By Shashank Gouri from New York
Rahul Gandhi must be ruing the day his party coined the phrase ‘Chowkidar Chor Hai.’ In a bid to counter the ruling BJP’s strategy to transition Prime Minister Narendra Modi from Chaiwala to Chowkidar, the Congress might have finally met its match in Modi-Shah as they are left grappling with the ruling party’s fightback led by PM Modi himself.
It all started on May 5th when PM Modi, having tolerated enough of the Congress’ ‘Chowkidar Chor Hai’ jibe, launched a blistering attack on the Congress President’s father and ex-Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi in a political rally in Lucknow. When Modi thundered that Rajiv Gandhi’s ‘Mr. Clean’ image had turned into that of ‘Brashtachari No.1’ during his lifetime, we were all left wondering if the Prime Minister had lost the plot by dragging the name of a former Prime Minister who had died tragically nearly three decades ago. But after sustained attacks on Rajiv Gandhi over the next few days, it seems like a strategy chalked out by the BJP to rattle Congress. A strategy that seems to be working thus far.
As I have been keenly observing the election campaign unfold and reach its final stage, I have noticed a few things about the Modi-Shah controlled BJP that make them the perfect adversary to the rudderless Grand Old Party:
- Congress and its core party members worship the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty with a religious fervour. The current crop of BJP leaders realised that it is easy to rattle them by attacking their previous leaders. This is the reason why Modi has attacked Rajiv Gandhi not once, not twice, but three times on different occasions. Every time, he seems to set the cat among the pigeons and leave the Congress leadership scrambling to defend their leaders. It is frankly amusing to see the Congress Party, which has been in existence for a hundred and thirty years, bites each bait laid out by Modi.
- BJP under Modi-Shah also seems to have finally realised that offense is the best form of defence. In 2009, when BJP with L.K Advani as its Prime Ministerial candidate ran for elections, the Congress skilfully changed the narrative by blaming Advani for the dangerous Hindutva streak in the country that led to the demolition of Babri Masjid in 1992 and subsequent riots that ensued. As a consequence, Advani was left defending his actions throughout the campaign, leaving him with no time to discuss substantive policy issues. We all know how that turned out for BJP back then. However, the BJP of 2019 seems to have learnt from this mistake. Every time the Congress brings up the carnage of 2002 now, Modi goes on the offensive and reminds them of the horrors of 1984. His constant reminder to the Congress of 1984 seems to have left them on the defensive, much like Advani in 2009. This strategy combined with my previous observation manifested itself in the form of Sam Pitroda, a staunch Rajiv Gandhi loyalist who hurried to the defence of his former boss for 1984 by using the unfortunate words ‘Hua to Hua’ (what happened, happened), prompting a stern reprimand from Rahul Gandhi himself. How the BJP tricked the Congress President into publicly rebuking the man who mentored him, Sam Pitroda would never know.
- The victory of Donald Trump, Brazil’s Jair Bolsanaro and the re-election of Turkey’s Recep Erdogan have one thing in common. They are all nationalistic strongmen who pursue an aggressively populistic agenda. As nationalistic populistic strongmen are the current flavour of the season globally, Narendra Modi has decided to ride the wave by campaigning in a no-holds-barred approach. The modus operandi of right-wing-populists is to rile against the liberal establishment by enacting policies, fielding candidates and giving speeches specifically designed to trip them. This is best demonstrated in BJP’s decision to field Sadhvi Pragya Thakur against Digvijay Singh in Bhopal. How better to ‘stick it’ to the liberal establishment than fielding a candidate initially accused and then acquitted of charges of Saffron Terror than to field her against the man who popularised the term ‘Saffron Terror’?
- As a famous American politician once said, ‘you campaign in poetry and govern in prose.’ Another thing that Narendra Modi has managed to do so successfully in this campaign is to barely talk about development. If he wanted to talk development, there were plenty of talking points available as his government has some good achievements under its belt, such as the ambitious Ayushman Bharat, hailed as the world’s largest health scheme, cutting red tape, emphasis on building toilets and electrification, etc. But Modi cleverly realised that it is not easy to win elections by holding up a report card, and that campaigning has to be done aggressively, mainly aimed at the sentiment of the electorate.
In all fairness, Congress’ NYAY scheme was a well-intentioned policy proposal, aimed at lifting fifty million people out of poverty by introducing a Minimum Income Guarantee Scheme (MIGS), as is done in many developed countries too. However, even Rahul Gandhi’s earnest efforts to talk about the benefits of it got swept away under the rug as the public, energised by Modi’s raucous campaigning, dismissed it as another socialist scam.
I have no idea how these strategies of BJP will play out as I am not a psephologist. By May 23rd, all of us will have gained one superpower-hindsight. In hindsight, these strategies might boomerang too. We never know. I am not a bhakt either, but I have to concede that I cannot help but admire how this duo of Modi-Shah are proving to be a forceful adversary to the Congress by constantly attacking them and refusing to let them set the agenda.
As a neutral observer, I am also slightly disappointed at the sheer lack of discipline in the cadres of the country’s oldest political party and how easily they are walking into the traps laid by the BJP by constantly giving rattled responses to PM Modi’s attacks instead of just ignoring and moving on. When it comes to ignoring attacks and not biting the bait, perhaps the Congress should take cue from none other than Narendra Modi himself, who successfully managed to stave off Arvind Kejriwal’s incessant tweeting about him (remember the Coward and Psychopath tweet?) by just ignoring him and refused to bite the ‘anti-Muslim’ bait laid for him in the 2014 election by just talking about roads and infrastructure. Will the Congress ever learn?
P.S.: Inspired by K.B. Ganapathy’s well-written ‘Abracadabra’ titled “India’s great reformer Modi” (Star of Mysore, May 15, 2019), this article is written.
Shashank Gouri, 245, Main St, Apt B-10, New York Mills, NY 13417-1260, USA