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OPINION | With 'Don’t Demonise Modi' Advice, Congress Seniors Remind Nehru-Gandhis of Perennial Dilemma

Remarks by Jairam Ramesh, Abhishek Singhvi and Shashi Tharoor have revived the debate in the Congress on whether it should opt for a “Modi-centric” campaign or focus instead on how the Modi government’s policies failed the people on economic and agrarian front.

Anita Katyal |

Updated:August 27, 2019, 4:13 PM IST
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OPINION | With 'Don’t Demonise Modi' Advice, Congress Seniors Remind Nehru-Gandhis of Perennial Dilemma
File photo of Congress leaders Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi. (PTI)

First Jairam Ramesh and then Abhishek Singhvi and Shashi Tharoor created a collective flutter in the Congress when they publicly declared that it is wrong to “demonise Prime Minister Narendra Modi” and that his model of governance is not a complete negative story.

Though these statements immediately led to a whisper campaign that the Congress MPs are cozying up to the Modi government, no one in the party was willing to acknowledge that the remarks are a direct snub to Rahul Gandhi whose campaign accusing Modi of corruption in the Rafale aircraft deal was nothing short of a fiasco.

Long before Ramesh spoke out, several Congress leaders had privately acknowledged that Rahul Gandhi was wrong to persist with his ‘Chowkidar Chor Hai’ slogan in the last Lok Sabha election as it was not resonating with the voter who was unwilling to accept that Modi is corrupt. The Nehru-Gandhi scion was advised by Congress strategists during the Lok Sabha poll campaign that he should refrain from launching a personal attack against the Prime Minister as there were no takers for it.

However, Rahul Gandhi refused to step back and instead made the ‘Chowkidar Chor Hai’ barb the centrepiece of his poll campaign, convinced that Modi was on a weak wicket on the Rafale aircraft deal. In fact, even after the party posted a disastrous result in the Lok Sabha election, the Nehru-Gandhi scion did not admit to his mistake. Instead, he lashed out at his colleagues for not taking forward the campaign on the Rafale jet deal, while his sister and Congress general secretary Priyanka Gandhi Vadra charged that Rahul Gandhi failed to get any support from party leaders and that he was left alone to battle it out in the elections.

Ramesh’s remarks have revived the debate in the Congress on whether it should opt for a “Modi-centric” campaign or should it instead focus on how the Modi government’s policies had failed the people on the economic and agrarian front.

In a message clearly directed at Rahul Gandhi, Ramesh said recently that “demonising” Modi will not help the opposition cause and that it should recognise what Modi is doing to be able to “confront the guy”.

Ramesh received immediate support from party spokesperson and fellow Rajya Sabha colleague Abhishek Singhvi who maintained that “one-way opposition actually helps” Modi. Shashi Tharoor also joined the conversation, stating that he has been arguing for six years that “Narendra Modi should be praised whenever he says or does the right thing, which would add credibility to our criticisms whenever he errs.”

This “how to deal with the Modi phenomenon” debate is not new in the Congress. It began when Narendra Modi made a splash on the political scene in Gujarat in 2001 and went on to win three terms in the state. Though several Congress strategists argued then that they should not run scared of Modi and should confront him fearlessly, a large section in the Congress disagreed. It maintained that the party should avoid personal references to Modi and his role in the 2002 Gujarat riots, and instead focus on people’s grievances and the Gujarat government’s failure to deliver on its promises.

This suggestion was based on the party’s experience about how Modi countered the personal barbs directed at him as an insult to Gujarat and its people. This only resulted in enhancing his profile and improving his popularity ratings.

For instance, Sonia Gandhi’s description of Modi as a “maut ka saudagar” (merchant of death) in the 2007 Gujarat election campaign boomeranged on the Congress as Modi and his strategists were quick to turn it around and use it to their advantage by publicising it as a personal affront to a fellow Gujarati and a popular chief minister. And more recently, Modi responded to Rahul Gandhi’s ‘Chowkidar Chor Hai’ slogan with his ‘Main Bhi Chowkidar’ campaign.

Rahul Gandhi did deviate from his ‘attack Modi’ mode in the last Gujarat assembly elections when he kept the focus on Modi government’s failures like the faulty implementation of the Goods and Services Tax and the adverse impact of demonetization on the small scale and medium industries as well as the raging agrarian crisis. He also made it a point to underline that he would not make any negative comments about Modi. This strategy paid dividends as the Congress succeeded in rattling Modi and party president Amit Shah, and came close to dislodging the three-term BJP government in Gujarat.

Except for this brief diversion, Rahul Gandhi opted for a confrontationist approach towards Modi, particularly after his ‘Suit Boot ki Sarkar’ jibe hit the bull’s eye. This had forced the Prime Minister to change tack and project a pro-poor image in order to dispel the popular perception that he was more inclined towards rich industrialists.

But the Gujarat campaign turned out to be a proverbial flash in the pan. Rahul Gandhi was soon back to his old combative self as seen in the 2019 Lok Sabha poll campaign when he chose to ignore his party colleagues who warned him against such recklessness. The Congress ended up paying a heavy price for this error of judgment.

(The author is a senior journalist. Views expressed are personal.)

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| Edited by: Nitya Thirumalai
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