The ongoing workers’ crisis has the potential to become the Congress’ ‘suit boot ki sarkar’ moment. It has been five years since the Congress last managed to corner the Narendra Modi-led BJP government at the Centre on any issue, displayed its effectiveness as an opposition party, and actually managed to score a political point.
In 2015, Congress leader Rahul Gandhi had forced Prime Minister Modi to go back on his plans to dilute the Land Acquisition Act with his ‘suit boot ki sarkar‘ jibe, and perhaps helped put his government on the path of jan kalyan (public welfare) with a pro-rural emphasis.
Five years later, the uncomfortable reality of the jobless labourers witnessed during the pandemic-induced lockdown — the image of lakhs of people, including children, walking hundreds of kilometres in scorching heat, barefoot and hungry, to reach their villages — has exposed the Modi government’s failure to tackle a crisis. If the Congress is able to handle the situation smartly and astutely, it could be the second big issue on which it can corner Modi and also try to emerge out of political wilderness.
The Congress has traditionally held a strong grip over rural India, which was its strength for long, but has been gradually eaten away by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) of Modi and Home Minister Amit Shah. But it’s not all over for the Congress. Even today, the party shows glimpses of being able to understand, and potentially tap into, the rural pulse. The workers’ crisis offers it an opportunity to do just that, especially given how ill-prepared and thoughtless Modi and his team have come out looking since the lockdown was first announced on 24 March.
The lost years
Ever since it was trounced in the 2014 Lok Sabha election, the Congress has slipped deeper into a rut of irrelevance.
Everything it tried, failed. Sustained attacks against demonetisation, questioning the clumsy roll-out of the Goods and Services Tax (GST), trying to corner the government on the the issue of a dwindling economy and job losses, and most significantly, Rahul Gandhi’s shrill Rafale tirade — all gave zero results to the Congress. Not just electorally, these efforts failed politically too, leaving no impact — symbolically or otherwise — that could make one say the government had been embarrassed before the Indian public.
On the contrary, a lot of the Congress’ attacks boomeranged, because it took the wrong path of targeting Modi personally (such as the ‘chaiwala’ jibe); and on the issue of corruption, it did so without realising the extent of the PM’s popularity and the voters’ belief in his ‘integrity’.
The ‘chowkidar chor hai‘ slogan coined, and repeated ad nauseam, by Rahul Gandhi was political harakiri. The voters didn’t see the PM as corrupt, and took it as an entitled dynast trying to sully their leader’s image. The Congress needed to attack Modi’s governance, not Modi himself. And for that, it needed to touch the most vulnerable nerve — the Modi government’s inability to deliver on the promises made to the poor and the rural base. This is a new, unsteady constituency for the BJP — traditionally an upper caste, middle class, Brahmin-Baniya party. It still has the potential to make Modi nervous, and Amit Shah worried about his electoral math going haywire.
The right nerve
Despite being down and out after its lacklustre performance in the 2014 election, the one thing that the Congress managed to do just right was hit the Modi government where it hurt most — the ‘anti-poor’ image.
Rahul Gandhi’s supposed takedown of Modi’s monogrammed suit worth lakhs of rupees and buttoning it with a ‘pro-rich, pro-corporate’ image was bang on. It unsettled an otherwise confident Modi, and people have repeatedly heard him harp on welfare, poor and rural policies since then, all the way up to the 2019 Lok Sabha election.
Now, the situation of migrant workers, amplified due to their shabby treatment by the Modi government, has offered the Congress a similar opening. Its president Sonia Gandhi has held meetings with leaders of other opposition parties on the issue, while both Rahul and Priyanka Gandhi have maintained the pressure on the government.
Make no mistake, the Modi government knows how this episode has the potential to snowball into a bigger one, damaging an image it has so carefully crafted for itself since the 2015 ‘suit boot’ fiasco. The Congress does well when it taps into the vulnerabilities of the BJP — the anti-incumbency and farmers’ anger in Madhya Pradesh, an unpopular leadership in Rajasthan, a corrupt government led by Raman Singh in Chhattisgarh, a less-than-effective leader in Manohar Lal Khattar in Haryana, and so on.
For better or worse, the Congress has been decidedly Left of centre, especially under Sonia and Rahul Gandhi. This is precisely why the moment Modi seems insensitive towards the poor or the rural voter, the Congress gets the opportunity to showcase its bleeding heart.
As the images of hapless migrants scrambling to get back to their homes continue to spread far and wide, making sure Modi and his government are haunted by them until the crisis ends, the Congress needs to play its cards right, and step up its attack on the BJP’s inability to take care of the poor. Most importantly, the party must allow both its national and state leaderships to lead this battle from the front. If done right, this could be the beginning of a new dawn for the Congress.
Views are personal.