Till a year ago, Narendra Modi used to dismiss Rahul Gandhi with the mocking sobriquet “Shehzada.” That one word encapsulated Modi’s contempt not just for the dynastic Gandhis, but the whole Delhi establishment, which he likened to a “Sultanate” (a dig at the ‘foreign’ Mughal rulers) and distant from the harsh realities of dusty and hot India.
Picking up the cue, the BJP went after Rahul Gandhi as a weak and clueless challenger to the ‘decisive’ Modi. The media, which had already bought into the narrative that Modi was the man to save a floundering India, jumped on to the bandwagon. Modi could do no wrong, Rahul could do no right. Now the same Rahul Gandhi – the one time poor speaker, the sincere but naïve, on and off politician – is getting under the skin of the BJP.
With strategic interventions in Parliament and outside and with a few well-chosen barbs – suit boot ki sarkaar is a winner in communication terms – Rahul Gandhi is bugging the government like no one else. BJP spokespersons have gone on overdrive to attack him and for every dig he makes, the party comes back with many more. Even ministers have been deployed to tackle him. Instead of dismissing him as a non-starter, the BJP is taking him very seriously indeed.
What has changed?
Materially, the situation is the same as it has been for a year. The BJP is well ensconced in government with a comfortable majority and has four more assured years in power. The Congress has a meagre 44 seats in the Lok Sabha. The number of states it runs has decreased drastically and its prospects in Bihar and Bengal are negligible. It is riven by infighting. Indeed, any objective analysis would suggest that if this electoral trend continues, the BJP’s ‘Congress Mukt Bharat’ programme has a good chance of success in the coming years.
Yet, there is no question that the party and more specifically Rahul Gandhi have succeeded in rattling the Modi establishment. Hitting back at the young politician with Vadra references is about the best the BJP can come up with. The excuse of misrule by the UPA is now running dry—every failure of the Modi government cannot be blamed on Manmohan Singh and team, especially since the NDA has carried on with many of the UPA’s policies (occasionally with a cosmetic name change.) Caustic jokes about dynasty are best left to the trolls.
A bigger worry is that murmurs about the fading mirage of ‘Achche Din’ are now turning louder. While the Modi government battles perceptions of being pro-rich and anti-farmer, in Mumbai’s corporate boardrooms the talk is of this government being business-unfriendly, and persisting with some of UPA’s “wasteful” policies. The business community says the intent to bring about helpful policies is there, but no changes can be seen on the ground. The numbers certainly are not showing any significant change and the FIIs are getting alarmed at the prospect of facing huge tax payouts. The government’s flip-flops over the Minimum Alternative Tax (MAT), for example, have left FIIs angry and confused; and the rapid decline in stock market indices tells the story of large-scale selling. HSBC has announced a major downgrade of the Indian stock markets. It is indeed an ironical turn of affairs that the one constituency that Modi was being vocally backed by is now the most disappointed. Nothing exemplifies this burgeoning problem for Modi as the changes he wants to bring about to the Land Acquisition law – changes that industry wants and which angers farmers both.
Rahul Gandhi has latched on like a limpet to this one issue. It helps that the Congress, though no slouch at crony capitalism, had a success with the Bill which the BJP had then supported. It gives Gandhi’s campaign that extra edge, even if his own party’s record on many fronts is unsatisfactory. Moreover, the Congress still remains the only party with the bench strength to take on the government with cogent arguments on a wide variety of issues. That it can trip up the Modi agenda in the Rajya Sabha is an added bonus for it.
Rahul Gandhi has not, overnight, become a star speaker, though he is vastly improved. Nor is his ability to win elections proven. Many of his charges against the government – including the claim that this government nixed a food park project in Amethi – do not hold up. But, in a strange turn of events, he is being let off easily by the media. Because he and his party are choosing their targets cleverly and hitting where it hurts most, they are striking bulls eye each time. They have managed to rile the Modi government, which is losing the battle of perceptions at least on this front. It may not make much difference electorally, certainly not in the short term, but Modi realizes that a dent in the image can be damaging in the long run. And that is something he can’t afford.