The Narendra Modi-Amit Shah duopoly have made the same mistake as the Congress.
Rahul Gandhi is no longer a political ‘untouchable’. Andhra Pradesh chief minister and president of Telugu Desam Party, N. Chandrababu Naidu’s reach out to Congress president Rahul Gandhi is one indication.
If they were really honest in their self-appraisal, the Narendra Modi-Amit Shah duopoly cannot but conclude that they may have made the same mistake as the Congress did since 2002 when it constantly targeted Modi. History tells us that Modi has reasons to thank leaders of the Congress party for repeatedly heaping slurs on him – whether it was Sonia Gandhi’s maut ka saudagar barb or Mani Shankar Aiyar’s neech aadmi insult.
Consistent verbal assaults on Modi for his Hindutva politics over a considerable period of time eventually resulted in the saffron fold closing their ranks behind then Gujarat chief minister.
Likewise, by ridiculing Rahul Gandhi for almost five years from early 2013, Modi might just have ended up benefiting the Congress president. The Pappufication of Rahul Gandhi surely provided reasons for much mirth among Modi believers, but it also elevated Rahul Gandhi’s public stature because of a basic law of public response: Anyone who is viciously and repeatedly attacked by an adversary is never seen as dim-witted and inconsequential. After all, only the foe with the capacity to pose a serious challenge is scoffed at.
The situation has altered stunningly from that in the immediate aftermath of the party’s sweep of Uttar Pradesh in March 2017, when Modi’s return was considered a “settled affair”. Now, it is time for Modi to deliberate if he and his party had erred by personally targeting Rahul Gandhi over the past five years.
This is why Chandrababu Naidu’s handshake with Rahul Gandhi last week is significant.
First, it heralds the willingness of regional parties opposed to the BJP’s political dominance to ally with the Congress under Rahul Gandhi’s leadership. This was a situation unimaginable till recently because of doubts about his capabilities. Already, DMK president M.K. Stalin has welcomed this meeting stating that regional parties must unite to defeat BJP.
Second, the handshake and decision of the two to speak the same political language indicate that regional parties previously steeped in anti-Congressism, are now looking at anti-BJPism as its immediate doctrine.
This poses a hurdle to the BJP’s objective of securing re-election in 2019. But, the consequences of the inability to return to office are greater for the personal political fortunes of Modi and Shah, than for the BJP or the sangh parivar. So, it is for the two leaders to evaluate if their barbs are shrinking Rahul Gandhi’s image or making him into a legitimate opponent.
Eventually, Rahul Gandhi did turn the jibe against him on its head with the theatrical speech in Lok Sabha in July this year.
Rahul Gandhi thanked Modi and the BJP for castigating him over and over again because this, he claimed, taught him what the Congress was, what it meant to be an Indian and, above all, what it meant to be a Hindu.
In Parliament, Modi chuckled when he heard Rahul Gandhi declare that he did not have an iota of hatred towards Modi and the sangh parivar even though he was repeatedly called Pappu. Modi’s nervous laughter and his unsure response to the mother of all hugs was a pointer to the realisation of the impact of Rahul Gandhi’s audacity to own that derisive label.
With these, the Congress president virtually defanged the social media campaign against him. This also coincided with the period when Modi lost his mojo and Rahul roared to life on Twitter.
It was the BJP’s misdirected assault that provided credibility to his “main Congress hoon” claim. Indeed, the more the BJP mocked Rahul Gandhi, the more they strengthened him, not just within his own party, but even among the opposition ranks, as Chandrababu Naidu’s decision to seek him out shows.
By targeting Rahul Gandhi more than other opposition leaders, the BJP effectively accepted the Congress and his position as the principal challenger. The present scenario makes it necessary for astute opposition leaders to accept the Congress as the first among equals.
Modi, in fact, overlooked his own experience that Indians back underdogs and are inherently prone to questioning authority. That there has been only one instance when an authoritarian leader held sway – Indira Gandhi post 1975-77 – indicates the free-thinking spirit of the people.
Yet, for a leader who benefited greatly by depicting himself as an outsider delegitimised by the Congress, Modi is curiously choosing to undermine Rahul Gandhi in a similar way.
The author is a political columnist who wrote “Narendra Modi: The Man, The Times”