The emergence of Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi on the national political centre stage in his new role as the BJP’s official campaign manager, and his remarkable ability to grab the headlines virtually every day, has given the Congress the opportunity to defend, what one party leader described as, “the vision of our founding fathers, a vision of India that has flourished.”
For instance, Congress general secretary Digvijay Singh, party communication boss Ajay Maken and Information and Broadcasting Minister Manish Tewari have led the charge over the last few days after Mr. Modi made his now infamous “kutte ka bachcha” comment and spoke with pride about being a Hindu nationalist in the course of an interview with Reuters: this, party sources said, was part of a considered policy line.
“Mr. Modi is making outrageous statements — he cannot go unanswered,” Mr. Tewari told The Hindu , stressing, “his insensitive comments need to be sorted out. There are two competing visions of India: the broad pluralistic idea of India has flourished and now the BJP is trying to impose its sectarian, majoritarian notion. It is not about Mr. Modi — any other BJP leader making such statements would be as resolutely opposed.”
Definition of secularism
So, for the Congress, a party that prides itself on having used the nine years of UPA rule to restore plurality and the credo of inclusion — social, economic and political — Mr. Modi’s boast of being a “Hindu nationalist” and admitting to only a twinge of sorrow (no hint of an apology) at his car running over puppies, even as he sat in the backseat, clearly needed to be confronted. As Mr. Singh told journalists, “I want to know what the definition of secularism according to Modiji is. One religion, one culture, one nation is the definition of secularism, according to the RSS and Advaniji. Modiji should clarify what is his definition of secularism.”
But while senior leaders of the Congress are better prepared to deliver the party’s message, now virtually every Congressman of any standing is shooting off comments about Mr. Modi. So much so that a section within the party is beginning to wonder whether this wall-to-wall coverage of the Gujarat Chief Minister is serving its purpose.
A senior party functionary told The Hindu , “Of course, we need to take Mr. Modi on, but it must be a calibrated attack — we can’t afford to have him occupying the entire political space.”
Doing that is easier said than done.
Can go awry
If the Congress objective is to “reiterate the pluralistic idea of India” while simultaneously “exposing the outrageous myths surrounding Mr. Modi’s phantom track record of governance,” it can go awry, even with the best of intentions.
On Monday, when Mr. Maken called a press conference to challenge Mr. Modi on his track record on sports, education and social welfare schemes such as the mid-day meal for schoolchildren, a question posed by a journalist on Mr. Modi’s use of the phrase “burqa of secularism” in Pune on the previous day did not just elicit the comment that the “burqa of secularism” is better than “naked communalism” — it was this comment that made the headlines rather than the holes that had been made in Mr. Modi’s governance record almost everywhere.
Similarly, Congress spokespersons, who were deputed on Monday to travel to State capitals to speak of the wonders of food security, found themselves distracted by questions on — what else but Mr. Modi? One account has it that TV channels that day recorded over 20 sound bytes from a range of lesser known Congressmen.
Ironically, as the Congress agonises over “calibrating the message,” senior BJP leader Yashwant Sinha has alerted Mr. Modi to the dangers of falling into the secular-communal trap set for him by the Congress.
As the Congress and Mr. Modi battle to control the narrative, it is becoming hard to tell who will eventually trip the other. After all, the Gujarat Chief Minister too needs to vary his message from governance to the Hindu-Muslim question, occasionally to please the RSS, appease his core constituency, and raise the pitch in the key State of Uttar Pradesh, where the BJP’s performance in is likely to determine whether it will be in a position to come to power at the Centre.