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New Delhi: Prime Minister Narendra Modi doubled down on his attack on the Congress in the Rajya Sabha on Tuesday, a day after he trained guns on the grand-old party in the lower house. Coming days ahead of the assembly polls in five states, with Uttar Pradesh kicking off its first phase on February 10, Modi switched between the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)’s election rhetoric and Congress bashing as he responded to the debate on the Motion of Thanks to the President’s address.
That he was using the platform of parliament – and an occasion to respond concretely to the opposition’s critical questions on government policies – to advance the BJP’s play in the poll-bound states was evident even on Monday, when he specifically named infrastructure projects in UP built by his government. If that was not enough, he controversially went on to accuse the Congress and Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) of “creating panic” among migrants during the first lockdown, because of which, Modi claimed, the coronavirus spread in “UP, Punjab and Uttarakhand”.
In the Rajya Sabha, he made a reference to the poll-bound Goa that he had missed including in his lower house speech, thereby addressing the electorate of four of the five states going to polls this month.
In fact, Modi brought up all conventional references that the BJP has historically used to attack the Congress. In more ways than one, both of Modi’s parliamentary speeches over the past two days smacked more of an ideological battle than an executive exercise.
Firstly, referring to the 60th anniversary year of Goa’s liberation, he blamed Jawaharlal Nehru Nehru for “preventing its independence” from the Portuguese colonialists.
“Goa wouldn’t have been under foreign rule till so late if similar steps had been taken the way Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel made strategies for Junagadh and Hyderabad,” he said, in line with the BJP’s election campaign in Goa.” Minutes before he pilloried the Congress as a “one-family party”, he said Nehru’s obsession with his “international image” prevented him from taking “military action” in Goa when “satyagrahis” were shot at by the rulers. “The betrayal of Congress,” he said, delayed Goa’s independence by 15 years.
After ‘tukde-tukde gang’, now refers to ‘urban Naxals’
Secondly, his speeches marked some firsts. The Prime Minister took a leaf out of right-wing trolls on social media and qualified the Congress as the leader of the “tukde-tukde gang” for the first time on Monday in his Lok Sabha speech. On Tuesday, he said that Congress has been taken over by the mentality of “urban naxals”.
“Congress is trapped in the ideology of urban naxals. That’s why their mentality is destructive. Urban naxals took advantage of the Congress and took over their minds,” he said.
Both these phrases were coined by the BJP’s troll army, and later were used by multiple BJP leaders, including Union ministers, on public platforms to attack civil rights activists, students, farmers, and citizens who are critical of its policies. The right-wing ecosystem has used these descriptives to punch down all those who have raised reasonable questions about the government’s actions and inactions. In time, the saffron party have also used these terms to polarise people along religious lines during election campaigns.
Last year, the Union home minister Amit Shah gave them further legitimacy by using these labels in the parliament to defend the arrests of some anti–CAA activists in Delhi riots’ cases. By bracketing even the oldest political party as part of the “tukde-tukde gang” and “urban Naxals”, Modi’s speeches mark a new normalisation of these labels – something that may embolden his large number of militant supporters to silence critics with violent force. Modi using these terms in parliament contradicts his own government’s admissions that it has no information about the ‘tukde-tukde gang’ and does not use the term ‘urban Naxal’.
Finally, Modi devoted substantial time in his 1.5-hour long address to invent a question the opposition never asked in the budget session. However, he claimed that some of the members asked what would have happened if the Congress was erased from India’s history, and readily answered it with a well-prepared attack.
He invoked Mahatma Gandhi’s wish that Congress after independence should devote itself to social work instead of politics. “This was Mahatma Gandhi’s wish – he knew what would happen if they remained and said destroy this. If Gandhi’s wishes had been followed, India would have been free from nepotism.”
“If, going by Gandhi’s wish, there had been no Congress, democracy would have been free of nepotism. India would have taken the swadeshi path. There would be no stain of Emergency. Corruption would not have been institutionalised for decades. There would have been no casteism or regionalism,” Modi said, amidst the opposition’s protest.
He then raised his pitch to remark, “Sikhs would not have been massacred. There would not have been an exodus from Kashmir. Women would not have been burnt in tandoors. The common man would not have had to wait so long for basic facilities.”
A defensive note
Much of what the Prime Minister said in parliament fell in line with the BJP’s campaign line in one or other poll-bound state. Hidden in his attack on the Congress, however, was an overarching, defensive note that Modi sought to deftly present in both his speeches.
Even while he attacked the Congress, or enumerated his government’s achievements, he made it a point to begin his references with the qualifiers like “corona kaal mein bhi (even during the pandemic)”, or “sankat ke is kaal mein bhi (even in the time of such difficulties)”, or “itni chunautiyon ke bawjood (despite so many challenges), or “jab koi desh kisi aur desh ki madad nahin kar paa raha tha (when no country could help the other)”.
Such introductions before he made tall claims about his government achievements were clever ways to cover up the failures. Evidently directed at the electorate of poll-bound states more than at the opposition, Modi’s subtle apologia was something that couldn’t be missed. In Uttar Pradesh, where the BJP is facing substantial anger from common people for not fulfilling a majority of its promises, its leaders have been forced to canvass on similar lines.
The saffron party’s primary campaign line is based on the reasoning that coronavirus has hit all nations equally. And, despite the “sankat kaal”, BJP governments both at the Centre and the state have given ration to around 80 crore people to ensure that no one goes hungry during the pandemic – a point that Modi emphasised in both his speeches.
The saffron party has been using the challenges raised by the pandemic to its advantage to sweep its failures over the last seven years under the carpet. Over the last two days, its top leader has also done the same by deflecting attention towards the Congress and the so-called “tukde-tukde gang” or “urban Naxals” and amplifying its limited achievements ahead of the assembly polls.
The desperation is writ large. Modi’s apology for the economic failures of his government, shrouded as they were in his diversionary speeches, aims to placate the economically-distressed electorate on the one hand. And, on the other, they simultaneously open up greater room for a defensive saffron party to pursue its majoritarian campaign in poll-bound states.