Rahul Gandhi and Priyanka Gandhi Vadra reportedly took offence to Congress leader R.P.N. Singh’s comment last month that the party should target the BJP government and its policies instead of directly attacking Prime Minister Narendra Modi. At the Congress Working Committee meeting where Singh expressed his views, Priyanka reportedly talked about how Rahul is often ‘alone’ in the party while taking on Modi. Gandhi is of the view that he isn’t in the wrong because the BJP government does everything in Modi’s name anyway. Also, Rahul seemed to suggest that others were being cowardly since he was “not scared to attack Modi”.
But R.P.N. Singh had a valid point: if the attack seems personal, it backfires. This debate is a result of the Congress party’s refusal to introspect after the 2019 Lok Sabha election defeat. It was clear that Rahul Gandhi’s slogan “Chowkidar Chor Hai” (the watchman is the thief) was a personal enough attack on the PM. And it backfired because Rahul Gandhi has very little to offer by way of positive campaigning. Instead of telling voters what he would do for them, he was merely calling the prime minister a ‘thief’. The sole positive campaign, a basic income scheme called NYAY, was launched at the penultimate hour. Manifesto promises such as the all-India farm loan waiver were hardly publicised.
Rahul Gandhi also has a point. The Congress party often comes across as being timid in its criticism of Narendra Modi. While it can easily blame the media for not highlighting its criticism of Modi and his government enough, the Congress itself is also weak in doing so. Rahul Gandhi’s recent attacks on Modi, on issues ranging from the handling of the Covid-19 pandemic to the border stand-off with China, have shown how the Congress party isn’t willing to be as sharp in taking on the Modi government. Could this be cowardice? Are leaders afraid the government would put them in jail? We can only speculate.
A fine balance
How an opposition party should project itself before voters is not a hard debate to settle. Quite simply, an opposition party has to convince voters that (a) the government is doing a poor job of running the country, and (b) the opposition party must be voted to power in the next election because it is likely to do a much better job than the current government.
Rahul Gandhi and the Congress party tend to swing between these two imperatives and never seem to get the balance right. When the Covid-19 pandemic struck, Rahul Gandhi made sure he didn’t criticise the government in his initial comments, and only offered constructive criticism. To take on China, Rahul Gandhi is saying India needs a larger global vision without really explaining what that vision could be.
The balance between positive and negative is very important — the positive must always outweigh the negative. An opposition party needs to make people see the contrast between itself and the party in the government. The greater this contrast, the more the opposition is likely to win the next election.
When Narendra Modi went on a Congress-bashing spree after the failure of demonetisation and Goods and Services Tax (GST), he made sure his positive campaigning did not get overshadowed. He made sure we heard of his ‘New India 2022’ more than his barbs on Jawaharlal Nehru.
Distribution is king
What this debate also forgets is that the Congress party’s main weakness is not even strategy. It is the lack of campaign. Whether the Congress is attacking Modi or not, whether it is doing enough positive campaigning or not, its words simply don’t reach the voters.
Take, for instance, Rahul Gandhi’s recent series of videos on China. First, they are in English in a country where there is an unspoken consensus that the prime minister must speak in Hindi. By communicating in English, Rahul Gandhi not only immediately distances a large section of Indian population, but he also confirms the Hindutva charge of the Congress being a disconnected elite. The south India excuse can be easily debunked by simply Googling and checking the percentage of English speakers in each southern state. And if it’s a scripted, edited, planned video anyway, why couldn’t Rahul Gandhi also have made a Hindi version of his videos?
If Narendra Modi had put out such videos, he would have made sure they were launched like a campaign. Every district office of the BJP all over the country would have played the video and discussed it in a meeting. Rahul Gandhi’s charge that he is ‘often alone’ in speaking up against Modi is bizarre. It is hard to believe that Gandhi can’t order the party at large to organise events around issues he wants highlighted. It is difficult to believe that if he picks up the phone and asks Congress chief ministers to co-operate in publicising his ideas, they won’t do so.
Blaming the Congress party for his own failure is a cop-out. Again, if Narendra Modi was Rahul Gandhi, he would be party president today, creating campaigns to carry out his message, and handing out every single party leader a task as part of the campaign. He wouldn’t be pleading the party elders, he wouldn’t be seeking their co-operation or trudging through consultation. If Rahul Gandhi is so cocksure he knows how to take on Modi, he should stop making excuses and take up the leadership role waiting for him.
Rahul Gandhi’s supporters claim that he is the only one in the Congress with the courage to take an ideologically honest position against the BJP. They also claim his critics are unfair to him when they don’t acknowledge how his criticisms of the Modi government — from GST to the Galwan Valley — have turned out to be right.
The reason Rahul Gandhi is not able to take credit for these is that he doesn’t translate his words into an on-ground campaign. You only have to see the difference in the BJP’s opposition to the fuel price hikes before 2014 and the Congress’ campaign against rising prices now, and notice how they differ in their outreach. What needs a month-long campaign with daily events is just a series of tweets now. It takes a lot more work to dislodge a government with 303 seats.
The author is contributing editor, ThePrint. Views are personal.