Maine Congress ke ek neta ka kal ghoshana patra suna, Prime Minister Narendra Modi said in the Lok Sabha Thursday. (“Yesterday, I heard the manifesto of a Congress leader.”)
He then went on to refer to Rahul Gandhi’s statement that in six months, India’s youth will start raining wooden rods (danda) on the prime minister. Modi, of course, did not mention that Rahul Gandhi made this forecast on account of rising unemployment in India.
But if you hadn’t heard Rahul Gandhi’s rally speech in Delhi the previous day, you wouldn’t know which Congress leader Modi was referring to. He did not mention Rahul Gandhi by name.
When Rahul Gandhi stood up to interject, PM Modi sharpened his attack further, calling Rahul Gandhi a slow “tubelight”. Once again, he did not say either Rahul or Gandhi.
Narendra Modi does name Rahul Gandhi on Twitter once a year – to wish him on his birthday. Modi had also named Rahul Gandhi while congratulating him on becoming the Congress president in December 2017. But these are perfunctory greetings.
In political speeches, I have never heard Narendra Modi say the words “Rahul Gandhi”. If you can find a rare instance, the exception will only prove the rule.
The signifier and the signified
In his early days as Gujarat chief minister, Narendra Modi famously referred to Rahul Gandhi as “shehzada,” Urdu for prince. It was a dog whistle of a kind, subtly equating Rahul Gandhi with Muslims.
In what was by far the most distasteful instance of Modi finding alternative ways to refer to Rahul Gandhi, he wondered early last year if an invention to help dyslexic students could also help 40-year-olds. He didn’t have to say who he was referring to. Everyone knew.
Around 2013, the BJP built Rahul Gandhi’s image as “Pappu”, a dim-witted boy. Modi’s campaign team has a ‘Pappupedia’ division to create and disseminate social media jokes and cartoons that depict Rahul Gandhi as dumb. I have met someone who was part of this team.
But Modi has himself never used the word ‘Pappu’, to the best of my knowledge.
Never address your opponent by name
What would happen if Narendra Modi was to name Rahul Gandhi?
Modi seems to believe that naming an opponent actually helps him/her. If Modi uses the words ‘Rahul Gandhi’, it could make people think about Rahul Gandhi in many different ways. Someone might think of secularism, someone might think of farmers, someone might think of Rajiv Gandhi.
But that is not Modi’s purpose. He wants you to think of Rahul Gandhi in a particular, defined way. He wants you to think of Rahul Gandhi as a dim-witted person who is an object of ridicule. Modi wants to define his political opponents and make sure they are universally seen through the lens that he uses for them.
So, Modi keeps referring to Rahul Gandhi in various derogatory ways without actually naming him. “Congress ke ek yuva neta hain,” he once said, “Aaj kal bolna seekh rahe hain.” (There’s a young leader of the Congress; these days he is learning to speak.)
Another reason Modi doesn’t name Gandhi is that in doing so, he would elevate the Congress leader to his own stature. We might start seeing Rahul Gandhi and Narendra Modi as equals, two men in an akhara. Instead, Modi built up Smriti Irani as the answer to Rahul Gandhi.
Modi would rather be compared to Jawaharlal Nehru — and hence he keeps attacking Nehru non-stop. In the same speech where he was loath to take Rahul Gandhi’s name, he took Nehru’s name 23 times.
The attention game
This attention game is so central to politics — or at least the Modi version of it — that Modi takes his own name in his speeches, refers to himself in the third person.
It is difficult to forget the name of Hema Malini’s character in Sholay thanks to her famous dialogue: “Aapne Basanti se yeh to poocha hi nahi, ki Basanti tumhara naam kya hai?” (You never asked Basanti, what’s your name Basanti?)
The more you hear the word ‘Modi’, the more you will think about him. And the word ‘Modi’ could mean different things to different people.
While the opponents get derogatory nicknames, the constant use of the word ‘Modi’ by Modi, his party, the media, independent critics and the opposition helps create the sense that there is no one but Modi in national leadership.
There was a time, soon after demonetisation, that the word ‘Mitron’ (friends) became a joke. It was Modi’s signature style to begin his rally speeches with “Mitron” instead of the usual “bhaiyon aur behnon” (brothers and sisters). But when Mitron became a by-word for anti-Modi jokes, he quickly dropped it. Modi knows the power of signifiers.
Now we don’t joke about ‘Mitron’ anymore.
Home Minister Amit Shah does name Rahul Gandhi and other politicians he’s taking on. He wants to be seen as the BJP equivalent of all the top opposition leaders, in order to elevate Modi above everyone else on the battlefield. Modi is king, Shah the general.
Note that even Shah often refers to polenta with uncomplimentary suffixes such as “Kejriwal gang” or to Rahul Gandhi as “Rahul baba” to reinforce the accusation about Rahul being an immature politician. His style is closer to that of Donald Trump who does name his opponents but with a prefix: “Crooked Hillary” or “Crazy Bernie”.
What did Duggal Sahab say?
It is Rahul Gandhi’s mistake to use the words ‘Narendra Modi’ all too often. He could learn from Modi and stop using the word ‘Modi’.
In Priyanka Gandhi’s statements before cameras, I have seen her avoid the words ‘Narendra’ and ‘Modi’. She seems to get it.
This was also a problem with Rahul Gandhi’s “Chowkidar Chor Hai” slogan (the watchman is the thief). The slogan was a play on Modi’s claim that he was the nation’s watchman, or chowkidar. The slogan reminded people of how Modi wants to be seen: as a chowkidar. Sure enough, Modi did some ambush marketing and coined a counter-slogan, ‘Main bhi Chowkidar’, urging his supporters to join his symbolic project of ‘guarding the nation’.
It is not just Rahul Gandhi whose name Modi avoids taking. You will rarely see him name any opponent. It’s not as if Modi has been screaming ‘Kejriwal, Kejriwal’ or ‘Mamata, Mamata’, either.
There are anti-Modi influencers on Twitter who get this. They have coined phrases or alternative names like ‘Duggal sahab’ (reference to a movie character who becomes whatever person he needs to be, like a chameleon). Others call him “Gobhi ji”, Mr Cauliflower, just to avoid saying the word ‘Modi’.
In 2013, Congress supporters had coined the word ‘feku’ (bluffmaster) for Modi. Since Modi won the election, the name was dropped. And his opponents went back to calling him by his name, just the way Modi would like it to be.
This is why it is said, the more you attack Modi, the more he gains — but it’s true only if you refer to him directly – Narendra, Modi or NaMo – or if you attack him personally. Any attack on Modi that seems remotely personal can and will be used by him to play the victim. Why do his opponents give him just the attention he wants?
If you call for Modi to be beaten with sticks, he will call you a tubelight. Unlike you, he won’t even dignify you by taking your name. It is safest to attack Modi’s policies — Rahul Gandhi’s 2015 jibe of “suit-boot ki sarkar” did just that, without naming Modi or any industrialist friends that the PM allegedly wanted to help by amending the land acquisition law.
These are important elements of political communication in the Modi era. They have been out there for everyone to see since 2013. But, as Gobhi ji said, the current takes time to reach slow tubelights.
Here’s the challenge for Rahul Gandhi: give a full speech without saying the words “Narendra Modi”.
The author is contributing editor to ThePrint. Views are personal.