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4-min read

OPINION | Can Congress Steer Narrative Back From Chest-thumping Jingoism to Bread-and-butter Issues?

Now that the Lok Sabha polls are round the corner, the Congress has to necessarily unveil its agenda and the issues it plans to highlight in its election campaign.

Updated:March 12, 2019, 9:27 AM IST
OPINION | Can Congress Steer Narrative Back From Chest-thumping Jingoism to Bread-and-butter Issues?
File image of Rahul Gandhi with Sonia Gandhi. (PTI Photo)

As the Congress Working Committee gets ready for a meeting in Ahmedabad on March 12, the big challenge before the party’s decision-making body is to figure out how it can change the current political narrative on hyper-nationalism and chest-thumping jingoism, propagated by the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, and steer it back to socio-economic issues such as agrarian distress, the ailing economy, and joblessness.

The Congress has an unenviable task on hand. The BJP has made it abundantly clear that it will go all-out to exploit the Pulwama attack and India’s air strikes in Pakistan for electoral gains. Prime Minister Narendra Modi and BJP president Amit Shah’s public statements have provided ample proof that the saffron party will keep the nationalism issue simmering till the elections.

The Congress can ill-afford to engage with its chief political rival on this issue as the BJP is quick to dub it an anti-national act and castigate the opposition party for undermining the armed forces.

On the other hand, the Congress cannot allow the BJP to walk away by setting the agenda and that too so close to a crucial Lok Sabha election. It has to change the narrative by going back to bread-butter issues as it had succeeded in doing in last year’s assembly polls in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, and Chhattisgarh.

But it’s a tough call as there appear to be few takers for these matters of daily concern in the current surcharged atmosphere. Moreover, the Congress does not have the communication skills or political spin masters like Modi who have the capability to turn around every situation in their favour.

The Congress Working Committee was originally slated to meet on Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s home turf on February 28 to send out a strong message to its chief political adversary that it was not afraid of confronting it in his stronghold. A public rally, which was to follow the meeting, was meant to sound the poll bugle for the coming electoral challenge.

However, the grand old party had to abandon these plans after the Pulwama attack and escalating Indo-Pak tensions. Taking a cue from the overwhelming public sentiment, the Congress and other opposition parties chose to back the Modi government in its fight against terrorism. It also took a conscious decision not to raise uncomfortable questions about intelligence failure in Pulwama or about the veracity of the BJP’s claims that India’s air strike in Pakistan had killed hundreds of terrorists.

As it is, a few stray comments by the party’s controversial leaders, provided sufficient ammunition to the BJP to accuse the Congress of undermining the armed forces, of helping Pakistan and of putting family interest above national security. The Congress had little choice but to put all political activity on hold as it waited for the public mood to change.

Now that the Lok Sabha polls are round the corner, the Congress has to necessarily unveil its agenda and the issues it plans to highlight in its election campaign. A confused Congress rank and file is now depending on the rescheduled working committee meeting to delineate the party’s chief talking points and how it plans to pin down the Modi government at a time when its popularity ratings have registered an upward surge. After all, the working committee is to set the tone for the upcoming election.

But to provide greater clarity to the rank and file, its resolutions and statements will have to go beyond the predictable: congratulating the Indian Air Force for the air strikes, accusing the BJP and Modi of politicising the armed forces and the mandatory reference to the controversy over the purchase of Rafale fighter jets.

In addition, the Congress cadre also wants the party leadership to shed light on pre-poll alliances. Though Rahul Gandhi told the media recently that the party’s alliances are on track, the party is yet to finalise its electoral pacts in Maharashtra, Bihar, and Karnataka which are comparatively less problematic than states like Uttar Pradesh, West Bengal and Delhi.

The Congress has been kept out of the alliance announced by the Samajwadi Party and the Bahujan Samaj Party in Uttar Pradesh though there is talk of back-channel talks about a last-minute compromise. But that appears highly unlikely as BSP chief Mayawati is learned to have said a firm no to any partnership with the Congress. It’s the same situation in Delhi where the Congress and the Arvind Kejriwal-led Aam Aadmi Party have parted ways publicly but are still exploring the possibility of reaching an understanding. As regards West Bengal, Trinamool Congress chief Mamata Banerjee and Rahul Gandhi had announced that they will work together at the national level but compete against each other in the states. At the same time, the CPM has proposed that they should not fight each other in the six Lok Sabha seats currently held by the two parties. But the Congress is yet to respond as it is quibbling over the Raiganj Lok Sabha seat.

All this adds up to a pretty confusing picture. And there are no guarantees that the Congress leadership will be able to explain itself not just to its own ranks but also to the electorate.

(Author is a senior journalist. Views are personal)

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