After gaining some traction in Gujarat and Karnataka in the last eight months the Congress appears to be losing steam again. It has not been successful in pinning down the Modi government on the demonetisation fiasco, hasty implementation of GST, price rise, rising joblessness, farm distress, turbulent Kashmir, worsening law and order, lynching and other hate crimes. The Opposition tasted limited electoral success in the recent by-elections mainly because of the upswing in the index of their unity and the negatives against the Modi government were only incremental. How is it that despite apparent governance deficit the BJP continues to win elections? Division in the Opposition ranks is, of course, is a prime factor. Its inability to knit a counter narrative to BJP’s communal politics is another worrying lapse. Four years of the NDA rule has given a number of potential electoral issues on a platter to the Opposition, the Congress in particular but they have failed to cash in on the growing public disquiet. And what is galling is that the Opposition, satisfied with reactive politics, has no strategy to fight the divisive agenda. With just ten months to go for the 2019 Lok Sabha elections the Congress should have been on the offensive, rather it is the ruling BJP that is aggressive and antagonistic while the former continues to be on the defensive.
Last few weeks once again witnessed the skill of BJP as well as Prime Minister Narendra Modi in obfuscating bread and butter issues by keeping the communal pot boiling and the Congress falling into the trap. In the latest incidents, BJP managers mischievously added communal twists to comments made by Congress president Rahul Gandhi and senior leader Shashi Tharoor but the party failed to counter them with a befitting riposte. The discourse in the media has been “Hindu Pakistan, Hindu Taliban, Internet Hindu, Congress a Muslim Party” and so on. The Congress reacted as usual and earned a few single columns in mainstream dailies while the BJP managed to keep the partisan narrative afloat courtesy prime time television.
Last week Rahul Gandhi interacted with a select group of Muslim intellectuals as part of his outreach programme wherein he reportedly told the invitees that the Congress is for everybody and that Muslims should not feel excluded. However, based on an Urdu newspaper report that misquoted the Gandhi scion as saying that “Congress is a Muslim party” (none of the mainstream dailies that covered the meeting said so), the PM made a splash of it at a rally in Azamgarh blaring that “I have read in newspapers that the dynast has said that the Congress is a party of Muslims.” However, noted historian Irfan Habib and senior Supreme Court lawyer Fuzail Ahmad Ayyubi who were present at the meeting trashed the insinuation. Despite protestations by the Congress and the intellectuals, the PM’s noxious reference was vigorously endorsed by senior cabinet ministers Nirmala Sitharaman, Prakash Javadekar and Ravi Shankar Prasad who far from being on the back foot called Rahul Gandhi “divisive”.
The Congress charge was led by relatively junior leaders and media department chairman Randeep Surjewala and the mainstream media obsessed with personalities largely underplayed their reactions. The Congress president should have been vociferous and prompt in calling PM’s bluff. Rahul woke up two days later to put the record straight through a gentle tweet while BJP milked the spurious story to the hilt.
Last year the PM had in election speeches claimed that Pakistan is conspiring to make Congress leader Ahmed Patel chief minister of Gujarat and that former PM Manmohan Singh had attended a secret meeting with Pak foreign minister and others in Delhi, both the allegations, based on a Hindi newspaper report, turned out to be false. The Congress response has been tepid and the BJP got away. Again, during the Karnataka elections the saffron party resurrected the ghosts of Jinnah and Tipu Sultan assisted by the Congress. Why is it that the principal Opposition party is not seeing a method in BJP’s madness on the eve of each election? Shashi Tharoor was somewhat right when he said that “if a BJP government was re-elected in 2019 it would pave way for the creation of a Hindu Pakistan”. CPM general secretary Sitaram Yechury also had made a similar comment in Parliament sometime ago. However, instead of backing Tharoor the Congress advised him to be cautious.
On July 8, union minister Jayant Sinha garlanded eight men convicted of lynching a cattle trader and out on bail in his Hazaribagh constituency and a day later another union minister – Giriraj Singh – visited Nawada jail in Bihar to extend support to party workers detained for instigating communal violence in the district; ten days later in Pakur (six hours drive from Hazaribagh) 79-year-old Swami Agnivesh, social activist and Arya Samaj scholar was assaulted and he narrowly escaped being lynched by a mob, that he alleged were workers of the BJP youth wing. Shashi Tharoor reiterating his “Hindu Pakistan” comment told media persons that Modi’s silence last four years has empowered violence and misbehaviour. Why should the Congress feel apologetic about Tharoor’s Hindu Pak comment? It would appear that a section of Congress leadership feel intimidated by the muscular Sangh Pariwar or is it that by peddling soft Hindutva the party can return to power? They are making a mistake by clubbing BJP’s Hindutva with the syncretic Hinduism of majority Hindus. If the Congress engages with the BJP/RSS in competitive communal politics it will fall between two stools. It is high time the party changed the public discourse; go back to the people and educate them of the perils of hate and division. There are a number of issues on which the party should have hit the streets – the Lokpal and women quota bills stonewalled by the government, farmers distress and job losses to mention a few. Agitational politics is the best anti-dote to Hindutva politics.
Kay Benedict is an independent journalist.
*Mr Benedict’s column will appear in regular slot hereafter.