The main opposition party has been battling with Modi for over a decade now – but with little success and even less learning from its failures
Ajay Singh | March 30, 2015 | New Delhi
Just as Congress president Sonia Gandhi was admitted to a hospital in the US in 2011, a bouquet with a get-well-soon message was delivered at her residence early one morning. Sonia’s illness was a closely guarded secret till then. The mysterious delivery clearly blew the lid off that secrecy. But that was not the cause of concern amongst those close to Sonia. The real worry was that the flowers and good wishes had come from the then Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi.
The story may sound apocryphal, yet it defines the changing grammar of Indian politics. As expected, the Congress responded to it by revealing the purpose of Sonia’s US visit. In the recent past, the Congress has developed an uncanny tendency to respond frantically to the agenda imposed on it. And Modi has been setting the agenda all along, leaving the main opposition party in disarray.
For instance, the manner in which the bill replacing the crucial ordinances on coal and mining were cleared in the Rajya Sabha on the last day before the recess in the budget session. The facade of opposition unity fell apart as all regional players found supporting the bills more beneficial than putting up a united front. The reason was not far to seek. The regional satraps, ruling more states than the Congress and Left put together, found devolution of funds in the coal and mining bills an extremely attractive proposition. Even Janata Dal (United) of Nitish Kumar tactically walked out to facilitate the passage of the bills.
Contrast this with the show of characteristic aggression on the framing of coal scam related charges against former prime minister Manmohan Singh by a court. “Manmohan Singh’s honesty” was proclaimed as a pious and sacrosanct notion beyond judicial purview. The fact that Manmohan Singh presided over a government mired neck deep in corruption was being brushed aside. It is also conveniently ignored that “personally honest” Manmohan Singh had been accused of buying support to save his government in the cash-for-vote scam over the Indo-US nuclear deal. Curiously, Sonia’s solidarity with Manmohan Singh evoked little sympathy among people.
Perhaps, the Congress seems to be fascinated by history and is trying desperately to recreate the moments that catapulted the party to the centre-stage during Indira Gandhi’s trying times in the post-emergency period. Sonia’s solidarity march to Manmohan Singh’s residence was considered an event similar to Indira Gandhi’s arrest by the Janata Party regime headed by another Gujarati, Morarji Desai. But unlike Desai whose home minister Charan Singh was defiant, Modi ensured that his ministers were respectful to the former prime minister and avoided making personal comments.
Though the script in most cases has gone awfully wrong for the Congress, the party is quite overenthusiastic about regaining its prestige by opposing Modi’s bill on land acquisition. The party regards it as the “Belchi moment” – when Indira Gandhi visited Belchi, the site of a caste massacre in Bihar, and regained her pro-poor image. Sonia’s visit to rural Rajasthan was also intended to portray a pro-people image of the party. This was also why she cosied up to Anna Hazare and other social activists.
Nothing is more ironic than the fact that the Congress, which promoted cronyism and facilitated land grabbing by the DLF-Robert Vadra combine in Haryana and Rajasthan, has been taking up the cause of farmers.
Similarly, in Uttar Pradesh, Mulayam Singh Yadav’s Samajwadi Party and Mayawati’s Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) carried out reckless land acquisition all over the state to benefit builders and reap windfall gains. Do they have any credibility left to speak for landowning farmers?
There are indications that Modi, through amendments in the land acquisition bill, has been shunning the discourse of glamorisation of rural India. He seems to be closer to Ambedkar than Gandhi in his assessment about rural India, which requires a structural facelift. In his stint as chief minister of Gujarat, Modi consistently maintained in the national development council (NDC) meetings that there was hardly any difference between rural and urban Gujarat.
In this context, there is a pattern in Modi’s behaviour. In his speech in parliament and address to farmers through All India Radio, he clarified that the land acquisition bill would enable the government to build infrastructure facilities all over the country to provide better job opportunities and improve quality of life for all. “Do you want your children to live in Delhi’s slums?” is a carefully crafted question intended to appeal to marginal farmers and landless labourers in rural India.
Modi knows it better than most of his contemporaries that the schism in rural society is far deeper than the one in urban India. Farmers do not comprise a monolithic entity. His attempt to wean away a significantly large section of the population from agriculture to other gainful activities has a greater political potential than sticking to the worn-out theme of perpetuating villages in their pristine state.
There is little doubt that Modi has been frequently changing the terms of engagement with his political adversaries. The problem with the Congress, the Left and the parties with Indian socialist persuasion (of the Narendra Dev-Lohia variety) is that most of them are yet to reconcile with the changing political grammar in the country. Modi is too adept a practitioner of realpolitik to shift the ground where he finds himself vulnerable.
In the 10 months of his regime, Modi has emerged increasingly vulnerable on the delivery front. The impression that nothing has changed in the culture of governance on ground has been reinforced with every passing day. His rhetoric, which enthralled his audience by conjuring up a dream, is proving to be less attractive. It requires a great deal of political patience and new thinking on the part of the opposition, particularly the Congress, to let Modi run off-course on his own steam. It would be counterproductive to confront him on wrong issues. If the Congress has not learnt that lesson in the past one decade, it may be getting bouquets and get-well-soon messages from its most formidable adversary quite frequently.
(The article appears in the April1-15, 2015, issue)
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