As the monsoon session of Parliament draws to a close, the Narendra Modi Government appears to be coming to terms with one of its initial miscalculations: the belief that the Congress will not go out of its way to threaten the passage of legislation aimed at securing economic reforms.
The belief that the Congress would wait for some more time before it turns belligerent in Parliament was actually based on two factors. First, it was felt that the Congress would not renege on its own commitment to reforms. The BJP felt that since the modifications in foreign direct investment in the insurance sector had also been favoured by the UPA, the Congress would keep its opposition nominal. Secondly, many Congress leaders appear to have struck private deals with the new government over personal privileges. The unstated assumption was that this was the price for the party’s good conduct, particularly in the Rajya Sabha, where the Modi Government is in a minority. Indeed, all through the initial months, the NDA government had taken exceptional care to desist from everything that would be construed as vindictive.
The fragile understanding collapsed on account of the veto of the owners of the Congress Party. Whether this flat no by the Congress President was a consequence of her own commitment to flat earth economics or stemmed from a visceral anger at being denied the Leader of Opposition status will remain a matter of conjecture. However, the fact that being reduced to the ranks in protocol terms also coincided with the insolent questions being asked in the National Herald case and the rebellion in the Congress ranks may have influenced the decision to let slip the dogs of war. After an initial bout of disorientation, the Congress appears to have woken up to a new reality. Its owners have gauged that unless the first family was seen to be in combat mode, the Congress would be torn apart by internal fissures.
Finance Minister Arun Jaitley was entirely right when he attributed Rahul Gandhi’s unexpected journey to the well of the Lok Sabha and his subsequent disparaging comments on the Speaker to the threat of a palace coup. Given half a chance, many of his colleagues would have discerned a link between mounting speculation over Priyanka Gandhi’s future involvement in the Congress and the possible legal complications that may well engulf the most colourful member of the dynasty—one Robert Vadra.
However, what the BJP leadership needs to answer is why it allowed a beleaguered dynasty three months’ time to recover its composure. It is not the time that is consequential but the fact that the interregnum between the election results and Rahul’s Red Bull moment in the Lok Sabha has proved politically counter-productive to the BJP. In politics, timing is all-important and the BJP let slip the moment to really turn the screws on its principal opponent. Today, not only does the Congress believe that the BJP is vulnerable—a bit of an over-optimistic prognosis—but that with the help of friendly English-language papers and TV channels, it can shift the agenda to issues that suit it.
The linkages between, say, the Indian Express’ determination to make communal polarisation the principal issue affecting India and Rahul’s resurrection of the jholawala-communalist-sponsored Communal Violence Bill are obvious. The sensibilities of the Gandhis are formed by what the NGOs and Left-liberal media think. Thus, if the prevailing consensus of the beautiful people is that Hindu Rashtra has arrived in western Uttar Pradesh, the likes of Rahul and his court will parrot that one-sided version of reality.
In the normal course, the BJP would have challenged this narrative with characteristic robustness. However, since Modi assumed charge in late May, the BJP, as a party, has been gripped by paralysis, with its stalwarts looking increasingly at what positions they can get either in the government or the party. The three by-elections in Uttarakhand weren’t lost on account of any creeping disappointment with the Modi Government—it is still too early for people to signal thumbs-down. The loss can be explained by over-confidence and endemic local factionalism—a problem that has also affected the BJP’s Delhi unit.
Finding the right balance between party and government is difficult in any democracy. It is more so in India, where many political activists believe that they should be handsomely rewarded for past services to the cause. In the past three months, the BJP let slip a wonderful chance to send the Congress to the cleaners. Its misplaced faith in the politics of manipulation saw the party lose opportunities to unearth many of the misdeeds of the past.
Take a few recent examples. The supposed misdeeds of the Syndicate Bank chairman were linked to the Congress in many ways. The BJP should have used it as an opportunity to arouse popular anger against the misuse of nationalised banks for political wheeling-dealing. Unfortunately, nothing of the sort happened. Congress embarrassment was met with BJP silence. Then there was the case of the nine government bungalows allotted to the national treasurer of the Congress. It was a great opportunity to highlight the perverse mindset of the Congress, the same mentality that former Governor Beniwal used to good effect in Rajasthan. Once again the BJP failed to look a gift horse in the mouth. These examples can be replicated in the states.
As Amit Shah assumes the presidency, the BJP has to realise one thing: it is not the job of the Congress to maintain it in power. The Congress will try to claw back its influence and recover lost ground. Its survival as a party depends on their ability to ensure that BJP rule is short-lived. The puzzling question is: Why should the BJP tacitly cooperate in this venture? It may be a stupid notion, but in my book political rivals never declare peace on each other. If they do, the side that continues with the war through other means always wins.