For the Congress, the former finance minister’s incarceration at Tihar could not have come at a worse time. Just when the ongoing economic slowdown handed the party explosive ammunition to fire at the Narendra Modi government, it was denied the opportunity to use one of its most knowledgeable economic experts to question the ruling dispensation. A staunch critic of the current state of the economy, P. Chidambaram’s searing writings on the issue have not gone down well with the government. If the former finance minister had not been in judicial custody, the Congress would have fielded him extensively to put the government on the mat on its handling of the economy. Realising it needed someone who has the required domain expertise to speak out, the party approached former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to issue a statement given that he is the most trusted and credible leader to comment on the economy. Apparently, Mr Singh was initially hesitant to go public with a critique of the government’s economic policies but he eventually agreed after some persuasion. Mr Singh first said he would read out a statement but when told that it would not be very effective, a compromise was reached wherein he glanced at his own statement as he spoke on the subject. The Congress strategy paid off as Mr Singh’s comments got good play in the press while the government and the BJP scurried around to come up with an appropriate response.
While Mr Chidambaram’s judicial custody deprived the Congress of an expert commentator on the country’s economy at this critical juncture, the Bharatiya Janata Party also found itself floundering in the absence of its ace troubleshooter Arun Jaitley. The saffron party was reminded about Mr Jaitley’s immense skills in media management when it was unable to keep out reports on the economic slowdown from hitting the front pages. As long as Mr Jaitley was active, his excellent network with media barons and editors, ensured that any report which reflected poorly on the Modi government was buried or played down. Alternatively, Mr Jaitley would write a blog on the subject, giving the government’s viewpoint, which obviously took precedence over other news related to the same issue. It may be a coincidence but the current economic slowdown suddenly hit the headlines and was a topic of discussion on television news channels when Mr Jaitley was not there to come to the Modi government’s defense. In fact, the government was unable to field anyone to respond to former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s critical statement on the country’s economy. Finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman had an opportunity to do so but instead of coming up with a measured response, she preferred to answer with an angry one-liner. Her junior minister Anurag Thakur and BJP spokesperson Sambit Patra were subsequently fielded to retaliate but their personalised attacks did not serve any purpose. The two leaders lack the maturity and necessary gravitas to be taken seriously.
The Modi government may be on the back foot with regard to the current economic situation but the BJP is convinced it will not impact its electoral prospects in the coming Assembly polls in Maharashtra, Haryana and Jharkhand. The BJP’s confidence is based on the feedback it is getting from the poll-bound states where members of Opposition parties, especially the Congress and the Nationalist Congress Party, are queuing up to join the saffron party. Inundated with applicants, the state BJP units are turning them away as the induction of newcomers from other parties has led to rumblings within its ranks. When approached by a self-proclaimed “middleman” who wanted to know if he should contact some Congress leaders who were ready to cross over, Maharashtra chief minister Devendra Fadnavis told him their party could not accommodate any more outsiders. “In any case, who will they defeat,” he added. Similarly, his Haryana counterpart Manohar Lal Khattar is also being pressed by members from the Opposition camp who wish to switch sides. Their plea, “please take us or else we will be forced to fight elections”, speaks volumes about the state of Opposition parties in these states.
Former Congress chief ministers and senior leaders are a jittery lot these days after Mr Chidambaram was arrested in the INX Media case which was followed swiftly by Karnataka leader D.K. Shivakumar being taken into custody for questioning by the Enforcement Directorate. Also, former Haryana chief minister Bhupinder Singh Hooda is already embroiled in a land deal lawsuit. Not only are they worried about their image after being slapped with cases, but the Congress leaders are also nervous about the legal battles being an expensive affair. To make matters worse, the battery of legal eagles in the Congress are loath to forgo their fees for their party colleagues. Congress leaders complained that these lawyers expectedly put themselves out for the Gandhi family and for some senior party colleagues but they do not necessarily extend the same generosity to the other party members.