The promise of economic development which catapulted Prime Minister Narendra Modi to power in 2014 has become a staple of stand-up comics and fodder for Opposition politicians. Mr Modi knows that he needs to shape a new narrative for his 2019 campaign.
Its contours have already begun to emerge. It will target the Congress to the exclusion of others. Rahul Gandhi will be fashioned into Prime Minister Modi’s main adversary; the Congress will be projected as a “party of Muslims”; its election machinery will be weakened by the investigative agencies of the government targeting the top decision-makers, and Mr Modi will project himself as the victim of over-ambitious dynasts. There will be no personal attacks against non-Congress leaders and an attempt to show up the Congress as an untrustworthy ally.
The primary strand of his new narrative is to convert the 2019 general election from “Modi versus Nobody” into a “Modi vs Rahul Gandhi” contest.
Through Rahul, the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty can be blamed for all the misfortunes of India, and Mr Modi projected as the heir to the “victims” of the Dynasty’s arrogance.
By the convoluted logic that Mr Modi is marketing, Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru’s “mistreatment” of Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, Mahatma Gandhi’s bias against Subhash Chandra Bose and his anatgonism towards Babasaheb Ambedkar, somehow merge with the apparent disdain he himself suffers at the hands of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty. It is completely unclear why one is expected to believe that Mr Modi represents the legacy of freedom fighters like Sardar Patel and Subhash Bose or the egalitarian and anti-caste struggle of Ambedkar. He and the ideology he represents continue to be antithetical to what these great leaders stood for.
Meanwhile, the man of straw against whom he will direct his abusive rhetoric is Rahul Gandhi, a “Pappu”, a know-nothing who sees the prime ministership of India as his birthright — a naamdar (dynast) who wants to take on a humble kaamdar (doer).
By rubbishing Rahul Gandhi, Mr Modi and his ilk seek to rubbish his political criticism. Consider the ridiculous exercise by Mr Modi’s ministers of attacking the Congress president for criticising the mob lynching of poor Rakbar Khan.
Piyush Goyal described him as a “merchant of hate”, the loquacious Smriti Irani declared that he was indulging in “vulture politics” and ace shooter Rajyavardhan Rathore took aim by accusing Mr Gandhi of “sowing seeds of hatred”. Someone visiting from Mars might be forgiven for thinking that the mobs on a killing spree had been unleashed by Mr Gandhi, and not the Hindutva forces the Modi government represents.
Mr Modi attempts to invert what he sees as the elitism of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty by proclaiming himself the son of a humble tea-seller and sometimes a faqir with no worldly interests.
Another major strand of Mr Modi’s emerging campaign strategy is to hype up the Congress as “a party of Muslims”. It fits in well with the BJP’s appeal to its Hindu voters. After the Congress chief had a meeting with Muslim intellectuals, an Urdu daily carried a news story claiming Rahul Gandhi had said that the Congress was a party of Muslims. Participants denied that this statement had ever been made.
Yet defence minister Nirmala Sitaraman reiterated the false charge, and a day later Prime Minister Modi played up the allegation in a public meeting in Azamgarh in Uttar Pradesh. He said: “For the last two days, I am hearing that a naamdar leader (Rahul Gandhi) recently said that the Congress is a party of Muslims. I’m not surprised. Even former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh once said that Muslims have the first right over the nation’s natural resources.”
As if on cue, another minister, Ravi Shankar Prasad, said: “When Rahul Gandhi goes to Gujarat for elections, he becomes a janeudhari (wearer of sacred thread) and flaunts his brahmin lineage. He does the same in Karnataka. Now that those elections are over, he has started to patronise Muslims.” Soon it was a chorus asking: Are you for or against triple talaaq? What is your view on nikah halala? Whether the Congress has always been a broad church or not and what Rahul Gandhi said in his meeting with Muslim intellectuals become secondary considerations in this cacophony.
A series of measures are also being taken to hobble prominent Congress leaders in the run-up to 2019. These range from the Enforcement Directorate being set against them to notices being sent to some about their alleged “benami” properties. The attempt is to degrade the election machinery of the Congress systematically by targeting those who could play important roles in election strategising.
With the rest of the Opposition, as Mr Modi’s speech in Parliament showed, he will criticise only those with whom there is no chance of reconciliation. He deliberately refrained from publicly belittling non-Congress leaders. The only non-Congress leader he belittled was his erstwhile colleague and Andhra Pradesh chief minister N. Chandrababu Naidu, who was several times dismissively referred to as “Babu” without any honorific.
Mr Modi’s large-heartedness over the provocative actions of the Shiv Sena is another case in point. The Shiv Sena not only boycotted the no-confidence vote but also launched a frontal attack on Mr Modi in its newspaper Saamna. And yet a Shiv Sena minister continues in Mr Modi’s cabinet.
It is doubtful, however, whether such cleverness will mean a walkover for Mr Modi in 2019. The ground is shifting and people recognise his rhetoric for what it is. People laugh at his histrionics.
Even Rahul Gandhi no longer gets cowed down by his abuse. The Opposition’s attack on the government over the Rafale deal shows how emboldened it has become. And the announcement by the Congress that it will opt for anti-BJP alliance wherever necessary and accept any anti-BJP leader as the next Prime shows that political cleverness is not the monopoly of tea-sellers.