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Updated: September 20, 2013 02:43 IST

Understatement & the power of three

Smita Gupta
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AT HAND: With the spotlight on Mr. Modi, the Congress believes that it can only gain by contrast in style and content — modesty against self-promotion and pluralism against Hindutva. Dr. Singh, Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi at a relief camp at Tawli in Muzaffarnagar.
PTI AT HAND: With the spotlight on Mr. Modi, the Congress believes that it can only gain by contrast in style and content — modesty against self-promotion and pluralism against Hindutva. Dr. Singh, Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi at a relief camp at Tawli in Muzaffarnagar.

Three days after the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) anointed Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi as its prime ministerial candidate for 2014, the Congress’s top three leaders, party president Sonia Gandhi, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and party vice-president Rahul Gandhi, visited Uttar Pradesh’s strife-torn Muzaffarnagar district, to comfort and promise justice to those in the refugee camps.

It was a noteworthy appearance. While the Prime Minister and Ms Gandhi have often travelled together to meet survivors of disasters, manmade or natural, such as after the devastating Uttarakhand floods, or to the inauguration of major projects, this was one of the first occasions — barring party functions — at which all three showed up.

We care

The message: the Congress stands in solidarity with all those who lost loved ones, homes and livelihoods — and since most of the victims were Muslims, with the minorities.

It was also meant to signal a difference from Mr. Modi’s backers, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) affiliates which, ground reports suggest, played a leading role in provoking the communal violence in Muzaffarnagar; and an admonition to the Samajwadi Party government that allowed a local crime to balloon into a conflagration.

But, equally significantly, the picture of the three was also intended to convey an understated — if uncommunicative — style of leadership, one the Congress doesn’t appear to want to change even though Mr. Modi’s flamboyant, I-me-myself manner is apparently gaining traction, especially in urban India.

If Mr. Modi had to claw his way up to being named the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate, Mr. Gandhi has been the Congress’s unofficial PM-in-waiting for some years now — and continues to be as Ms Gandhi made it plain in 2004 that she was not interested in high office. The party already has a sitting Prime Minister in Dr. Singh who the leadership is unwilling to retire. And realistically, there is no fourth candidate — at least one that is acceptable to the party — in sight.

Pitch for 2014

If the Congress finds its strategy limited by mounting anti-incumbency, exacerbated by economic distress, administrative paralysis and communication failure, its style is dictated by what it projects as its tradition and its core beliefs.

What does the Congress then have to offer the voting public? It believes it has the successes of its pluralist, inclusive credo that brought some comfort to the people after the tension of the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance years, and the successes of its social welfare agenda. Indeed, when the recent Parliament session ended, the focus was on the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government’s achievement in pushing through laws on food security, land acquisition and manual scavenging. Briefly, the spotlight was off inflation, spiralling onion prices and the financial scandals that have beset the UPA government in its second tenure. But that respite is now over, with a clutch of key Assembly polls later this year and parliamentary elections barely eight months away.

Modi factor

The spotlight is on Mr. Modi, and opinion polls are pointing to a dismal electoral outcome for the Congress; under these circumstances, the Congress believes it can only gain by contrast in style and content. In leadership, it will hold out modesty against self-promotion; in philosophy, pluralism against Hindutva.

The task of bringing pluralism and inclusiveness centre stage has been made easier with Mr. Modi and the BJP apparently junking the Gujarat model of development for their tried and tested communal agenda.

In recent months, there has been a significant rise in Hindu-Muslim clashes, with the BJP and RSS affiliates playing a leading role.

If the Bajrang Dal played a key role in the violence in Jammu’s Kishtwar district, mobs which went on the rampage in Bihar’s Bettiah and Nawada (after the ruling Janata Dal-United government severed ties with the BJP) and those who made inflammatory speeches at the Jat mahapanchayat in U.P.’s Muzaffarnagar district on September 7 all shouted slogans in support of Narendra Modi.

So, as BJP leaders daily challenge the Congress to name its prime ministerial candidate, the latter remains determined not to be drawn into what it describes as an attempt to convert a parliamentary contest into a presidential one.

Indeed, party booklets on food security and land acquisition, a senior Congress functionary pointed out to The Hindu, “provides the cue”: photographs of Dr. Singh, Ms Gandhi and Mr. Gandhi are on them, just as they were on the posters for the 2009 general election.

“If we removed Dr. Singh’s photograph from the posters,” the functionary said, “it would amount to disowning the last nine and a half years. We are, after all, going to elections on the record of UPA One and Two. So, we have to strongly defend the government.”

On Rahul Gandhi

Does that mean that the Congress has ruled out the possibility of naming a prime ministerial candidate? For the party’s old guard, the fact that the Congress has the tradition of an established leadership, unlike the BJP where the jockeying for power is not over, is enough. Sonia Gandhi is the unchallenged leader, they say, and it is she who will decide who the party’s prime ministerial nominee is.

Undoubtedly, younger leaders have a stake in fast-forwarding the transition set in motion at the Congress’s chintan baithak in Jaipur in January this year, when Mr. Gandhi was named vice-president. Since then, he has taken on many more organisational responsibilities, but as a party insider put it, the division of authority — if not responsibility — between mother and son is 80:20.

