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.
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.
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.
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.