From the Pegasus scandal to Covid mismanagement to farmer protests, the Congress has flitted from one issue to another to corner the Narendra Modi-led BJP government in the ongoing monsoon session of Parliament. In doing so, the party has shown its biggest problem today — its inability to zero in on one issue that can stick, find resonance on the ground and truly dent Modi and BJP’s image.
For a moment, put the BJP in opposition space and hand it the following issues on a platter — the whiff of irregularity in a defence deal, a sagging economy, farmers’ anger, a humanitarian disaster, public health mismanagement, fuel price hike and a spying scandal. What Prime Minister Modi and Home Minister Amit Shah would do with this buffet of failures is not hard to imagine. But try as it may, the comatose Congress party is just not able to turn these into winnable campaign politics. Even a tractor ride to Parliament isn’t taking off.
Ever since Modi’s national rise in late 2013, this has been a perennial problem for the Congress and its leadership. The party has unsuccessfully tried multiple ways — from slogans like ‘suit boot ki sarkar‘, to ‘chowkidar chor hai‘ and Modi’s ‘crocodile tears‘ to forging high-profile alliances.
Essentially, the Congress has been unable to crack the formula on how to take Modi down, something leaders like Mamata Banerjee in West Bengal and Arvind Kejriwal in Delhi have successfully managed.
When a party suffers from the lack of a solid leadership, and of an election-winning face, what it needs then is an effective issue to counter its powerful rival. For the Congress, unfortunately, while it falls in the former, it can’t sort out the latter either.
Congress’ hit-and-trial method
The Congress has grappled with the issue of countering the BJP, with Modi’s popularity, Amit Shah’s electoral engineering, and its own directionless and disconnected top leadership aggravating its problem.
Nothing seems to stick on ‘teflon’ Modi, not corruption allegations, not questioning his intent or policy decisions and not questioning his party’s ‘anti-minority’ approach.
Rahul Gandhi’s ‘suit boot ki sarkar‘ jibe did hit the PM, forcing him to pull back from diluting the land acquisition Bill and turning to welfarism. And yet, it didn’t affect him electorally, nor did it bring Congress any gains. Perhaps, because Modi realised the potential damage it could cause and changed track very quickly.
Demonetisation of November 2016 became an easy stick to beat Modi with. After all, it was a damaging and unnecessary policy measure, which yielded nothing. The Congress used it to the hilt, but the results of the 2017 Uttar Pradesh assembly election are proof of how little this flawed policy measure actually hurt Modi’s BJP. Rahul Gandhi kept alleging demonetisation benefited Modi’s few ‘crony capitalist friends‘, but voters were not enthused.
With Rafale, Congress thought it had found its trump card. ‘Chowkidar chor hai,’ roared Rahul Gandhi in every poll rally ahead of the 2019 Lok Sabha election, but once again to no avail.
Add to this list Congress’ soft-Hindutva, Gandhi’s ‘janeudhari‘ claims, the secularism pitch, and attacking the BJP for its majoritarian politics. Nothing worked.
The brutal lynching of this young man by a mob in Jharkhand is a blot on humanity. The cruelty of the police who held this dying boy in custody for 4 days is shocking as is the silence of powerful voices in the BJP ruled Central & State Govts. #IndiaAgainstLynchTerror pic.twitter.com/4MKvli1ohC
— Rahul Gandhi (@RahulGandhi) June 25, 2019
The Covid crisis and the heart-wrenching images of migrant labourers walking back home barefoot following Modi’s first nationwide lockdown in 2020 gave the Congress more ammunition. As did the BJP bulldozing the new citizenship law and its crackdown on anyone who opposed it. But state elections where the Congress was in direct contest with the BJP — Assam, for instance — show these issues neither hurt the BJP nor helped the Gandhis’ Congress.
Now the Congress is spoilt for choice. It wants to attack the Modi government on everything — from the mismanagement of Covid in the second wave to the farm crisis and now the Pegasus ‘hacking’ scandal. And yet, it looks like the party is lost, uncertain of what to focus on and where to channelise its attacks and energy for maximum impact.
This is because the Congress knows that nothing it has picked in the last seven years or so has worked. While some in the party, like Shashi Tharoor, aren’t convinced that Pegasus has much resonance on the ground, sources say some others are of the view that even Covid is now past its sell-by date given the second wave has receded. Similarly, some say that the farmers’ issue might not help the Congress much either because Modi has effectively sold the ‘naamdar’ tag for Rahul Gandhi to the public, which might not believe when the latter speaks up for the farmers.
The formula Congress hasn’t cracked
The Congress isn’t lucky to have a popular, election-savvy face at the national level to help it tide over the big Modi challenge.
States, however, are different. In West Bengal, Mamata Banerjee didn’t need any one issue to corner Modi with, because she herself is a formidable leader who can pose a challenge. Ditto with Arvind Kejriwal in Delhi. And so in their respective elections, it was a direct battle between Modi and the two leaders, and both Mamata and Kejriwal came out winning. Because they had what it takes to defeat Modi — mass appeal and the ability to convince the voter.
For the Congress at the national level, until it finds a leader who can truly lead, it needs to rely on finding something else that can give it a leg-up — perhaps a strong issue that resonates with people and convincingly puts Modi in the dock.
But the party’s current top command isn’t inspired, or inspiring enough, to be able to identify a tool to target Modi with, and make it potent enough to actually harm hi politics.
Sure enough, the opposition has every right and reason to question the Modi government on all issues it feels strongly about. But politically and electorally, it has to find that one point that can give it a fillip, and affect its opponent.
Indira Gandhi’s excesses during the 1975-77 Emergency became a rallying point for the Opposition, causing her defeat in the 1977 general election. The 1987 Bofors scandal stuck to Rajiv Gandhi’s Congress, used to the hilt by his rivals, and brought his government down in 1989. Atal Bihar Vajpayee’s ‘India Shining’ campaign was jarring when India was not really shining. The Congress caught on to that undercurrent, and used it to come to power in 2004, although in a motley alliance.
Issues are important in elections, and have promise even in this era of personality-driven politics. The key is to find the right and most potent one.
The current chaos — of jumping from one headline issue to another — shows how the Congress is still looking for its groove. It’s playing ‘eeny, meeny, miny, moe’, with little or no idea of what will actually work, or whether they will work at all. The guessing game and try-and-throw have to end, and India’s oldest political party needs to put its finger on the big issue that can revive its fortunes and pull India’s most powerful political party down.
Views are personal.
(Edited by Prashant Dixit)