables… At least someone used to drink your [PM Modi’s] tea… nobody even drinks my tea. You (Modi) say I am poor, someone told me bad words, ‘Meri aukat kya hai’… if you are trying to gain people’s sympathy, people are not fools. They are very smart.”
Sources in Congress say there is a reason why the party unleashed Kharge in the fag-end of an otherwise lack lustre campaign in poll-bound Gujarat. According to the party, he ticks the right boxes and can help with damage control. He can also help manage the perception that the Gandhis are entitled and the party has lost sync with the poor.
Kharge also chose the location of his speech strategically — Banaskantha is an Adivasi area that is somewhat a Congress stronghold.
It is not just Kharge’s Dalit background that the Congress hopes will work in its favour. More importantly, having someone who rose from the ranks — beginning as a labour union leader — Congress hopes Kharge can be a match to Modi’s humble origins. In fact, sources say it hopes to play the ‘Who is More Humble’ card in several state elections culminating in the 2024 Lok Sabha polls. This, coupled with Rahul Gandhi’s ‘image makeover’ after the Bharat Jodo Yatra, should hopefully work for the beleaguered party.
However, elections are not won only on image cultivation. It has to be backed by smart strategy and strong organisation — areas where the BJP has the cutting edge.
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