Let’s cut to February 2020. The Narendra Modi establishment was not willing to relent on the “chronological” CAA, NPR and NRC, which together threatened to make lakhs of Indian Muslims stateless.
The establishment had already tasted success with Kashmir and Ram Mandir, following its stupendous victory in the Lok Sabha elections in the summer of 2019.
BJP leader Kapil Mishra’s words, according to many, had already sparked a riot in Delhi, which left over 50 people dead. This was the establishment’s response to the protests against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act. It wasn’t even willing to engage with them.
Opposition parties including the main one, the Congress, were at a loss of words because the national political conversation centred around Hindu-Muslim issues, which they consider their weakest pitch. Despite the economy being in the doldrums, they were unable to shift the conversation to bread-and-butter issues.
As Narendra Modi bandied US President Donald Trump around Ahmedabad like a trophy endorsement, no one could say if the BJP was done with its Hindutva agenda. Were uniform civil code and a population control law on the cards?
The coronavirus pandemic came as a blow to the Hindutva agenda, even as Hindutva forces used the Tablighi Jamaat incident to give the pandemic a communal colour. But that lasted two weeks, at the most. The wretched virus is a long-term problem that can’t be solved by shifting attention or flexing muscle with election victories, engineered riots and stadium rallies. Even when the virus gets a vaccine.
In other words, this was a lifeline destiny was offering to the Congress, as well as other opposition parties. It is pointless to blame other opposition parties because not one of them is seeking a national role for themselves. Even Arvind Kejriwal formally laid down arms.
For the battered Congress, however, this was a god-sent opportunity to re-assert its pro-poor image of UPA-1 vintage. If Modi pre-empted any such efforts on the issue of the disease itself, there was the labourers’ crisis that even Amitabh Kant of Niti Aayog admits the government fared poorly on.
Given that the Modi government did not even shed crocodile tears for the distressed and stranded labourers, this was an easy opportunity for the Congress to exploit. It has failed to do so. Its response has come across as ad hoc, unplanned, unsure, confused, episodical and too little, too late. There are at least three reasons for this failure.
1. An unofficial split, or two
There are three Congresses within the Congress these days. There’s Congress (S), Congress (R) and Congress (P). One doesn’t seem to know what the other is doing.
Sonia Gandhi announces the party will pay for the train tickets of the labourers, and Rahul Gandhi doesn’t even tweet about it, leave alone do a Zoom conference. Ideally, he should have been at a railway station in Delhi, leading the charge from the front.
Rahul Gandhi and his people feel so marginalised in the party that they perhaps privately rue that most top leaders don’t even retweet him. And Priyanka Gandhi does her own thing in Uttar Pradesh, because her powerful aide Sandeep Singh wants to show he has better ideas than D.K. Shivakumar and Ahmed Patel.
The result is that the three camps often look like they’re trying to overshadow each other’s attempt to earn political capital.
In the absence of a real split, the party comes across as not knowing what it is doing and in which direction it is going.
2. Inability to understand political campaigning
The only motivation Congress leaders have is to not let other Congress leaders succeed. Perhaps, such competition could be healthy, as it is at least motivating them to do something.
But none of the three camps seems to be succeeding because none of them understands what a “campaign” is or even that making any point in public needs a campaign.
From Mahatma Gandhi to Narendra Modi, successful politicians across ideological divides understand the need for a campaign to drill any point into the minds of the masses. A campaign is a planned series of events making a coherent point or two; it helps people appreciate the point being made thanks to the power of repetition; it has a pre-designated name, keywords and hashtags; and it lasts minimum two weeks.
Gandhi could have just gone to the nearest salt coast and made salt. Instead, he drew a long route to Dandi, planning in great detail a march that would drive his message of civil disobedience to the masses. So, it wasn’t just Narendra Modi who made politics look like event management. Smart politics has always been like that because it is essentially an act of mass communication.
The Congress party that claimed to be legatee of Gandhi (or does it?) doesn’t seem to understand this. Sonia Gandhi (meaning, Ahmed Patel) announces that the Congress will pay for the train tickets of all migrant labourers. Great idea. The Modi government, rattled, issues a fake spin of the Centre paying 85 per cent of the cost and states the rest 15 per cent.
It came across as a one-day event by the Congress, rather a press-release event. Had the same been done like a campaign, everyone would have known how many tickets the Congress bought; what Congress state governments did, and so on.
Similarly, Rahul Gandhi did Zoom chats with two economists — Raghuram Rajan and Abhijit Banerjee — and then forgot all about them. What did they lead to? What was the outcome? What was the follow-up? It took him weeks to go meet a few migrant labourers, again a one-off event put out as a “documentary” no one saw.
Similarly, Priyanka Gandhi made a one-off claim the Congress had buses to provide and Yogi Adityanath called out the bluff by saying okay, give them right away. Again and again, we see the lack of a campaign approach that would pre-empt such fiascos.
3. The air-conditioned ivory towers
The ban on political activity during the pandemic/lockdown has come as a great boon to the lazy Lutyens’ leaders of the Congress party. They don’t even have to step out anymore, not even between 7 am and 7 pm. No political protest or rally is allowed.
As stranded labourers struggle to survive, Rahul Gandhi posts on Instagram a photo of himself with the caption, “A quiet evening in the office”. It must take a lot of effort to be this stupid.
It takes Rahul Gandhi more than 50 days to meet migrant labourers. And Priyanka Gandhi outsources her job to her “personal secretary” who has a Communist background. Does anyone even know who Narendra Modi’s personal secretary is? Amit Shah’s? No, because these leaders know the basics of politics, such as a leader taking the lead.
All three parties, the Congress (S), the Congress (R) and the Congress (P ) come across as being run not by their leaders, but by aides who haven’t won a single direct election.
Rahul Gandhi should have been walking with migrants from Delhi to Amethi. When would all that gymming be of any use? And Priyanka Gandhi should herself have gone to the UP border in Delhi or Rajasthan to make an impassioned speech about Yogi Adityanath not letting buses be used for labourers. She should have courted arrest. Instead, the party’s Uttar Pradesh chief is arrested and party leaders are, as usual, tweeting their condemnation.
Just imagine the BJP’s reaction if Ashok Gehlot was to put the BJP’s Rajasthan chief in jail.
The author is contributing editor to ThePrint. Views are personal.
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