When history beckons with best of the opportunities, he shouldn’t be caught napping
A year ago this writer was travelling with a Congress leader who was a cabinet minister in the second Manmohan Singh government. When asked about the prospects of the Congress to make a comeback in national politics, the former minister said he was certain that opportunities would spring up for the party. “Look at the Modi government. It’s all noise, no substance. They themselves will throw up opportunities. But we need a strong leadership to turn the tide in favour of the Congress,” he said. When asked if he was referring to Rahul Gandhi, he said, “Rahul is a very good man but a weak leader. We thought he would learn from his experiences and transform, which is just not happening.”
Cut to the present, thanks to the grotesque demonitisation drive, the Modi government has hit its lowest point since it came to power in May 2014. The absurd number of changes and tweaks in rules announced since PM Modi’s November 8 speech itself squarely exposes the incompetence of the Centre in implementing the mammoth currency exchange exercise. This is a historic opportunity for any political opposition, to tap into public anger, mobilise the masses and seize the moment to turn the tide against the government. The Congress, being the second largest party in Parliament with a pan-India presence, is naturally expected to do this. But its leader, Rahul Gandhi, is caught napping.
To be fair, Rahul had stood in an ATM queue. He spoke out against the government a few times. His party is opposing the implementation of demonitisation in Parliament. But is that enough? This is not your run-of-the-mill sociopolitical crisis. Rahul could perhaps turn back into history, to learn how opposition leaders appropriated public anger to break the government’s momentum. During Indira Gandhi’s Emergency, it was Jayaprakash Narayan, or JP as he’s popularly known, who responded to the call of history. Most of the post-Emergency political satraps in northern and eastern India were once part of the JP movement. The Jana Sangh, which was a hated political outfit for its association with the RSS till the emergency, rechristened itself as the BJP in the 1980. JP’s Yadava lieutenants from Uttar Pradesh and Bihar became OBC socialists in their respective states. In Odisha, Biju Patnaik went ahead establishing a political monopoly.
More recently, Sonia Gandhi played an instrumental role in building the opposition unity against the Vajpayee government. The Congress under Sonia Gandhi set in motion a secular anti-BJP narrative, which resonated with the larger electorate after the 2002 Gujarat violence, and a critique of the BJP’s economic reforms agenda. The Congress said it was reforms with a human face and brought together anti-BJP parties, including the Left, to form an alliance. The BJP in early 2004 was so confident of winning the election that it had called for early polls. But the Congress strategy proved successful as the BJP was unseated at the Centre.
Modi’s rise to power is another example. When corruption allegations rocked the UPA II and Anna Hazare started a campaign against the government, Modi found a golden opportunity. He began his own campaign, consistently attacking the government, connecting with the middle class through social media and reaching out to large crowds through public events. The BJP used his Hindutva mascot image to counterpose Manmohan Singh’s liberal, soft- capitalist persona. He articulated an anti-corruption, pro-development narrative which synced well with the public mood. The people were angry because of the corruption allegations the UPA II faced and its apparent inability to control prices and make any big-ticket interventions in the economy, at least like what the UPA-I did. Modi could effectively turn the sentiments in favour of him through his campaigns.
Now, demonitisation is the Modi government’s 2G moment. As Niccolò Machiavelli famously put it, “Men more quickly forget the death of their father than the loss of their patrimony”. People of the country is now feeling the extreme heat of demonetisation now, mostly in the form of loss of livelihood. Banks have run out of cash; the ATMs stand dry; the informal sector is wounded badly; people living in unbanked areas are exposed to inexplicable misery; and even the commerce minister admits that economic growth would be impacted. The Modi government is obviously on the defensive. But expecting that this would naturally prompt voters, especially those in the north, to turn against the BJP would be wishful thinking. For the Congress, whose organisational structure is in shambles in the cow belt, this is an opportunity to both rebuild the party apparatus and begin a political movement against the Modi government, which, like Modi himself did to Manmohan Singh four years ago, could break the government’s momentum. But to do that, the Congress needs an energetic and visionary leadership that could connect with the people and at the same time formulate right strategies. Rahul Gandhi appears to be severely malnourished on both counts.
Rahul is not seen even in Parliament in these days of crisis. It was octogenarian Manmohan Singh who made headlines by attacking the government on demonitisation. Rahul is not seen in the streets either. The Congress is yet to organise any major ground-level agitation against demonitisation. In sum, the Congress faces an ideological vacuum. Its centrist predilections are not going to help here. The anger against establishment politics and globalisation is palpable across the world. The election of Donald Trump in the US underscores this argument. Even Modi presented himself as an outsider during the campaign or a crusader against the Delhi establishment, which he often referred to as “Sultanate” that fit into his Hindutva rhetoric as well. So at this time of polarisation, the Congress, if it wants to revive itself, should move towards the Left, socialist forces. Because the political spectrum is already occupied by a rightwing party—BJP—and the centre doesn’t seem to be holding. But who will provide the Congress a new ideological direction? It should be its leader’s job. But where’s Rahul Gandhi?