A spurious debate about the legitimacy of Rahul Gandhi’s elevation, undoubtedly fuelled by the BJP, did not play too well. The BJP’s star campaigner Narendra Modi sought to amplify it in a campaign speech in Gujarat. He certainly couldn’t have believed his intervention would influence the Congress party’s choice. In any case, it did not set the Sabarmati on fire.
Despite Modi’s futile name-calling, the issue is finally and firmly settled. Gandhi will become president of the Indian National Congress, the 60th person to hold the office.
Not content to have lowered the dignity of his office by giving credence to the legitimacy debate, PM Modi made another attempt to denigrate the election of Gandhi. In a dog whistle address seemingly directed at his Hindutva base, he compared the elevation to the coronation of the Mughal emperor Aurangzeb, whose very mention is a red flag to the bigots who have and have been championed by Modi.
As such, Modi unwittingly reinforced the Opposition’s charge that during his stint in power, he has never conveyed a sense of unifying India, never once rising above the level of a BJP partisan, a prime minister for BJP supporters.
For some reason, Modi and the BJP find it difficult to accept Gandhi as president of his party. Saffron loyalists may well cast aspersions and kick up a fuss, but it’s a done deal.
Meanwhile, Gandhi has shown his ability to lead the grand old party by running a spirited campaign in Gujarat. He sewed up unconventional alliances with grass-roots activist movements; he delivered powerful speeches criticising the BJP’s “development” story. He may have made a huge impact on the BJP’s fortunes in a state where most believed victory in the Assembly elections would be a cake walk.
His success has the BJP rattled in its fortress where Modi perfected his “Hindu Hriday Samrat” appeal and concocted the story of the “Gujarat model” of development. It was this latter story that seemed to appeal to a broader section of people than the Hindutva manifesto. This presumably enabled the BJP to increase its vote share in 2014 to 31 percent, and by virtue of the first-past-the-post system, emerge with the first-ever absolute majority in Parliament since 1984, when Rajiv Gandhi won 400-plus seats for the Congress.
Rahul Gandhi went hammer-and-tongs after the Gujarat model. He accused Modi of running a “suit-boot sarkar” that only catered to the needs of big business. Coming on the heels of the controversy over Modi’s penchant for luxuries, including prohibitively expensive monogrammed-pinstripe suits, striking watches and designer glasses, the charge had the impact of a right hook.
That’s not all: in an early speech, Rahul minced no words in a full-scope attack on Mr Modi, who spoke before him during the winter session of Parliament in 2015:
“...while I listened to the Prime Minister’s speech I could see how profoundly we differ in our thinking. For Modiji, the people he mentioned (Gandhi, Patel, Ambedkar, Prasad, even Nehru) were intellectual heroes to be worshipped and placed on a pedestal. They had all the answers to India’s problems.
“For me what was heroic about the people he mentioned was their ability to listen to the people of this country. They are my heroes not because they had all the answers but because they had the humility to ask the right questions… to listen to what India was saying. They allowed India to speak.”
During the Gujarat campaign, he picked up on this theme to scoff at Modi’s “Mann ki Baat” radio addresses. He said he wasn’t here to tell people what he thinks but to listen to what they have to say.
In the event, he managed to strike a chord with diverse audiences: youth, women, backward castes, tribals, dalits, students, parents, professionals, traders and merchants. He talked about the need to offer, in addition to private options, government alternatives in healthcare and education. His message clearly resonated with audiences whether delivered in a speech or in townhall-style interactions.
Gandhi hit out at demonetisation as a cunning attempt to help cronies launder black money, calling it a “fair and lovely” scheme. He excoriated the government’s messed up GST scheme, calling it “Gabbar Singh Tax”; he offered examples of misplaced priorities saying the Rs 33,000-crore subsidy for the Tata Nano plant was the amount the UPA government had spent in an entire year of the national employment guarantee scheme that gave hundreds of thousands jobs and changed their lives forever. “How many Nanos have you seen?” he thundered.
Gandhi’s earnest exertions in Gujarat seem to be paying off. A recent survey has the Congress running neck-and-neck with the BJP. This was simply unthinkable a few weeks ago. The Modi-Shah duo was presumed unbeatable in their home state.
Now the game’s been thrown wide open and the Congress is in with a better-than-even chance in next week’s election. Almost as if in recognition of the effort, the Congress party nominated him president.
(This article appeared in Dailyo.in, December 7, 2017)