By attacking his brand, the Congress risks turning the next elections Modi-centric.
The Congress party’s ceaseless diatribe against Prime Minister Narendra Modi may appear cynical, but there is a well thought out strategy behind this: diminish ‘Brand Modi’ and the mythology around it.
The personality cult of Modi has been built around broadly seven attributes: a strong and decisive leader; ‘vikas purush’ or development man; ‘na khaoonga, na khane doonga’ or someone who doesn’t indulge or brook corrupt practices; ‘Hindu Hridaya Samrat’ or someone who rules Hindu hearts; ‘garib maa ka chaiwalla beta’ or the tea-seller son of a poor mother; a backward caste leader whose politics transcends caste affiliations; and, oratory.
The Congress has been seeking to chip away each of these attributes to undermine this brand, a sine qua non in its attempt to dislodge the BJP from power at the Centre and in states. Take a look at how the principal opposition party is trying to achieve this objective.
Strong & decisive leader: In the run up to the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, the BJP repeatedly raised the issue of ‘dual power centres’ (hinting at then-UPA chairperson Sonia Gandhi’s interference in the government) to project then-Prime Minister Manmohan Singh as ‘weak’. The BJP’s narrative was effective as the Congress-led regime was accused of policy paralysis. It faced allegations of scams, seemed to be under siege from within, and was projected as weak-kneed in its dealings with other countries, especially Pakistan and China.
It was in this backdrop that the BJP successfully projected Modi as a strong and decisive leader. The Congress has been attacking Modi for “inaction” on many fronts – from not reining in radical elements and scamsters to “keeping silent” when “China is in Doklam, building a road”, as party president Rahul Gandhi said. The opposition party is also seeking to create an impression that the strong leader is, in fact, arrogant who does not keep even his Cabinet colleagues informed about his decisions concerning their ministries and hates those who question his decisions. Rahul’s hug to Modi in the Lok Sabha was meant to buttress that impression.
Vikas Purush: Modi showcased the Gujarat model of development and promised to replicate the same across the country ahead of the last general elections. The Prime Minister now claims that India has progressed more in the past four years than it did in over six decades since Independence. Rahul and his party colleagues have been seeking to puncture Modi’s India Shining narrative by citing dismal job growth figures, adverse impact of demonetisation, suicide by farmers, fuel price hike, falling rupee, among other issues.
Na khaoonga, na khane doonga: The clean image of Modi has been one of the strongest points of the ruling NDA, especially as central investigation agencies have been charging opposition leaders for alleged acts of omission and commission virtually on a daily basis. Seeking to turn the table, the Congress has been attacking Modi with counter-allegations.
The party has turned the heat on him by alleging scam in the government-to-government contract for 36 Rafale fighter jets. It’s only the latest in a string of allegations against Modi, levelled by Congress leaders; the others include allowing the alleged “looters” of Indian banks to flee the country, bending rules to benefit certain businessmen and industrialists, and ignoring allegations against BJP president Amit Shah’s son and other BJP ministers and leaders.
Hindu Hridaya Samrat: This is one image of Modi that the Congress finds hard to counter. The opposition party has, therefore, decided to work on its own image and change its impression as a Muslim party. From Rahul’s frequent visits to temples to Congress’ chief spokesman Randeep Surjewala tweeting Sanskrit shlokas on Guru Purnima last week, there are many indicators of how the Congress is trying to play the soft Hindutva card.
OBC Prime Minister: Modi, an OBC leader, helped the BJP, traditionally a Brahmin-baniya party, to widen its social base among OBCs and even a section of Dalits. The Congress is seeking to counter it through state-specific alliances with regional parties such as the SP, the BSP, the RLD and the RJD, which have committed votebanks among particular OBC communities and Dalits.
The opposition party has been attacking Modi for increasing incidents of atrocities against Dalits. Last week, the Congress echoed the outrage expressed by union minister Ram Vilas Paswan and BJP MP Udit Raj over the appointment of Justice (retd) A.K. Goel as NGT chairman, citing his ruling as Supreme Court judge that diluted certain provisions of the SC/ST (Prevention of Atrocities) Act. Rahul has held several discussions with leaders on how to increase the Congress’ acceptability among the OBCs – to counter Modi’s – but the party still does not seem to have a clue.
Garib maa ka beta: Modi’s humble background as a poor tea-seller has been his USP, especially when pitted against the illustrious Nehru-Gandhi family of the Congress. It is the first thing the opposition party picked up in its bid to change the public perception about Modi. Starting with Rahul Gandhi’s suit-boot-government jibe and projection of a proposed land acquisition bill as anti-farmer, the Congress has focused a great deal on Modi’s friendship with businessmen and industrialists, alleging undue favours to them.
Oratorical skill: After publicly acknowledging Modi’s oratorical skill, the Congress has gone on to project it as “jumlabaazi”, questioning the non-delivery of the promised Rs 15 lakh in everyone’s bank account and constantly reminding people of the unfulfilled promises made in his speeches.
Jury is still out on the success or failure of the above-mentioned strategy against Modi, but the Congress could, in the process, again turn the next elections Modi-centric. Many Congressmen argue that if Sonia could come up trumps against Atal Bihari Vajpayee in 2004, why can’t Rahul in 2019. They need to ask themselves this.