The writer is Editor-in-Chief, Financial Chronicle; Visiting Fellow ORF and eminent author. He loves the space where politics and economics converge.

Rafale will not take Rahul very far in his war against Modi

Published Oct 25, 2018, 1:35 am IST
Updated Oct 25, 2018, 1:35 am IST
Gandhi is fighting Modi, but Arjuna’s eye and arrow is fixated on the industrialist, hence the vicious attacks on him.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi (Photo: PTI)
 Prime Minister Narendra Modi (Photo: PTI)

Transposing the learning from the Bofors case which capsized his father Rajiv Gandhi in the late 1980s, Rahul Gandhi believes that with Rafale, he can wing it to scupper PM Modi. Turning it into a hot button political issue, he is targeting Mr Modi by insinuating that a dirty deal was struck between the PM and industrialist Anil Ambani, aka cronyism. Zipping on a wing and a prayer, he has pushed this agenda of a dirty defence deal incessantly and turned it into a poll issue. Lifting himself from a downward spiral of hopelessness, he has chosen to make this issue his centrifuge. Like a straw man pursuing a logical fallacy.

It is an interesting battle stratagem, where you target an industrialist through your reticle in a familiar playback of the suit boot ki sarkar jibe. This way you rope in an industrialist to target the PM indirectly. The reality, however, is far removed for in what has increasingly assumed a presidential system connotation, India’s 2019 hustings are a fight between Mr Gandhi and the incumbent Mr Modi. The visceral hatred that they have for one other playing out like a blood feud. So Mr Gandhi’s strategy is predicated on identifying a businessman whose proximity is well known with the PM, though in actual fact, he is fighting the PM and not the industrialist in the election. Mr Gandhi’s axiom is based on taint. That if I cry sher aaya, sher aaya repeatedly, the taint will stick to Mr Modi. Joseph Goebbels, master of disinformation, had famously said — “If you repeat a lie often enough, people will believe it.” This sher aaya phenomena is perceptual, but as we know in politics, perception and reality coalesce quickly. Mr Gandhi’s thinking is that by painting the picture of graft and a quid pro quo between the industrialist and the PM, the war of perception will be won by him.

 

Mr Gandhi is fighting Mr Modi, but Arjuna’s eye and arrow is fixated on the industrialist, hence the vicious attacks on him. Vanquish the industrialist perceptually and you would have won a pyrrhic victory over Mr Modi. But if Mr Gandhi, derisively called Ra-fail Gandhi deep within the BJP, wants to derail Mr Modi’s second term, he has to fight him personally, and not the industrialist. In a Rahul Gandhi vs  Narendra Modi joust for 2019, the name Ambani is an offset. Clumsy circumstantial evidence provided by the Congress town-criers would have us believe that there is no smoke without fire. In this war of optics, both sides are indulging in internecine sniping. While the offsets have gained primacy over the pricing of the multi-combat Rafale jet, Mr Gandhi reckons that he is getting political traction. Again, perceptually, the government seems to have mishandled the plot, though it continues to defend the deal.

Not once has the government  been able to defend the pricing of the fighter jet, taking refuge behind a secret agreement from the beginning. Adding to the constant speculation are leaks emanating from France which appear with uncanny and unerring regularity. The Rahul Gandhi-led Congress, meanwhile, is pursuing the quarry, wishfully thinking that it will bring down the PM. This white-hot story on steroids replete with all the twists and turns is very much like the famous song — Kahin pe nigahen, kahin pe nishana sung by the mellifluous voiced Shamshad Begum in a movie aptly titled CID starring Devanand and Waheeda Rehman in the Raj Khosla classic of 1956. The song is a mirror image of what is playing out before us —
Koyi naa jane irade
Hain kidhar key
Koyi naa jane irade
Hain kidhar key
Mar naa dena tir nazar
Kaa kisi key jigar me
Mar naa dena tir nazar
Kaa kisi key jigar me
Najuk yeh dil hai
Bachana o bachana
Kahi pe nigahe
Kahi pe nishana
Kahi pe nigahe
Kahi pe nishana

Back to realpolitik, Mr Gandhi realised quickly that if he has to take on the demagoguery heft of Mr Modi, then he has to find something to beat him with. So, a new attack strategy was developed with two prongs just before the Gujarat hustings — soft Hindutva, temple run to play the part of a Januadari Shaviate and concurrently plant a doubt in the voters’ minds about a defence deal involving a prominent industrialist. That he became an inadvertent instrumentality of a global fighter manufacturers’ battle himself is another matter as Airbus Group-owned Eurofighter Typhoon which lost out to Rafale in the MMRCA dogfight is playing its own smoke and mirrors games. Against 108 plus 18 — 126 — Rafales originally signed by the UPA, Mr Modi, in a government to government deal, signed a 36 flyaway jet deal with France. A fresh tender for additional aircraft is to be issued by the Government of India.

