Narendra Modi’s coded speeches, barbs and propaganda machine have seen the Congress scrambling to get its communicators to return fire.
For the Congress, Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi’s emergence on the national stage, first as the Bharatiya Janata Party’s official campaign manager for 2014, and then as its prime ministerial candidate, is proving to be a daily challenge. His coded speeches, well-chosen barbs and slick propaganda machine have seen the ruling party scrambling for its best and brightest communicators to return fire.
But the going has been tough. The Congress-led United Progressive Alliance government’s efforts to publicise the positive impact of its policies of social and economic inclusion have been negated in its second tenure by financial scandals, rising prices and the public perception of a weak, indecisive administration. The fact that corporate India and a significant section of the media are backing the Modi campaign has not helped it either.
Lacking the punch
Crucially, even though the Congress doesn’t lack effective speakers to challenge Mr. Modi, both on 2002 as well as on the many shortcomings in his governance, none of those fielded — Union Ministers P. Chidambaram, Kapil Sibal, Anand Sharma, Jairam Ramesh, Manish Tewari or party functionaries Ajay Maken and Digvijaya Singh — is the Congress’s prime ministerial candidate.
The party’s chosen leader is Rahul Gandhi and, at a time of deep economic crisis, his open, unrehearsed, straight-from-the-heart style has not resonated with the urban middle class in the way Mr. Modi’s mixture of provocative aggression and sly innuendo has. The Gujarat Chief Minister’s carefully choreographed appearances are all calculated to suggest he is the knight on a white charger — that, Mr. Gandhi candidly admitted at a Confederation of Indian Industry meeting, he was not. If Mr. Modi is promising instant nirvana, Mr. Gandhi, far more realistically, is working on a long-term plan.
Mr. Modi’s supporters have applauded him for talking of the Hindu and Muslim poor in one breath, but his core Hindutva voters have noted that he now refers to Mr. Gandhi as shehzada, the Urdu substitute for yuvraj, to reinforce the Congress’s pro-Muslim inclinations. Just as they did not miss Mr. Modi’s references last year to the possibility of “Ahmed bhai” — not Ahmed Patel — being the Congress’s choice as Chief Minister of Gujarat. Mr. Modi’s meetings with Hindu victims of the recent explosions in Patna was his way of telling his core constituency that he hasn’t forgotten his Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh roots, while keeping the spotlight on terror.
The Congress has always found it hard to respond to Mr. Modi’s coded appeals to the majority community: if Congress president Sonia Gandhi’s description of the Gujarat Chief Minister in 2007 as maut ka saudagar (merchant of death) backfired, so did Mr. Gandhi’s recent effort to empathise with Muslims who had been at the receiving end of communal violence in Muzaffarnagar.
The BJP would like the general elections to be a presidential-style contest between Mr. Modi and Mr. Gandhi, as there are many parts of the country where it does not exist — vast swathes of the south and most of the north-east, for instance. The Congress, with a larger geographical spread, wants the conversation to be about its policies and programmes.
Congress spokespersons have, therefore, consistently attacked Mr. Modi for trying to convert a parliamentary battle into a presidential election: it isn’t about personalities, they say, it is about issues. If Mr. Sibal recently asked Mr. Modi to spell out his policies on education, the economy, and foreign policy, Mr. Chidambaram and Mr. Sharma have repeatedly questioned the economic data that he puts out.
But it is an uphill task, with television channels framing the battle for 2014 as one between Mr. Modi and Mr Gandhi.
When Mr. Modi was named the BJP’s campaign manager in June, the Congress saw it as an opportunity to defend the party’s vision of India. As considered policy, Mr. Digvijaya Singh, Mr. Maken and Mr. Tewari led the charge soon after Mr. Modi spoke with pride about being a Hindu nationalist, in an interview with Reuters. “Mr. Modi cannot go unanswered,” Mr. Tewari said, “there are two competing visions of India: the broad pluralistic idea of India that has flourished on which the BJP is trying to impose its sectarian, majoritarian notion.”
But this soon spun out of control: July saw virtually every Congressman of any standing shooting off comments about Mr. Modi. Some senior leaders began to express their doubts whether this wall-to-wall coverage of the Gujarat Chief Minister was serving its purpose. “We need to take Mr. Modi on,” a senior party functionary told The Hindu, “but we can’t afford to have him occupying the entire political space.”
But doing that is easier said than done.
At a press conference called by Mr. Maken to challenge Mr. Modi on his track record on sports, education and social welfare schemes, a question posed by a journalist on the latter’s use of the phrase “burqa of secularism” elicited the comment that the “burqa of secularism” is better than “naked communalism”: unfortunately, for the Congress, this comment, rather than puncturing Mr. Modi’s governance record, made headlines almost everywhere.
Similarly, Congress spokespersons, deputed to travel to State capitals to speak about food security, found themselves distracted by questions on ‘what else but Mr. Modi?’
For the Congress, therefore, calibrating the message is a daily challenge. A five-day workshop held in September for party spokespersons on how to control the message in the age of social media became a session on how to counter Mr. Modi and his effective use of Facebook, Twitter and Niti Central, a right-wing digital media platform.
In Gujarat, Mr. Modi successfully controlled the message among people he knew intimately in three successive State elections with telling results, even as the Congress struggled to keep the spotlight off him. Will the Congress have better luck on the national stage? That is the challenge for the ruling party’s spin doctors.