As if the top leadership crisis in the Congress was not enough, the party is now witnessing a new storm as its second-rung senior leaders came out with contrasting views on how to deal with Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his government’s altering of the status of Jammu and Kashmir.
Last month, the Congress was hit by several of its leaders cutting across ages backing the Modi government’s move on Kashmir, and now some second-rung leaders of the party have gone public with their criticism of the top leadership’s sustained strident attack on the prime minister and his policies.
The second-tier leaders who favour a balanced view of Modi and his government’s actions, blending appreciation and criticism where they are warranted, are: Jairam Ramesh, Abhishek Singhvi and Shashi Tharoor. Here too, the divide in the Congress was all too evident with three other senior leaders—Anand Sharma, Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury and Kumari Selja—publicly opposing what Ramesh, Singhvi and Tharoor argued and insisting that criticism should not be “confused” with demonising and that the opposition should not be expected to parrot the government’s views.
It was Ramesh, a lawmaker of the Rajya Sabha, who set off the trend against “demonising” Modi. At a book launch function in Delhi on Thursday night, he said Modi’s model of governance was not totally devoid of merit and disfavoured demonising the PM.
Modi “talks in a language that connects him with the people. Unless we recognise that he is doing things that people recognise and which have not been done in the past, we are not going to be able to confront (him) … Also, if you are going to demonise him all the time, you are not going to be able to confront him.”
Further, Ramesh added, “let me tell you it is not a completely negative story when it comes to economics of governance; the politics of governance is completely different.”
Ramesh found support a day later when Singhvi, another Rajya Sabha lawmaker, took to his Twitter handle saying, “demonising Modi wrong. Not only is he Prime Minister of the nation, a one-way opposition actually helps him. Acts are always good, bad and indifferent. They must be judged issue-wise and not person-wise.”
Both Ramesh and Singhvi praised the subsidised cooking gas supply scheme brought by the Modi government in its first five-year tenure (2014 to 2019) that is considered one of the major factors behind the Bharatiya Janata Party’s commanding victory in this year’s national elections, as it succeeded in winning over women voters.
Agreeing with Ramesh and Singhvi, Shashi Tharoor, a Congress lawmaker in the Lok Sabha, said he had been articulating for the last six years that Modi should be commended whenever he says or does the right thing, “which would add credibility to our criticism whenever he errs.”
The comments by Ramesh, Tharoor and Singhvi reflect the view of a section in the Congress that believes that repeated, no-holds-barred attacks on Modi have had the opposite of the intended effect and went against the public mood. In fact, this section believes that it was a wrong strategy by the party’s former President Rahul Gandhi to go for relentless and all-out denouncement of Modi on the Rafael fighter jets purchase issue in the run-up to parliamentary elections earlier this year, which led to the party’s oft-used slogan “chowkidar chor hai” (watchman is thief) when it sought to bring the prime minister directly into the line of fire over alleged graft.
What is more uncomfortable for the Congress is that Ramesh, Singhvi and Tharoor articulated their opinions at a time when the party leadership has launched a bitter attack on the Modi government over the arrest of its senior leader P Chidambaram, former finance minister of India, in a case of alleged money laundering.
The BJP’s victory has not only left the opposition parties in tatters with defections and disintegration of alliances, it has also triggered disagreement among them regarding how to deal with the saffron party and Modi. It is not just the Congress; other opposition parties are also witnessing support for Modi over withdrawal of Article 370 of the Constitution that had given special status to Jammu and Kashmir. A classic example of the churn in the opposition has been most tellingly brought out by the contrast between Trinamool Congress chief Mamata Banerjee’s daily doses of diatribe against Modi in the last five years and almost complete silence on him ever since the recent parliamentary elections saw her party suffering major reverses and the BJP making major gains in West Bengal. It was felt within her party that such a consistently long-running negative Modi-centric campaign actually back-fired much like it did in the case of the Congress.
The BJP’s poll win has set off a social engineering across India. The opposition parties need to reconcile with this and rethink and reorient their strategies accordingly. This is their biggest challenge. For them, it cannot be politics as usual.
Pallab Bhattacharya is a special correspondent for The Daily Star.