In Backing Modi Govt After Pulwama Attack, Rahul and Priyanka Have Learnt from Sonia’s 1999 and 2016 Mistakes
The Congress had erred in attacking the BJP governments after the 1999 Kargil war and the 2016 surgical strikes, suffering losses in subsequent elections.
File photo of Rahul Gandhi and Priyanka Gandhi. (PTI)
The Congress seems to have learnt a few lessons from 1999 and 2016 when it paid a political price for opposing the BJP governments over conflict with Pakistan and cross-border surgical strikes.
The follies of 1999 were many, costing the grand old party a defeat in the general elections. At the height of the Kargil conflict, the Congress under Sonia Gandhi sought to question Atal Bihari Vajpayee government’s “ignominious incompetence in Kargil”, but later joined the government’s sense of achievement and celebration of Kargil.
The party tried unsuccessfully to remind the voters about Indira Gandhi and 1971’s decisive victory against Pakistan, creation of Bangladesh etc. But many young generation and first-time voters could find little resonance with the Congress campaign. Vajpayee-led NDA returned to power with ease.
In 1999, Sonia Gandhi was battling the controversy over her foreign origins when she decided to go ballistic against the Vajpayee regime in Hissar on August 26, 1999. Addressing a rally, she had remarked that the Vajpayee government should be “ashamed” of seeking votes on the martyrdom of soldiers who lost lives in the Kargil conflict. Addressing her first election meeting in Haryana, Gandhi had attacked the BJP’s bid to cash in on Kargil, saying: “Who has given the BJP leaders the right to celebrate the sufferings of hundreds of mothers, daughters, sisters and wives who have lost their men in Kargil?”
She had also wondered how BJP leaders could think of celebrations when hundreds of families in India were in mourning, having taken out arthis and janazas of their dear ones. She accused the Vajpayee government of ignoring “reliable information” about Pakistani intrusion.
Many Congress workers had got worked up with Gandhi’s blunt speech. The Kargil conflict was a major talking point in Haryana, which had lost the maximum number of soldiers in the conflict. Hissar, where Gandhi had addressed the gathering, is a key military base.
Vajpayee was quick to seize the opportunity. Speaking in Indore, the then PM had asserted his right to project Kargil victory as an election issue. The veteran statesman had argued that informing the people about the Indian army achievements did not amount to violation of any rule or the code of conduct.
“When the government can be flayed and questioned over the Kargil intrusions, then it is equally apt to take to the masses the importance of the victory achieved,” Vajpayee had said.
The Congress played its cards badly again in 2016 after the September 29 surgical strikes against Pakistan that helped the BJP net subsequent Assembly polls in Uttar Pradesh. Mumbai Congress chief Sanjay Nirupam had drawn a lot of flak from various quarters for questioning the strikes.
Nirupam and many Congress leaders had missed the point that Indian surgical strikes were aimed against terrorists based in PoK. India was fully justified in killing enemies of the state, who, even by Pakistani definition, were ‘non-state actors’. Nirupam’s formulation was against the patriotic feelings of countrymen cutting across the party lines, region or religion. It put the Congress in most awkward position.
If Nirupam was guilty of crossing the Laxman rekha of discipline and decency, the Congress move to let him get away with it was equally baffling. A reprimand from the likes of Randeep Singh Surjewala meant nothing. If Rahul Gandhi had acted against Nirupam swiftly, the Congress graph would have gone up.
Following the dastardly Pulwama incident, the Congress under Rahul Gandhi and Priyanka Gandhi has shown maturity, standing by the government of the day and checking most of its in-house motormouths. In addition to expressing solidarity with the CRPF and families of martyrs, the Congress is backing the Narendra Modi government to the hilt in its military, diplomatic and trade options against Pakistan. This wait-and-watch approach seems to be going down well with the masses.
Internally, the Congress’ assessment is that any open criticism of the Modi regime at this juncture may not go down well with a large section of voters who want the country to show its united resolve against a devilish neighbour. Significantly, Congress managers do not see a major military conflict taking place before April-May 2019 general elections.
Pulwama, in the eyes of Congress strategists, cannot serve as a potent poll issue as it is intricately linked to multi-dimensional Kashmir problem, security and intelligence lapses, the BJP-PDP alliance, Modi regimes blow-hot, blow-cold diplomatic ties with Pakistan and a host of subjects that are part of larger public discourse.
The Congress managers feel “silent communication” will help highlight these issues once emotions settle down.
Contrary to TV news rhetoric, seasoned Congress campaigners feel war is not an easy or ready option before the Modi government. Other than a very heavy financial cost and the state of preparedness, there are diplomatic and economic repercussions that need to be factored in. In such a scenario, agrarian-rural distress, jobs, anti-incumbency and range of national, state and local issues will be on test in the upcoming Lok Sabha polls.
The Congress Working Committee is meeting in Ahmedabad on February 26 where, in Priyanka Gandhi’s presence, the CWC will articulate its views and formulations on current relations between India and Pakistan, Modi's handling of J&K situation etc. The grand old party will miss old, experienced hands like Pranab Mukherjee and K Natwar Singh whose absence from the party has weakened the Congress's grip on matters related to finer aspects foreign policy. The likes of Anand Sharma, Salman Khurshid and Shashi Tharoor are knowledgeable about geopolitical issues, but, their critics allege, often get carried away by television studio and social media narratives.
(The author is visiting fellow at the Observer Research Foundation and a senior journalist. Views are personal)
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