The proposition that the Congress' single-point agenda of “demonizing Modi” is counter-productive, first articulated by Jairam Ramesh, has found support among party leaders Abhishek Manu Singhvi, Shashi Tharoor and surprisingly, Mani Shankar Aiyar. Their colleagues, sadly, have found it indigestible.
The Congress knows from bitter experience that Modi-bashing has only served to make the Prime Minister stronger. Narendra Modi thrived on criticism from the media and a section of public intellectuals and went on to win election after election. The party also knows that its far-left stance has few takers, as the A K Antony report warned in 2014. Further, as former party president Rahul Gandhi figured out well before the 2019 campaign, Modi's Achilles’ heel lay in under-performance on the economic front.
Why then, did the Congress lose the plot in the general elections so completely? At some point, or so it appears, Gandhi made the fatal error of allowing his political rivalry with Modi to become personal. “Chowkidar chor hai” was a catchy slogan, but proved too much for voters to stomach. His advisors would have done well to remind him that in politics, “It isn't personal; it's just business”.
The anti-Modi agenda that coloured the Congress campaign has been carried over into the post-election scenario. As the largest Opposition party, Modi-bashing, rather than constructive criticism, continues to be its guiding principle. By attacking the government on absolutely everything, lumping the good with the bad, the Congress comes off sounding petulant. In its desperate efforts to dent Modi's public credibility, the party is losing its own.
Acknowledging positive steps like GST, Swachh Bharat and the campaign against single-use plastic, while criticising the manner in which they are implemented, would be far more useful than slogans like “Gabbar Singh Tax”. Jairam Ramesh had cited Ujjwala–the rural cooking gas scheme–as an example of a successful programme implemented by the Modi government. Aiyar, too, acknowledged that the Modi model was “not a completely negative story”. This, coming from a man who once dubbed Modi as a “chaiwala” and “neech”!
By attacking Modi's strengths, the Congress has ensured that its criticisms of his weaknesses fall on deaf ears. Tharoor said as much, pointing out that “Modi should be praised whenever he says or does the right things”. The response has been predictable; Jairam & Co are accused of glorifying Modi and seeking to jump ship.
These critics should take note of the fact that Jairam Ramesh has strongly criticized the payout of Rs 1.76 crore to the government by the Reserve Bank of India. So, he is not advocating a free pass to the NDA government, but a balanced approach. His 'commonsensical' strategy has been rejected by the Kerala Congress, which went so far as to demand an explanation from Tharoor.
This is symptomatic of politics at large. The current ideological polarisation leaves no room for centrist views or civil exchanges. More importantly, it does not allow dispassionate discussion on the critical issues of the day. Social media bandwidth is taken up by Modibhakts and Modi-bashers, to the exclusion of reasoned debates on water policy, population stabilisation, environmental pollution, garbage disposal and so on – all points raised by Modi.
Any discussion on issues of public concern runs into the impenetrable barrier of “secularism”. From Modi's mouth, even a ban on single-use plastic is fraught with conspiracy and underhand agendas! The more hardcore among the Congress-aligned, so-called liberals draw absurd comparisons between Modi and demagogues and dictators of the past. This kind of 'sour grapes' intolerance is not doing the Congress any favours.
The Congress is increasingly isolated even within the Opposition, with smaller parties realizing they had best steer clear of a sinking ship. If the grand old party is to regain its credibility and public standing, it cannot afford to come across as petty and mindlessly abusive, with Modi-bashing as its default mode.
The right-wing cadre is not blameless, in terms of the polarisation of the public discourse. Abusive posts by social media trolls have become the order of the day. The vicious comments on slain journalist Gauri Lankesh in 2017 are a case in point. The BJP needs to do more to distance itself from such fringe elements. While moderate elements exist in both camps, the extremists are having a field day. The leadership on both sides has proved lamentably reluctant to rein them in.
As an Opposition, the Congress–as Modi observed–has a valuable role to play. It can give voice to alternative opinion, highlight the government's shortcomings and act as a watchdog. But by crying “Wolf!” each and every time the PM says or does something, it will lose its audience.
The writer is a senior journalist with 35 years of experience in working with major newspapers and magazines. She is now an independent writer and author.