After six long years, the Congress began to set the political agenda again.
The Congress president is not even trying to win the next Lok Sabha elections,” this writer had said on 9 July. On 20 July, Congress president Rahul Gandhi surprised Prime Minister Narendra Modi by hugging him in the Lok Sabha, stealing what was to be a Modi victory against the first no-confidence motion in 15 years. In one photo, the hug symbolises what suddenly changed: Rahul Gandhi started at least trying to win.
For the first four years of its term, the Modi government and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) managed to set the political agenda—nationally, as well in the states. In politics, whoever sets the agenda gets to dominate the political mood. And the BJP was going largely unchallenged in this game.
In February 2017, Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar, then a Congress ally, had publicly complained the opposition was unable to set the agenda and urged Rahul Gandhi to take the lead in doing so. This was at least partly the reason why Nitish Kumar swapped allies and returned to the NDA in July 2017.
As we ring out 2018 and ring in 2019, it can no longer be said that Modi and his party are setting the agenda. Led by Rahul Gandhi, the Congress has not only defeated the BJP in three key states in the Hindi heartland but also set the national agenda for the moment: farm distress.
And Narendra Modi has been forced to respond to it. In his speeches in Himachal Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh last week, the prime minister said the Congress had been fooling farmers on the issue of farm loan waivers. Yes, Narendra Modi remains the best orator out there. His numerous claims about the Congress’ poor performance on farm loan waivers could damage the Congress’ effort to use this plank in the 2019 general elections. But the fact is, the Congress is setting the agenda, something it didn’t seem capable of doing from 2011 to 2017.
Congress decides the issue
The Congress is only offering lollipops to farmers, Modi said. The prime minister is “remembering farmers” only after losing five state elections, the Congress responded. In the process, the Congress has managed to make a weak point for the Modi government farm distress—the central political issue.
Will Mr Modi be able to shake off farm distress as a major issue before the Lok Sabha elections due in four months? As of now, he is complaining there is too much negative news. Please look at the positive news websites, he recommends to the nation.
The Modi government is said to be considering several options to address farm distress even as we speak. Until now, it had come across as deliberately ignoring the issue. The government’s outlay for agriculture is likely to go up in the interim, election-year budget.
This is in marked contrast with the past, when Rahul Gandhi had campaigned on the farm distress issue in Uttar Pradesh but then suddenly concluded it. The BJP took advantage of the Congress president’s inconsistency and appropriated the farm loan waiver plank, winning the state with a two-thirds majority.
Rafale, Rafale, Rafale
Rahul Gandhi seems to have learnt the value of consistency in agenda-setting. He took up the issue of alleged irregularities in the purchase of Rafale fighter jets in a consistent way. For several weeks, the Congress went on and on with Rafale. Yes, Rafale didn’t become a public issue in the streets and the Supreme Court ended the dispute anyway.
But the Rafale controversy was an opportunity cost for the BJP. It put the party on the back foot. The BJP didn’t know how to respond, at times saying it would not speak on the issue and at other times offering lengthy explanations. At least, at the level of the Delhi media narrative, the Rafale issue affected Modi’s ability to steal the headlines—in his favour.
The tables have been turned, the Congress is making Modi look weak and defensive. Rahul Gandhi is now playing to win, except that Modi is a veteran at the game. Twenty Nineteen promises to be a fun Twenty-Twenty match.
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