If the Congress miraculously does well in the Assembly elections, at least retaining two or three of the five States, there will be a demand, from the younger lot in the party, perhaps, a general secretary said to name Mr. Gandhi as the party’s prime ministerial candidate. But even that seems unlikely.

A majority in the Congress still appear to trust Ms Gandhi’s political instincts and leadership more than that of her son: Mr. Gandhi is yet to win his spurs.

smita.g@thehindu.co.in

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Congress has been too long on the Bharatiya Political Scenario and must retire from the scene.Anyway, now it has run out of sane, honest and patriotic statesmen of the type who won the freedom for this country.It has become, slowly over a period of time, assembly of ordinary persons more inclined towards base instincts.Its bogeys of pluralism, secularism , pro-poor have run out of steam and majority of citizens understand that these are the words used by members of the party only to divide and rule like British.Just one example: Urdu is being pushed in place of Sanskrit exactly like British did to create rift and cultural divide in the society.
Bharat is at cross roads and change is necessary for it to move forward with some pride instead of falling on the way side as a failed state due to internal strife caused by conflicts of religions, castes, regions and all other such divisive forces.

from:  Prakash
Posted on: Sep 20, 2013 at 17:00 IST

The Congress has no patent on the notions of "pluralism", "secularism or "inclusiveness". Every other political party has articulations on the same and very often share similar views.Furthermore these notions are ingrained in the ethos of the Indian civilization and need not be hijacked by any one political party. To subsume all issues of national importance under the "secular-communal" rhetoric and project the Congress as if it alone is qualified to talk about India's "pluralism" or "inclusion" smacks of intellectual arrogance and this is not only self-defeating and cowardly, but also a grave danger to democracy and the culture of political debate. It would be worthwhile to objectively inform people about how the meaning of the constitutionally defined "secularism" - separation of religion from politics- has been continuously tampered with, starting already with state sponsored riots in the 60s, the Emergency, 84 riots and the Shah Bano Case, to what it has become today post-2002.

from:  Luhar Sen
Posted on: Sep 20, 2013 at 14:36 IST

UPA is responsible for not only on the various scams but also like appointment of CVC, missing coal files, allowing quattrochi to leave the country etc. Appearing in Public by all three is not going to help the people who have suffered and this is also gimmick before the elections.

from:  Jay
Posted on: Sep 20, 2013 at 14:05 IST

Dear Ms Smita, Do you really believe that past 9 yrs of UPA has resulted in anything good for India. Forget BJP saffronisation etc, but Congress and so called its able trio of leadership that you hold with so much reverence, has done 1 single notable thing to improve the lot of India. From 2G, Coal Gate, CWG, Tatra, and what not, every single thing is mirred with corruption and scam under their ABLE leadership. Take any policy initiative, foreign or domestic, they have been disaster. The current economic situation of India is more because your dear trio has no idea on how to bring out India and yet make personal gains. Rahul Gandhi at best is inept and useless. As far as Food Security bill is concerned, No Other bill in the history of India can do more damage than this one. You sound naive, and ignorant!

from:  Rohit
Posted on: Sep 20, 2013 at 13:48 IST

This note, particularly the beginning looks suspiciously motivated,
least like a journalist's report. Much as the me & me only style of Namo
band is distasteful, this piece sounds like a counter to such noise,
would be expected from Congress, disappointing to read from the columns
of the Hindu.

from:  prasad
Posted on: Sep 20, 2013 at 11:56 IST

The article in a way suggest that the above trio is Tridev, off to save
the world from Asuras. But the nepotism that congress showed in promoting
Mr Gandhi has been rugged under the carpet, It seems like a monarchical
setup in 21st century.

The Hindu is known for its neutral views, but sorry to say this article
smells off Pro-congress bias.

from:  Sourabh
Posted on: Sep 20, 2013 at 10:59 IST

The article appears to be just paid news. It leans so much on one side, as if the readers should just trip over and start believing it. Such reporters should understand, when you go uni-directional, you lose the confidence of readers.

You simply fail to recognize the power of people, you don't want to acknowledge what most people are thinking now.
You condemn BJP of riots recently as if they are the reason to cause it and you don't condemn the State Governments who are failing to control those riots. On the other hand, if congress leadership visits only 1 community, instead of condemning it, you call it leadership style! Wow!
Don't expect this from 'The Hindu' atleast!

from:  Sash
Posted on: Sep 20, 2013 at 10:33 IST

It is very easy for the Congress leadership to choose modesty over
self-promotion when they know that no one else within the party
can/will challenge their claim to the top position. But, in a party
like BJP, having many deserving contenders for the top job, self-
promotion becomes almost imperative to make oneself count. And to his
advantage, Mr. Modi's self-promotion(if that's what one calls it) is
also backed up by his solid track record of good governance. If at all
Congress leadership were to do self-promotion what would they talk
about, other than may be their lineage.

from:  Ajay Shukla
Posted on: Sep 20, 2013 at 05:47 IST
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