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Why it makes sense for Rahul Gandhi & Congress to persist with Rafale as 2019 campaign issue

As with Bofors, big-ticket corruption — in this case, Rafale — is being emphasised to undermine the stature of the leader leading a party's campaign.

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Barring what is likely to be only a temporary halt due to the Pulwama terror attack, the Congress party has been relentless in its focus on trying to expose the alleged corruption in PM Narendra Modi government’s Rafale deal.

Party president Rahul Gandhi has led the charge. He has made Rafale the cornerstone of his campaign against the government and more specifically, PM Modi. He holds press conferences on Rafale almost weekly, he speaks about it at almost every campaign rally, he addressed the issue in Parliament and it even dominates his Twitter timeline. For somebody who was once known for rarely speaking to the press, giving very few speeches in Parliament and being inactive on social media, Mr Gandhi’s communication blitzkrieg on Rafale has taken many by surprise.

It has even invited mockery from his political opponents, with one of them suggesting he change his name to ‘Rafale Gandhi’ and another stating that he suffers from a disease called ‘Rafale-iya‘.

Also read: Decoding the Rafale numbers: Where Rahul Gandhi and Modi government went wrong

The Rafale plank

Many political observers have suggested that the Congress president is making a mistake by choosing Rafale as the primary focus of the party’s campaign against the government. They argue instead that the major election issues are unemployment and rural distress, and that should be the foundation of the Congress’s 2019 election campaign plank. This is backed up by national surveys as well.

In the recently conducted India Today Mood of the Nation poll, for instance, a whopping 76 per cent of respondents said that the condition of farmers has deteriorated or remained the same in the last five years, with only 20 per cent saying it has improved. Forty-six per cent of respondents felt the government was not doing enough to create jobs. In fact, the lack of jobs was listed by 34 per cent of respondents as the biggest failure of the Narendra Modi government. The Rafale deal did not find mention. Rather, a corruption-free government was listed as the Modi administration’s single biggest achievement.

Besides, the Rafale issue is very complex. It deals with the intricacies of defence procurement negotiations and a large part of the disagreement between the parties lies in the details of the procedures followed.

So why are Rahul Gandhi and the Congress party persisting with Rafale as their primary campaign plank?

The Bofors experience

For the Congress, Rafale may have echoes of the Bofors scandal, which entailed corruption allegations against Congress leaders surrounding the purchase of artillery guns for the Indian Army in 1986. The opposition parties then, much like today, attacked the ruling (Congress) party and Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi for the shenanigans surrounding the purchase of guns from Bofors. Despite the relentless media attention paid to Bofors, a survey conducted in 1989 showed that only 26 per cent of the population could link Bofors to corruption in high places (Chhibber, 1999). However, knowledge of Bofors did have an effect in swinging votes against the Congress party in 1989 (Chhibber, 1999).

So, while an average Indian farmer will probably not be able to tell the difference between a sovereign guarantee and a letter of comfort, or place Rafale as central to her decision on whether to vote for the BJP, given the Bofors experience, it may make sense from the Congress party’s standpoint to persist with Rafale as a primary campaign issue.

Also read: Rafale deal is Bofors many times over, what it lacks is a V.P. Singh

Leader-centric elections

As with Bofors in 1989, the emphasis on big-ticket corruption — in this case, the Rafale deal — is being made to undermine the stature of the leader leading a party’s campaign. Indian election campaigns, particularly those at the national level, are increasingly becoming leader-centric. Whether it is the BJP or the Congress, the party’s posters in most constituencies highlight the image of Narendra Modi or Rahul Gandhi. This is true of regional parties as well. While India’s election campaigns have always been centred on leaders and their personalities, a series of recent developments have made leaders even more pivotal.

The first is that, in India, ever since the centralisation of power in the office of the prime minister by Indira Gandhi, executive power has come to vest with the prime minister. Due to constraints posed by having to lead coalition governments, no prime minister since Rajiv Gandhi has been able to exercise his full authority. Narendra Modi, by all accounts, has centralised a lot of power in the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO), giving him a lot of power and authority.

Second, there is increased centralisation within parties. A few decades ago, the Congress party had different wings representing different ideologies with the ability to openly voice disagreements with party decisions. Today, that is almost unheard of. The BJP, too, has become more centralised in recent years. With his protégé and close colleague Amit Shah at the helm, Prime Minister Modi now has outsized influence over the party as well. In both the major national parties and most regional parties, dissenting voices are drowned out, further strengthening the voice and profile of the leader.

Third is a very fragmented opposition. This is particularly relevant in the present scenario. The lack of a similarly towering leader on the other side who can project authority and unite the opposition parties has given Prime Minister Modi and his office even more authority.

Also read: For Indian millennials, 2019 is going to be all about Modi’s personality not policy

Personality matters

These developments are not unique to India. National elections in parliamentary democracies like Britain (Tony Blair, Margaret Thatcher), Japan (Shinzo Abe), and Hungary (Viktor Orban) have increasingly become about the personality of the leader. Popular leaders can have a big impact on the vote, as confirmed by pollsters across the board who pointed to a significant ‘Modi effect’ in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections and subsequent state elections.

