There was a time when politicians were guided by a combination of feedback from the ground and gut instinct. The importance of the latter was never insignificant. It has become even more important in the age of ‘Breaking News’ and the 24x7 news cycle. Today’s politicians don’t have the luxury of either reflecting or awaiting ground reactions to events and developments. The pressures of a persistent and pestering media often propel knee-jerk reactions from political leaders, reactions they subsequently come to regret.
It is tempting to describe the ferocity of Rahul Gandhi’s most recent attacks on Prime Minister Narendra Modi as lacking in reflection. To call the elected Prime Minister a ‘chor’ (thief) without exercising the powers of subtlety both English and Hindi allow is calculated to raise eyebrows. It may even invite fierce and equally direct responses — in this case BJP Ministers have dubbed the Congress president a ‘clown prince’ and a ‘serial liar’ — which may, ironically, serve to draw public attention to the very issue that has provoked this unseemly exchange.
As a person who has chosen to be in politics more as a family obligation than a passion, Rahul’s awareness of democratic decorousness has always been tentative. His understanding of the cultural norms that govern social and professional interactions is probably more feeble — and this despite photo opportunities in countless temples and pilgrimages. Sanskaras are partly transmitted through the family and partly imbibed through wider social association. Alas, because of exceptional circumstances Rahul Gandhi wasn’t fully exposed to a normal middle-class Indian upbringing. His values are a shade too cosmopolitan and governed by an overload of entitlement. Consequently, there is a profound mismatch between his instincts and appropriate social conduct. Maybe this explains why Rahul is by far most comfortable addressing gatherings overseas, particularly in the US and Europe.
Yet, it was not instinct alone that determined why, in attacking Prime Minister Modi on the Rafale aircraft agreement, Rahul’s rhetoric was not very different from that of a warm-up speaker at a public rally. Like most political parties, including the BJP, the Congress is disproportionately data driven. Parties have invested heavily in accumulating data about how Indians think and feel, data that is subsequently used by analysts to recommend a political course. The only difference is that whereas data in the BJP is percolated through a political filter, the Congress often views it as a marketing exercise. The input of professional politicians with a sharp awareness of the complexities on the ground is often insufficient in the Congress.
For a long time, the Congress has battled with what appears an insurmountable hurdle in the path of the party’s recovery from the depths to which it plummeted in 2014. The problem they confronted was the fact that the popularity and acceptability of the Prime Minister has never really dipped in any meaningful way throughout his term. Yes, Modi has proved a disappointment to a small section of the pro-market Right that had supported it enthusiastically in 2014. But this loss has been more than compensated by the gains he has made among sections of the population that have traditionally not been associated with the BJP. Additionally, it is important to note that whereas awareness of Modi was patchy in 2014, he represents something more tangible in October 2018.
The perception of Modi’s attributes too has undergone shifts. However, he has neither lost his appeal as the proverbial small-town boy made good. In his person, many Indians see the possibility of social and professional advancement in today’s New India. Secondly, Modi has a reputation of a fanatical workaholic, a man who lives a punishing schedule and doesn’t believe in holidays. Finally, and most important, he has reputation of being personally incorruptible and being intolerant of corruption in his Government. The greater transparency of the Modi Government has not come about only because technology has proved a boon in preventing transmission leakages. There is a new culture of politics that Modi has triggered that is intolerant of corruption at the top. Corruption in India hasn’t ended. It is probably still endemic at the lower levels. However, for the first time since Independence, the advancing tide of corruption has begun to be rolled back. The importance of this cannot be underestimated.
Despite numerous attempts to link the Prime Minister with the economic fugitives such as Nirav Modi and Vijay Mallya, Modi’s integrity quotient remains sky high. For the Congress this is an obstacle.
The controversy over the Rafale purchases is basically an attempt to create a dust storm in the hope that this will result in both Modi and the Government not appearing spotless. It has to be seen in the context of the larger Congress bid to pain Modi as the head of a ‘suit-boot sarkar’, a Government that is partial to the rich and the corrupt.
So far the strategy hasn’t worked. There have been lots of allegations but, unlike the Bofors controversy that damaged Rajiv Gandhi politically, there is no documentary evidence of wrongdoing. The Congress has certainly created a dust storm but its political impact has been negligible. According to the India TV-CNX survey in Madhya Pradesh, a State where the Congress hopes to topple the BJP, only 1.30 per cent of the respondents saw the Rafale deal as the biggest issue in the Assembly poll. At one level that is not surprising because local polls are about local issues but add this to the 11.91 per cent that sees corruption as the biggest issue, and it is possible to appreciate the frustration of the Congress.
Calling Modi a ‘chor’ is a typical dhamaka strategy to draw attention to a campaign that doesn’t appear to be getting anywhere. It is probably as consequential as the move to cast aspersions on the efficacy of the EVMs — a campaign over which the Congress expended a lot of its energies.