In the Congress, the dilemma on nationalism and Modi

After the Indian Air Force (IAF)‘s Balakot strike to avenge Pulwama, the Congress had reached out to three domain experts to help it formulate its political responses. They included two former foreign secretaries and a general who once headed the northern command.

The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) had built the February, 2019 attack on a terror hideout in Pakistan into a major plank for the April-May parliamentary polls. Broadly, the experts told the Congress leadership to hold fire and not rush into launching fusillades without getting a full sense of the complexities of the situation.

The party’s first responses in the military-diplomatic state of play were very much in order. Priyanka Gandhi cancelled a press conference scheduled in Lucknow on February 14, the day the Central Reserve Police Force convoy came under attack from a suicide bomber. She refused to talk politics, observing instead a two minute silence in memory of the jawans who died.

Rahul Gandhi was, then, the president of the Congress. His first tweet on February 26 saluted the IAF pilots who staged the airstrike. In that watershed moment, the entire political class was on the same page, barring Mehbooba Mufti who sounded sceptical on the outcome of the pre-dawn swoop.

Unravelled by the exigencies of poll-time politics, the consensus was short-lived. The Congress expended the good advice that had come its way. It forgot the lessons of the May-July Kargil war of 1999 — India’s first televised armed conflict that ran parallel to the campaign for the September-October parliamentary polls the same year. The party’s sniper shots at Atal Bihari Vajpayee — especially on the import of sugar from Pakistan — didn’t cut ice with the people. The war had happened within weeks of the Congress having toppled him as prime minister (PM), but having failed to put together an alternative regime.

The mountain battle was the result of a lax border vigil that helped Pakistani troops walk deep inside on our territory. The intelligence-security failure would have brought down the personal ratings of any prime minister. Yet, such was the principal Opposition’s crisis of credibility that it let the incumbent win as a caretaker PM. The BJP’s tally stayed static but the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) gained over a dozen seats. Its aggregate of 270 was tantalisingly close to the magic 272 that had eluded the Congress after it dislodged Vajpayee by one vote.

The Congress hasn’t evidently learned much from the political costs it paid for taking on a charismatic adversary without a formidable counter-narrative. The mistakes of 1999 that it repeated in 2019 are evident again in the face of the India-China military stand-off. The Congress-BJP duel after the June 20 all-party meeting on the Galwan valley clashes is a replay of the post-Balakot name-calling.

Coincidentally, an electoral joust is also due this year to the Bihar assembly where the NDA is seeking to grab the first-mover advantage by eulogising the men of the Bihar regiment who died fighting the Chinese. While the BJP is reaching out to the people with its story of Ladakh, the Congress struggles to cull a cogent script out of a host of issues — China’s military challenge; the pandemic; the sliding economy: loss of jobs; and human suffering of hundreds of thousands of migrant workers.

The Opposition had sound reasons to not be satisfied with the PM’s statement at the all party meet. But legitimate questions get delegitimised when posed petulantly. Little wonder then that Rahul’s ‘Surender Modi’ taunt — reminiscent of his 2019 chowkidardig at the PM — found oblique disapprovals at the June 23 Congress Working Committee (CWC) parleys.

A major United Progressive Alliance partner and former defence minister Sharad Pawar was more in-the-face when he referred to the territory India lost in the 1962 war with China. His call against politicisation of issues of national security came after the CWC meeting.

There was a “silence of acquiescence” when a CWC member, who spoke before Rahul and Priyanka, underscored the pitfalls of personalising the political discourse. He reminded the gathering that the party defeated the NDA in 2004, not by besmirching Vajpayee but by taking down his “India shining” plank.

The short-point he made was that policy and governance-failures, for which the ruling side must be criticised, can get clouded by individual mud fights. He wasn’t contradicted till Rahul took the floor, forcefully stating that he wasn’t, unlike others, scared of taking on Modi. The assertion fetched him ‘polite support’ from others, including Priyanka.

A frontline Congress parliamentarian was prompted nevertheless to correct the impression that other leaders were loathe to dare Modi. He drew attention to the speeches he had made to make the PM accountable to the House. Another party veteran had an interesting caveat to the imperative of questioning Modi: “We must question him, but not in the manner of Mani Shankar Aiyar…” The allusion was to Aiyar’s chaiwala taunt that cost the Congress dear in the 2014 polls.

The hiatus on how to deal with the conundrum that’s Modi came out starkly when a first-time CWC member complained that Rahul’s tweets weren’t often re-tweeted by other colleagues. The irony inherent in the complaint was hard to ignore. For, many among those present believed that being led by Twitter isn’t the best way to deal with a rival who is better received across media platforms.