As a result, the communication strategies of all parties are centred on highlighting the strengths of their leaders and the weaknesses of the opposition leaders. Even Narendra Modi’s speeches are filled with jibes at opposition leaders, from Rahul Gandhi to Mamata Banerjee to Chandrababu Naidu, among others. In fact, the BJP is trying hard to make this election a presidential-style contest between Narendra Modi and anybody else. At a recent event, party president Amit Shah asked the opposition, “Narendra Modi is our leader, who is yours?” This makes sense for the BJP, because Prime Minister Modi still remains the most popular leader in the country, even if polls suggest that his popularity has waned over time.

For the Congress, the only option available is to do whatever it can to try and chip away at Modi’s popularity. And it seems its leaders sense an opportunity to do that by relentlessly attacking him on the Rafale issue. By constantly repeating “chowkidar chor hai,” the Congress is hoping it can take the sheen off Modi and punch a hole into his image as a strong, incorruptible leader, thereby lessening the impact of his personality on the outcome of the election.

As elections become as much about the leaders themselves as about the parties and issues they represent, it unfortunately makes logical sense for political parties to run a large part of their campaign on “Kaun Banega Pradhan Mantri?” rather than on real issues.

Pradeep Chhibber is a professor at the University of California, Berkeley. Harsh Shah is an alumnus of the same university and now works in the private sector.

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  1. clearly the SC has not covered itself in glory on the Rafale case – even in their alleged review of procedure. It is difficult to believe this is the same Gogoi who held a press conference. Thankfully they have decided to review the order post disclosures of The Hindu – on procedural and related financial issues.. The CAG appears to be even worse. The lengthy report has spent time and consumed a lot of paper on irrelevant information – and if there are no figures – what did he audit? It appears he is following Vinod Rai presumptive thought process and has even improved on it.

  2. Matters relating to injustice are not dropped in a hurry — 1984 riots cases are still going on, and very rightly; Shahabuddin case is still going on, again very rightly. Rafale case has just begun, and important questions are far from having been answered: Anil Ambani; 126 to 36; who dropped HAL and why, and against what choice? Have these decisions harmed India financially, and made the national security vulnerable?

    If all the above decisions were taken collectively by authorized people, then we could only lament that they were bad decisions. Authorized people enjoy certain level of indemnity if they take decisions to the best of their ability. But arbitrary and solo decisions… Without beating around the bush, Mr Modi has a lot to answer. And the Rafale case must reach its logical conclusion.

  3. Wonder if the writer has any ‘personal’ knowledge at all of the way the Indian voter thinks or votes. Rafale may have its potential vote gathering appeal for Rahul Gandhi. But, it has been flogged to a near death already. Sheer ennui will result if it is pursued further, and flogging a dead horse can only be counter productive if it is carried on for another couple of months, with no fresh facts, evidence or sensational disclosures anywhere on the horizon. The media likes it as an issue ONLY for its own self serving reasons, and Rahul will be committing a grave error if he gets carried away by the media’s attention on Rafale. A similar fate hit Kejri when he attracted and held the media’s attention, waving papers in the air, and naming just about every political leader for corruption, threatening exposures, which NEVER came. They abandoned him later, having seen through his game. Raga and his Rafale refrain will suffer the same fate.

  4. This is tradition of Nehru-Gandhi family to spread lies and only lies. This family never wanted India a strong and independent India. The Nehru-Gandhi family amassed a huge wealth during their family rule of India for more than six decades. This family rule made India a nation where more than 60% of its citizen go to bed without full stomach. This is the first time under Modi as PM, the dynasty family did make any deal to compromise their corruptions, scams and loot of exchequer. Sonia and Rahul is now afraid of being arrested in several scams and loot public fund. The family became craze and started to campaign only lies against NDA government. Removing Modi from power is only one point strategy of Sonia Na Rahul Gandhi party for the election. This family brought all corrupt and looters like Mayabati, Power,Laloo, Mamata………… to form mahamixure gang. This family is so greedy that the family started fashion parade bringing another family member Priyanka Vadra to fool poor India as they are doing since the congress party is made Nehru-Gandhi party.

  5. CAG which like any Internal Auditor remain nosy. This time they have closed their nose while preparing the report as per Modi government requirements. If SC and CAG have given clean Chit, why government is scared of placing records before JPC. As for as money trail since Bofors we have come long way on how to leave no trace those clandestine money which mostly go into party’s coffer. This is what happened in Bofors and may have happened now. No government contracts even domestic happen without paying money

    • Can you tell one JPC that proved any scam in India? If there is a scam then it will be fought in the court. When the SC has already give the clean chit then what is left?? Only imaginations of Rahul Gandhi and its supporter to cook up a scam where there is none. No body has any concrete evidence apart from insinuations …

  6. What a stupid article too coming from someone who is a professor in the US. When everything is has been cleared by the SC and the CAG then why rack up the issue again especially if it’s related to the security of the country? This is the height of left-leaning people’s hypocrisy who will be shameless in doing politics over any important issue.

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