There are many privileges of being in Parliament. The one I cherish the most is the special access that allows me to gauge the thinking of the political class. Convivial conversations with MPs, cutting across the party divide, is invaluable in sensing the mood. In recent days, as political reporting in the media has become more sound bite-based and less based on quiet understanding of the cross currents, the experience of the Central Hall tells us why there is a growing trust deficit between the media and its readers and viewers.
The no-confidence debate on July 13 was preceded by a spectacular measure of media hype that, I believe, was quite unwarranted. In their bid to over-dramatise the mundane, the media (particularly TV) built up the event as the greatest show on earth, a gladiatorial confrontation between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Congress President Rahul Gandhi. Some even suggested that there would be a nail-biting end to the debate and the government could even suffer an unforeseen defeat on the floor of the Lok Sabha.
This hype – understandable if the objective was to keep viewers glued to the TV sets – was in sharp contrast to the mood inside Parliament. Here, the resounding victory of the Modi government in the vote was taken as a foregone conclusion, even after the Shiv Sena flip-flopped its way into abstention. The only real interest centred on the performance of Rahul Gandhi. Would he use the occasion to position himself as a front-ranking political leader and shed the frivolity that had come to be associated with him?
It is not for me to judge how impressive or otherwise was Rahul’s performance. Some people, notably in the media, thought his hug of Modi was the high point of the debate. Other indications were that it reinforced his image as a non-serious player. The only thing I can say is that the Central Hall did not reverberate with any visible excitement over Rahul’s speech. Indeed, three days after it was delivered, it had been relegated to a footnote.
This appears to be borne out by other developments. The newly-appointed Congress Working Committee met on July 15, two days after the no-confidence debate. The decisions taken at the meeting seem to reflect the triumphalist echo chamber mood that Rahul had made a deep mark on Indian politics, had seriously dented the credibility of the Prime Minister and had allowed the Congress to dominate the Opposition space. Consequently, wallowing in these self-serving inputs the CWC pronounced that the Congress was the natural leader of the anti-Modi space and that in the 2019 general election, Rahul would be projected as the alternative prime ministerial candidate against Modi.
The reactions from the other Opposition parties was not encouraging for the Congress. It was expected that Mamata Banerjee, who hopes to make a clean sweep of her state and win all 42 seats, would persist with her own projection as the prime minister in a federal coalition dominated by the regional parties. However, other big players such as the Samajwadi Party weren’t impressed either. They want the question of leadership to be kept open till after the results of the general election are announced.
The net effect of this widespread scepticism was that the longevity of the CWC decision was cut to just two days. By mid-week, the Congress let it be known that it had an open mind on the question of Rahul’s leadership of any anti-Modi coalition and that the priority now was to defeat the BJP.
The larger point is not that the Congress had to eat humble pie. That can happen and doesn’t constitute the last word in politics. The more significant conclusion is that the Congress had taken a crucial political decision on the basis of dodgy inputs. This really points to one of the biggest weaknesses of the party: When it comes to the Gandhi family dynasty, flattery seems to rule the roost.
Of course, it would be erroneous to suggest that this pattern of self-serving inputs will set the tone between now and May 2019. Rahul Gandhi did not do as well in the no-confidence debate as was made out by Congress supporters. In addition, some of the cracks within the non-BJP parties were also exposed – a reason why the victory of the government in the final vote was so emphatic. However, Rahul has succeeded in grabbing a great deal of the nation’s mind space and media space. If he checks his impetuosity, he may still be able to build on his wide exposure, particularly if the Congress performance in the Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan Assembly elections is creditable. Those in the BJP who are inclined to write off Rahul are making precisely the same mistake as the CWC.
The next few months will witness a flurry of political activity centred on the Lok Sabha election of 2019. The BJP’s strongest card is the Prime Minister whose appeal is much greater than the pull exercised by the BJP. The party’s organisational machinery and the performance of the Modi government are also assets it can build on. However, the party is in danger of being dragged down by wild elements that seem to believe that issues such as ‘love jihad’ and Muslim bashing are vote winners.
Muslims are unlikely to vote for the BJP in any meaningful way. However, the danger of extremism is that it can potentially deter Hindus who don’t want vigilante squads in the streets flexing their muscles. Checking the wild bunch is an exercise the BJP cannot put off indefinitely.
Swapan Dasgupta is a senior journalist and Member of Parliament, being a presidential nominee to the Rajya Sabha.