Rahul Gandhi has got many things right with Rafale – until he takes the next holiday.
The Rafale controversy won’t bring down the Narendra Modi government the way Bofors undid Rajiv Gandhi. But Rafale appears to be more like the CWG, 2G or Coalgate controversies during Manmohan Singh’s second term as the Prime Minister. Every week there’s a new document, a new development, a new protest. Rafale isn’t about to die down with the 2019 elections. It’s going to affect Narendra Modi’s image even if he returns as Prime Minister for a second term, as he is widely expected to.
The documents flowing in from France, the media’s inability to ignore Rafale, the controversy becoming a matter of public debate – none of this would have happened without Congress president Rahul Gandhi taking up the issue in a big way.
With Rafale, Rahul Gandhi has shown he has the ability to set the agenda. That alone is a huge achievement for Rahul Gandhi. It is arguably his biggest achievement ever. It shows Rahul Gandhi has to ability to learn from his mistakes and grow as a politician.
L’affaire Rafale may not be able to defeat Modi yet, but it is certainly coming in the way of Modi’s desire to not let anyone else set the agenda. It is, by now, difficult for anyone to say there’s no wrongdoing in the acquisition of Rafale fighter jets. At the perception level, the Congress has made a dent in the Modi government’s claim of being scam-free.
On the streets people aren’t calling the government ‘corrupt’, not least because the memories of the collapse of UPA-2 under the weight of corruption charges are still fresh in people’s minds. Rahul Gandhi is not V.P. Singh, sure, but he is nevertheless succeeding in making people ask: is Rafale a scam?
D’assault on the government
For most of the last 4.5 years, the Congress party has been found wanting in its duty of playing a good opposition, keeping the government’s excesses in check. Central to this problem has been Rahul Gandhi, a leader unable to find his own standing in national politics for the longest time.
It is difficult to say that Rahul has come of age with Rafale, because he comes of age at least once every year, frittering away the small gains and abruptly disappearing from the national stage.
Then, what did Rahul Gandhi get right about Rafale?
In one word, the answer is consistency. In July this year, Rahul Gandhi made headlines by hugging the Prime Minister in Parliament. He said he was making a point against ‘hatred’. But then he forgot all about making the point. The hug is now forgotten. If Rahul Gandhi wanted people to remember his point about Hatred vs Love, he should have made hug a Gandhigiri campaign. He should have asked the Congress leaders and workers to go around hugging the BJP leaders across the country, sending cards and flowers to the BJP leaders who make outrageous statements, and so on.
That’s exactly the kind of consistency that Rahul Gandhi has shown with Rafale, an issue he raised in the same speech that ended with a hug (and a wink). He didn’t forget Rafale after that speech in July, which unnerved the government so much that it immediately got the French to issue a rebuttal.
At the Congress Working Committee meeting soon thereafter, it was decided that Rafale would be raised as one of the issues. The party has since gone after Rafale with protests and events across the country, not just in Delhi.
Rahul Gandhi seems to have finally realised the value of consistency. Advertisers show you the same ad again and again and again until you’ve almost memorised it. Planting an idea in public memory requires repetition. Known so far for shoot-and-scoot, Rahul Gandhi has perhaps learnt his lesson.
On its own part, the Congress party feels it has been raising the Rafale issue since 2015 itself, but public opinion and the media weren’t willing to listen. After events such as Nirav Modi and Mehul Choksi fleeing the country in the wake of bank frauds, it has become more convincing to make the charge of crony capitalism against the government. There may be some truth to it, but it’s a chicken and egg question. Had the Congress shown such consistency on the Rafale issue earlier, it may have seen results.
The BJP first went on a defensive on Rafale, trying to explain its position, even deploying a TV actor to do so through a special video. Then it went on an offensive, attacking Rahul Gandhi for “playing into the hands of Pakistan and China”. Eventually, the ruling party has decided to not respond to allegations on Rafale, but that’s easier said than done.
The flip-flop in the BJP’s position shows it has been unnerved by the Rafale controversy. That Rahul Gandhi is finally able to stand up and put Modi-Shah on the back foot even for a bit needs to be noted even by his critics.