From memory, Mr Gandhi has chosen to replay how his father Rajiv Gandhi was politically hamstrung by the Bofors expose. His key lieutenant V.P. Singh used the howitzer payoff brutally against him with the clarion call — Gali Gali main shor hai, Rajiv Gandhi chor hai. And yet in the 1989 election, fought primarily on the Bofors charges, saw Rajiv Gandhi’s Congress emerge as the single largest party with 197 seats and while Gandhi himself refused office, asking President R. Venkataraman not to consider him, it was rainbow coalition called National Front with 143 seats which came to power, supported by the Indian Left and Right and then collapsed under the weight of its own contradictions when L.K. Advani was arrested in Samastipur on November 23, 1990, headed for Ayodhya on his Rath Yatra. The seeds of weaponised extremism in Kashmir were also sown days after the swearing in when home minister Mufti Mohd Sayeed’s daughter was abducted by JKLF militants and many dreaded terrorists were freed in return. Those were cataclysmic times.

Almost 30 years later, the discourse has changed. To quote from Hindu mythology, since it is the flavour of the season, Mr Gandhi shouldn’t make the mistake that, Dashrath as crown prince made by killing what he thought was a deer drinking water at a nearly pond only to discover that he had killed a poor man called Shravan with blind parents, who in turn cursed him to a life without his son, in his case, Lord Ram. When Lord Ram leaves for his 14 year vanvas, that same night lying in bed; Dashrath recounts this story to a wailing Kaushalya and then dies in his sleep.

Precipitous action has its own consequences. Mr Gandhi has to focus on economic issues, rabid spin offs of Hindu majoritarianism like vigilantism and mob lynchings, and people-connect issues to undermine the PM. He has to target him so that bipolarity, which is the bedrock of a democracy, remains functioning. Bofors redux or plugging into and playing Hindutva strains will not get him anywhere. Proof of this will only be visible in the next general elections, and perhaps somewhat in the five state elections to be held shortly. He has to go beyond tenuous connections even if they are political gimmickry. Or alternatively provide real evidence of a bribe or payoff.

If Mr Gandhi has to fight Mr Modi politically, then he needs to zero in on the pricing aspect of the 36 Rafales in flyaway condition and the so-called secret agreement which cannot reveal to the nation what the actual cost of the fighter jet is. An agreement on protecting classified data was signed by India and France on March 10, 2018, replacing an earlier agreement signed in 2008, minister of state for defence Subhash Bhamre has stated in Parliament. “An agreement between India and France regarding the Exchange and Reciprocal Protection of Classified or Protected Information was signed on March 10, 2018, during the visit of the President of France to India,” Mr Bhamre said. “This agreement defines the common security regulations applicable to any exchange of classified and protected information between the two countries.”

This flies in the face of what defence minister Nirmala Sitharaman said in late July as reported by PTI — Ms Sitharaman termed as “absolutely wrong” Congress president Rahul Gandhi’s claim that there was no confidentiality clause in the Rafale aircraft deal with France and said the initial agreement was signed when the UPA was in power in 2008.

Ms Sitharaman was making an intervention after Mr Gandhi attacked the Modi government and the defence minister on the Rafale deal during the debate on the no-confidence motion in the Lok Sabha and alleged that she had spoken “untruth” when she claimed that the Indian government could not reveal details of the deal due to a confidentiality clause in the agreement with France.

The minister said the India-France agreement to buy the fighter jets was signed in 2008 by the then defence minister A.K. Antony and it had the confidentiality clause. “It was an agreement of secrecy. Protection of classified information. I am not privy to what the French President told Rahul Gandhi. But I am referring to two particular interviews that the French President had given to Indian TV channels.”

In the interviews, the French President had said that commercial details of the Rafale deal cannot be revealed,” she said. Ms Sitharaman quoted the French President as saying in the interviews while replying to specific questions about the Rafale deal: “You have these commercial agreements and obviously you have competitors and we cannot reveal the details”.

The defence minister said, “Whatever Rahul Gandhi said was absolutely wrong and there is no proof.” Participating in the debate, Mr Gandhi accused the defence minister of speaking “untruth” on the deal. “The defence minister has spoken ‘untruth’... The French PM has personally told me that there is no secret pact between the Indian and French governments,” he said demanding that the PM answer why this contract was given to a particular businessman after taking it away from PSU Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL).

This is at odds with what Mr Bhamre said a few months earlier and this is what Mr Gandhi should be nailing. These are the unanswered questions that Mr Gandhi must ask and rake up if he is to take on Mr Modi in 2019.

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