In 2009, when Lok Sabha elections were over and the results were awaited, then-Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister YS Rajasekhara Reddy came to Delhi to brief then-Congress president Sonia Gandhi. I went to see him in Andhra Bhawan after his meeting with her. “How many seats did you tell her?” I asked him. Thirty-three, he replied. “Are you serious? 33 out of 42! Did you really tell her that?” I asked in disbelief. “I would have said 34 but I am not sure about Khammam,” he said with a cryptic smile. The Congress candidate in Khammam was Renuka Chowdhury, a Reddy-baiter who wore loyalty to Sonia Gandhi on her sleeves.
When the results came, Reddy was bang on. The Congress won exactly 33. And Renuka Chowdhury lost. Sonia Gandhi nominated her to the Rajya Sabha later. After her RS term was over in 2018, Chowdhury was virtually in political wilderness. She returned with a bang on Thursday to hit the headlines, calling Prime Minister Narendra Modi a “classless megalomaniac” and declaring her intent to file a defamation case against him for referring to her as Surpanakha, Ravana’s sister, during a debate in the Rajya Sabha in 2018.
She should surely know how to please the Gandhis. Because the PM never used the word ‘Surpanakha’. Even if she felt so, she spent enough time in Parliament to remember Article 105 that exempts MPs from any judicial proceedings for what they say in Parliament.
Renuka Chowdhury’s disparaging remark against Modi and threat of defamation suit is just the beginning. In coming days and weeks, expect many other Congress leaders to make more damning remarks against Modi to try to impress the Gandhis.
On the face of it, Rahul Gandhi’s disqualification as Lok Sabha member following his conviction might look like a risky gambit for the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). It has fired up the Congress, brought almost the entire opposition together and given more ammunition to the opposition to accuse the Modi-led government of muzzling democratic dissent. BJP leader Ravi Shankar Prasad wasn’t far off the mark when he said that Rahul Gandhi was trying to emerge a “martyr” to take political mileage in the Karnataka election because the Congress didn’t show any urgency to get a stay on his conviction to avoid disqualification.
One has to be naïve to think that PM Modi and Amit Shah have become so overconfident and arrogant that they didn’t consider these obvious factors. So, why did they allow Gandhi to become a ‘martyr’? There are at least five reasons for this.
Also read: ‘There is no Modi community, complaint raised on WhatsApp’ — Rahul’s lawyer Kirit Panwala on defamation case
The BJP is on a sticky wicket in the southern state, with former chief minister and Lingayat face BS Yediyurappa remaining a loose cannon after the party gave him a snub by making incumbent CM Basavaraj Bommai campaign committee chairman.
Given Bommai’s below par governance record, the BJP is bending over backwards to get the caste arithmetic right, increasing the reservation quota of Vokkaligas and Lingayats at the cost of Muslims whose 4 per cent quota was scrapped on Friday.
It also fits into the party’s communal polarisation strategy, so far centred on Tipu Sultan, so-called ‘love jihad’, et al. The BJP leadership isn’t feeling confident though. Unlike in most other states, DK Shivakumar-led Congress has remained a formidable challenger, keeping the heat on the Bommai-led government over corruption, misgovernance and other issues. The BJP was expecting Shivakumar versus Siddaramaiah rivalry to escalate but so far they haven’t given any indication of obliging the ruling party. An election fought on local issues and centred on state leaders doesn’t suit the BJP. It will, therefore, not mind an election centred on Rahul Gandhi’s ‘victimisation’. Fired up Congresspersons may also be expected to use the choicest words to target Modi. ‘Victim’ Rahul Gandhi versus ‘corrupt’, ‘coward’, ‘autocratic’ Modi- the words used by Congress leaders so far- is a poll narrative the BJP would love to see in this Karnataka election.
Rahul’s Adani focus
Win or lose in Karnataka or subsequent Assembly elections this year, Rahul Gandhi is likely to carry on with his Modi-centric campaign right up to the 2024 Lok Sabha election. If it was the Rafale deal in 2019, it would be Hindenburg report in 2024. If the target was Anil Ambani in 2019, it would be Gautam Adani in 2024. Expect a new variation of the old ‘chowkidar chor hai’ campaign in the next Lok Sabha election. Rahul Gandhi is not known to give up once he is convinced that he is fighting for truth and justice. Disqualification from the Lok Sabha is likely to only boost his determination to fight against what Congressmen say ‘coward’ and ‘corrupt’ Modi. That’s the second reason for Modi-Shah to let Gandhi become a ‘martyr’. They must be expecting a repeat of the Congress party’s 2019 poll campaign.
The third reason is a no-brainer: A Modi-versus-Rahul poll campaign will ensure sidestepping of the government’s failures. Nobody will ask questions about the promise of doubling farmers’ income, unemployment, price rise, or even Chinese incursions in Ladakh. They will become peripheral issues in a battle of personalities. Modi-Shah won’t mind it, obviously.
The fourth reason for Modi-Shah’s decision to go bullish over Rahul Gandhi’s ‘martyrdom’ may be the fact that the purported insult of OBCs by the Congress leader makes for a more appealing electoral strategy than the opposition leader’s claim of victimisation on account of his conviction by a court and disqualification as per prescribed laws.
Also read: Don’t bar Rahul Gandhi from contesting election—or any convicted criminal for that matter
‘Faux’ opposition unity
Last but not the least, the Congress seems emboldened by the support extended by its rivals such as Mamata Banerjee and Arvind Kejriwal following Gandhi’s disqualification. BJP strategists would know how misplaced a notion it is. Gandhi’s alleged victimisation puts him back into the pole position as Modi’s principal challenger would become the reason for Banerjees and Kejriwals in the opposition camp to start running him down sooner than later. Even before Gandhi’s conviction, Banerjee was convinced that the BJP was trying to make him a hero.
Before we wind up, let’s also think of how Rahul Gandhi’s focus on Adani would put his principal ally in Maharashtra, Sharad Pawar of the Nationalist Congress Party, on a sticky wicket. The NCP has been staying away from the Congress-led opposition’s protests over Adani.
Now think of Gandhi spearheading the Congress’ poll campaign centred on Modi-Adani and its principal ally, the NCP, ducking for cover.
That explains why Modi and Shah must be smiling ear to ear as the Congress prepares to go for the jugular over Rahul Gandhi’s conviction and disqualification from Lok Sabha membership. It’s chit-bhi-meri-pat-bhi-meri (heads-I-win-tails-you-lose) kind of situation for PM Modi.
Views are personal.
(Edited by Prashant)